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Florida governor’s debate: Gillum, DeSantis joust over Trump, racism and corruption

Gillum calls Trump “weak,” accuses DeSantis of injecting race into the campaign

♦By Rich Shumate, editor

TAMPA (CFP) — Meeting in their first face-to-face debate, Democrat Andrew Gillum and Republican Ron DeSantis disagreed as expected on hot-button issues such as immigration and taxes — but they threw their sharpest elbows over charges of racism and very divergent views of President Donald Trump.

In the October 21 debate in Tampa, televised nationally by CNN, Gillum, who is African American, accused DeSantis of trying to make his race an issue in the campaign, beginning with a comment on the day after he won the Republican nomination that Floridians shouldn’t “monkey up” their future prospects by electing Gillum.

Gillum and DeSantis meet for first debate in Tampa (Courtesy CNN)

“The congressman let us know exactly where he was going to take this race the day after he won the nomination. The ‘monkey up’ comment said it all. And he has only continued in the course of his campaign to draw all the attention he can to the color of my skin,” Gillum said.

“And the truth is, you know it, I’m black. I’ve been black all of my life. So far as I know, I will die black.”

If elected, Gillum would become Florida’s first African American governor.

But DeSantis insisted that his public record, including his service in the military and as a Navy prosecutor, demonstrated racial tolerance.

“Floridians can know that I’ll be a governor for all Floridians,” he said.

When it came to Trump, DeSantis — one of the president’s staunchest allies in Congress whose campaign benefited in the GOP primary from a Trump tweet — noted that Gillum has said publicly that he would support Trump’s impeachment, which would hinder his ability to get things done in Washington as governor.

“Andrew wants to lead the Trump impeachment from Tallahassee,” DeSantis said. “You need to be able to work with the administration to get the dollars we deserve … I think I will be better positioned to advance Florida’s priorities because I have a productive relationship with the administration.”

At that, Gillum doubled down on his biting criticism of Trump, who carried Florida in 2016.

“Donald Trump is weak, and he performs as all weak people do – they become bullies. And Mr. DeSantis is his acolyte. He’s trying out to be the Trump apprentice at every turn,” Gillum said.

“You shouldn’t have to kiss the ring of the president of the United States for the president to see to the good and the goodwill of the third-largest state in all of America.”

DeSantis, 40, served six years in the U.S. House representing a Jacksonville-area district. Gillum, 39, has been mayor of Tallahassee since 2014.

DeSantis took Gillum to task for his stewardship of Florida’s capital city, noting that it has an historically high murder rate. He also tried to associate the mayor with an ongoing FBI investigation into corruption that has ensnared a Gillum associate.

“Andrew’s a failed mayor. He’s presided over a crime-ridden city. He’s involved in corruption,” DeSantis said. “He’s not the guy to lead our state.”

But Gillum insisted that overall crime has actually dropped in Tallahassee and that neither he nor his administration are under investigation by the FBI.

DeSantis responded, “You went to a Broadway show with an undercover FBI agent,” a reference to a photograph that has emerged of a trip Gillum took to New York with an FBI agent who was investigating the corruption case.

When DeSantis repeatedly pressed Gillum on who had paid for tickets to the Broadway play “Hamilton,” the mayor did not answer. Instead, he tried to turn the tables by asking DeSantis to produce receipts for his travel as a congressman, which Gillum said about to become subject of an ethics investigation before DeSantis resigned in August.

“That’s a lie,” DeSantis said.

DeSantis also hit Gillum for wanting to raise taxes, pointing to his support for higher sales and property taxes as mayor. He also insisted that Gillum’s plans for expanding state spending would lead to a sharp increase in the state sales taxes or perhaps even imposition of an income tax.

“Andrew has a lifetime of supporting higher taxes,” DeSantis said. “If you believe with that record that he ain’t gonna raise your taxes, then I’ve got some ocean front property in Arizona that I’d like to sell you.”

Gillum quickly shot down any suggestion of an income tax, which would be politically explosive in the Sunshine State. He said his plan is to increase taxes on the wealthiest 3 percent of Florida businesses, who he charged had reaped a $5 billion windfall from the Republican tax cut plan that DeSantis supported in Congress.

“We’re going to take a billion of that and invest in public education in this state,” Gillum said.

The candidates also disagreed sharply on immigration, with DeSantis charging that Gillum and Democrats supported open borders, abolishing Immigration and Customers Enforcement and turning Florida into a sanctuary state, which DeSantis said would be “a wet kiss to the drug cartels.”

“Andrew during the primary said he wanted to abolish ICE, said he would not cooperate with the Trump administration vis-à-vis illegal immigration,” DeSantis said. “That means you’re going to have more crime in Florida.”

Gillum denied that he was for open borders and said he supported enforcement of immigration laws. But he took issue with the Trump adminsitration’s hard-line stance on immigration enforcement.

“What I’ve simply said is that what we’re not going to become here in the state of Florida is a state where basically become a show-us-your-papers state based on the color of somebody’s skin, the language that they speak, what neighborhood they live in,” he said. “That’s not the American way. That’s not who we are as Floridians.”

Gillum also criticized the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, saying “we should not be terrorizing people who are here in this country who are babies that are nursing with their parents, with their mothers.”

Despite campaigning for the same office for nearly a year, Gillum and DeSantis had not actually met until just before the debate.

They are scheduled to meet for a second and final debate on October 24 in Davie.

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