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After days in the center of a tornado-strength vortex of criticism for his initial, in-the-heat-of-the-moment description of a horrific car crash at the weekend LGBT Pride Parade, Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis says he regrets describing the incident as an act of terrorism, and said he’s apologized.
But, he said Monday, he was accurately reflecting what he and others felt.
“What happened at that moment, everyone who was in that immediate vicinity all felt terrorized, as much as I did. And I happened to be the one who articulated the feelings that everyone shared at that moment. And I regret describing the situation as a terrorist attack. But I do not regret having those feelings, those feelings that everyone feared and felt. And those were real,” Trantalis said Monday in a telephone interview with the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
“So many things ran through my head at that moment. And all I did was feel that the impact of that terrible moment. ... The feeling was unlike any I’ve ever had before,” Trantalis said.
Trantalis, Fort Lauderdale’s first out LGBT mayor, was among many elected officials on hand to participate in the parade. Within minutes of the accident — before anyone knew any facts other than a horrible crash took place — Trantalis was speaking on camera to a television reporter, offering his theory that it was “clearly a terrorist act against the LGBT community.”
Asked if he’d be more restrained in a future crisis, Trantalis said he hopes never again has to face such a situation. “I’m a human being. I hope that my emotions can be more restrained, and I usually am, but I’ve never felt the impact of a crisis as much as I seriously [did] at that moment Saturday evening.”
“Should I not speak what’s on my mind? I think people appreciate the fact that I speak what’s on my mind. But I also within 24 hours realized that the evidence showed something different, and I was quick to retract what I said. It wasn’t like I doubled down and questioned the investigation of the police or the FBI. I respect our law enforcement. I respect their ability to investigate. And when they discovered that the events were different than what we witnessed, then I immediately turned around. I apologized. I regret making the statements, but I don’t regret those feelings because they were real,” Trantalis said.
The assessment from the city’s top elected leader ricocheted around social media and played prominently in a range of initial news accounts. And it was wrong. Within 24 hours, police corrected the record. It was a tragic accident, but not intentional.
On Sunday, Trantalis corrected the remarks he made, but that didn’t tamp down criticism of his performance. Especially on social media, the blowback has been harsh.
“His reaction was reckless,” said Jasmen Rogers. “I think that as an elected official, he has a responsibility to act with a little bit of calm under pressure [with] a little bit more level-headedness.”
Rogers, a Wilton Manors resident who was an unsuccessful candidate for state House of Representatives last year, was part of a group preparing to march with the Dolphin Democrats LGBT political club. (Two decades ago, Trantalis was president of the Dolphins and served on its board for years.)
Sitting at home in Hollywood, Cheri DeSalvo said she had a similar reaction. She and her husband were watching a baseball game on TV when it was interrupted with a news bulletin about the accident. “I said to myself ‘He should not be saying that because we don’t know,’” DeSalvo said.
She added that it’s understandable to “jump to the conclusion” that it could have been a deliberate attack, given the escalating political rhetoric in recent years that has at times turned violent. But, she said, “considering the fact that he is the mayor, he should have chosen his words a little more carefully. He should not have said what he said.”
Given what had just happened, Stephen Gaskill, a political communications consultant and president of the Florida LGBTQ+ Democratic Caucus, said Trantalis’ initial conclusion was understandable. Like Rogers, Gaskill was in the staging area where the accident happened, getting ready to march in the parade.
“It was a very emotional time. And given we’re in this political climate, it was a logical conclusion to get to, to think that it might be a deliberate attempt, because it just happened so suddenly,” Gaskill said.
“It was terrifying. … “I don’t blame the mayor for his remarks. Many of us thought the same thing at the moment,” he said. “I think he was speaking from the heart, in a very emotional time.”
Social media, where there is never nuance, was filled with condemnation of Trantalis.
”By falsely characterizing a tragic incident as a ‘terrorist attack against the LGBT community,’ Fort Lauderdale’s incompetent mayor @Dean Trantalis created unnecessary terror for his constituents,” the Miami-based documentary filmmaker Billy Corben wrote on Twitter, also criticizing Trantalis for offering a “mealy-mouthed excuse” instead of apologizing.
Activist and blogger Grant Stern said if Trantalis lived in his city, Miami, he’d “file a public ethics complaint against him for disseminating misinformation” about the tragedy.
Condemnation was even more intense from the right. “I hope @DeanTrantalis gets sued and then removed from office or defeated. Government officials shouldn’t be able to accuse someone of *terrorism* so flippantly without facts,” tweeted far right commentator, David Reaboi, who describes his specialties as “national security & political warfare.”
The Reaboi tweet helped fuel something that often happens in modern-day politics: an article on the Fox News website proclaiming “Fort Lauderdale mayor faces backlash for calling Pride crash a ‘terrorist incident’ with few facts available.”
Much of the social media response emanated far from South Florida. Joshua Scacco, an associate professor of political communications at the University of South Florida, cautioned that social media — where many of the responses came from political activists outside the region — is not an accurate reflection of public opinion. “We need to be careful about characterizing what the opposition and anger is at this point.”
Restraint from others
With the notable recent exception of former President Donald Trump, most elected officials are loathe to comment immediately after such a potentially explosive event.
“It’s important that political leaders exercise additional caution because they’ll be looked at as credible sources. Not only because of his position as an elected official, but also because he was there” giving him extra credibility, Scacco said.
He said the need for caution is especially important in an era when information and misinformation spreads quickly online. There is a difference between intentionally lying and unintentionally getting the facts wrong, Scacco said. “Regardless of his intent, he perpetuated the spread of information.”
Trantalis isn’t a neophyte. He was elected mayor in May 2018, and re-elected last year. He’d previously served eight years on the City Commission, including two terms as vice mayor.
The mayor’s initial statements were striking in contrast to the other elected officials who also were in proximity to the accident.
In a Twitter post about an hour after the incident, State Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said she was at the scene, and stuck with the facts. “A truck just drove into the crowd. The driver is in police custody. I’m lucky to be safe, but at least two people were hit and are in critical condition. All of us here all praying for them and their
families.” Fried is a candidate for the 2022 Democratic nomination for governor.
U.S. Reps Ted Deutch and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, both South Florida Democrats, were also present, waiting to participate in the parade. Cameras captured their emotion and shock after the incident. Both avoided talking to journalists in the immediate aftermath.
Deutch confined his comments to Twitter, and not until more than 2½ hours later. He addressed “the horror that we saw” and said he was “mourning life taken & praying for injured & families” and “intensely grateful for police who sprung to action before us to save lives.”
More than three hours later, Wasserman Schultz said in a statement that she was “deeply shaken and devastated,” thanked first responders, and said she was “praying for the victims and their loved ones as law enforcement investigates.”
Scacco said their responses fit the model for elected leaders. “The individuals who had more measured responses initially, what that does is that essentially allows the facts to bear out and then the elected official doesn’t have to backtrack in case it doesn’t bear out.”
Rogers also said Fried, Deutch and Wasserman Schultz did what leaders should do. “This is the part about the cool under pressure as an elected [official]. You can absolutely say something just happened. There is something terrible that happened. We don’t know what yet. Everyone stay safe. That is a perfectly acceptable response.”