In DeSantis-Gillum contest, race is more than a subtext

Florida gubernatorial candidates, Republican Ron DeSantis, left, and Democrat Andrew Gillum shake hands before a debate on Wed., Oct. 24, 2018, at Broward College in Davie, Fla. (Photo: Wilfredo Lee/AP)

The subject of race continues to be at the center of the governor’s race in Florida.

In a contest already sullied by the release of racist robocalls belittling Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum, the African-American mayor of Tallahassee, Fla., he and Republican Ron DeSantis clashed Wednesday night in the candidates’ final debate before the Nov. 6 election.

In the night’s sharpest exchange, DeSantis, a former congressman, was asked why he agreed to speak at multiple conferences organized by anti-Muslim provocateur David Horowitz, a man who has called former President Barack Obama “an evil man” and a “pretend Christian.”

“How in the hell am I supposed to know every single statement someone makes?” DeSantis responded. “Let me just say this straight up. When I was downrange in Iraq, we worked together as a team, regardless of race. We had the American flag on our arm. We wore the same uniform and we fought for the country. When I was a prosecutor, I stood up for every race, color and creed. This is the only way to do it in this country … But I am not going to bow down to the altar of political correctness. I am not going to let the media smear me, like they do with so many other people, and I am certainly not going to take anything from Andrew Gillum.”

Gillum was ready with a stinging response, which he later tweeted:

“Mr. DeSantis has spoken. First of all, he’s got neo-Nazis helping him out in this state. He has spoken at racist conferences,” Gillum said. “He has accepted a contribution, and would not return it, from someone who referred to the former president of the United States as a Muslim n-*-*-*-*-*. When asked to return that money, he said ‘no.’ He’s using that money to fund negative ads. Now, I’m not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist. I’m simply saying the racists believe he’s a racist.”

Gillum was referring to a tweet by Florida businessman Steven Alembik, who also is known for calling Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg a “senile fool” who “can’t die soon enough.” The DeSantis campaign has kept him at arm’s length since then but declined to return his contributions.

Since the opening days of the general election contest between Gillum and DeSantis, race has been a subtext, with DeSantis receiving criticism for his choice of words during an interview with Fox News.

That last thing we need to do is monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda with huge tax increases and bankrupting the state,” DeSantis said in late August. 

During the candidates’ first debate, DeSantis did not apologize for the comment but vowed he would be “a governor for all Floridians,” whereas Gillum told voters that the Republican’s words were no accident.

“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,” Gillum said. “And he has only continued in the course of his campaign to draw all the attention he can to the color of my skin.”

The Road to Power, a white supremacist group, claimed responsibility this week for a rash of racist robocalls that targeted Florida voters. 

“Well, hello there. I is the Negro Andrew Gillum and I’ll be askin’ you to make me governor of this here state of Florida,” a voice on the call says as monkey and jungle sounds can be heard in the background. 

In the RealClear Politics average of polls, Gillum holds a 4.5 percentage point lead over DeSantis.

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