DAVIE, Fla. — The first question in Wednesday’s second and final debate between Florida gubernatorial candidates Andrew Gillum and Ron DeSantis focused on the divisive nature of the country’s political discourse.
And the opening discussion laid the groundwork for an hour of jugular attacks, with the two men accusing each other of being dishonest and unworthy of leading the state before they exited the stage with a fist bump.
The initial question from moderator Todd McDermott of WPBF-TV came following the news earlier in the day that Democratic leaders --- including the Clintons and the Obamas --- had been sent pipe bombs.
Gillum, a Democrat who is the mayor of Tallahassee, accused DeSantis, a former congressman whose endorsement by President Donald Trump helped boost him to a Republican primary victory, of running “this race very, very close to the Trump handbook where we call each other names.”
Gillum blasted DeSantis for comments the Republican made the day after the Aug. 28 primary in which DeSantis warned supporters “not to monkey this up,” referring to state success, by electing Gillum.
But DeSantis lashed back by accusing Gillum of supporting the “radical” Dream Defenders group, which the Republican accused of attacking Israel.
“So you want to talk about division. It doesn’t get more divisive than the Dream Defenders,” he said.
That drew a swift rebuke from Gillum, who said DeSantis “lied 21 times” during a nationally televised debate Sunday night.
“And now today makes the 22nd, and we just started the debate,” Gillum said.
The hostile exchange, which came less than two weeks before the Nov. 6 election, set the tone for the entire debate at Broward College in Davie.
During one of the most explosive moments, DeSantis, who was on the attack throughout the night, lost his cool after being questioned by McDermott about the former congressman’s affiliation with conservative author David Horowitz.
“Are you going to play the McCarthy-ite game?” DeSantis interrupted McDermott.
McDermott persisted, saying Horowitz had questioned the oppression of black Americans because there is not an exodus of blacks from the country. DeSantis had praised Horowitz as someone who “shoots straight” and “tells the American people the truth,” McDermott pointed out, sparking an outburst from DeSantis, a former Navy lawyer.
“How the hell am I supposed to know every single statement everybody makes?” he exploded, saying that as a soldier in Iraq “we worked together as a team regardless of race.”
DeSantis said, as a prosecutor, he “stood up for victims of every race, color and creed” and will “represent all the people” as governor.
“Everyone will get a fair shake. But I’m not going to bow down to the altar of political correctness. I’m not going to let the media smear me,” he angrily continued.
DeSantis repeatedly hammered Gillum about recently released documents the Republican contended demonstrate that Gillum lied about who footed the bill for tickets to the smash Broadway hit, “Hamilton,” two years ago during a trip to New York.
The documents were released to the public this week by Christopher Kise, a lawyer representing Adam Corey, a Tallahassee lobbyist and entrepreneur at the heart of a federal corruption probe involving the city of Tallahassee.
Corey and Gillum were longtime friends whose global travels were part of the 150 pages of texts, emails and other documents released by Kise.
Gillum has steadfastly maintained he is innocent of any wrongdoing and has publicly severed ties with Corey. The documents show that Corey told Gillum the Hamilton tickets were provided by “Mike Miller,” an undercover FBI agent who also arranged a boat cruise for Corey, Gillum, and the mayor’s brother, Marcus.
Gillum has said he received the ticket for the wildly popular Broadway show from his brother, and that the Broadway tickets were swapped for a Jay-Z show.
“The problem I have is that I should have asked more questions to ensure that everything was above board,” Gillum said Wednesday night.
The focus on the documents came as DeSantis tries to paint a picture of corruption around Gillum, a surprise victor in the August Democratic primary who has garnered national support as he tries to make history as the state’s first black governor and the first Democrat to capture the governor’s mansion in two decades.
“Andrew was getting things he shouldn’t have gotten, and they got a $2 million contract from the city of Tallahassee. That is what corruption is. When you get something you shouldn’t have had, and you give something to people who were trying to influence you. That is wrong, and he has not told the truth about any of that,” DeSantis said.
Another tense moment came when DeSantis said Gillum’s immigration proposals would allow convicted child molesters who are illegal immigrants to remain in the state.
“That child molester will reoffend, and someone’s son or daughter will end up paying the price,” DeSantis warned.
Gillum, who tried to maintain his cool but was visibly angered, said that “would never happen,” and blasted DeSantis for distorting his proposals.
When you are running for governor “the first thing you ought to have to do is level honestly with the people,” Gillum scolded.
“You’ve got ads on television that are completely false. How can we expect you to be honest with the people of the state of Florida if not here on this stage?” Gillum asked, adding “you are disqualified, in my opinion, from the office for governor.”
“Andrew is the one who lied to people of Florida on Sunday night (during their earlier debate) about accepting a gift from an undercover FBI agent. He’s the one who lied about the Costa Rica luxury trip,” DeSantis shot back, referring to a heavily scrutinized trip Gillum took with Corey.
“Shame on you,” Gillum said, as DeSantis noted that the documents contradicted Gillum’s explanation about accepting a Broadway ticket from his brother.
“He’s just apologizing because he got caught. He not apologizing because he did anything wrong,” DeSantis said.
“Unfortunately, the theatrics are on full display,” Gillum responded. “Mr. DeSantis can calm down. We’re not going anywhere.”
The two also tangled about their how they would deal with pollution that has resulted in an outbreak of toxic algae affecting coastal communities in South Florida.
DeSantis said he has a “very strong environmental plan.”
“The water is our lifeblood. We have to protect the environment that Floridians enjoy,” he said.
The former congressman said he proved his leadership on the issue by challenging the sugar industry during the Republican primary.
“I am the only candidate who fought Big Sugar and lived to tell about it,” he said. “They came after me in my primary with millions and millions of dollars, attacking me in every which way.”
But Gillum questioned DeSantis’ environmental credentials, noting the Republican had a low rating from environmental groups while he was in Congress and has expressed doubts about global warming and climate change.
If Gillum is elected, the Democrat said Floridians would “have a governor who believes in science” and would “hold all the major polluters” accountable “so that we can get some real (environmental) standards back into this state and clean up this blue-green algae.”