Democrat Andrew Gillum and Republican Ron DeSantisRonald Dion DeSantisGOP tentatively decides on Jacksonville for site of convention DeSantis pushing to host Republican National Convention in Florida Florida bars and theaters to reopen starting Friday, DeSantis says MORE faced off Sunday night in a heated debate that underscored the intense political divisions at play not just in Florida, where the two are vying to become the next governor, but across the U.S. as well.
The debate went off the rails at times, with Gillum and DeSantis landing several aggressive blows against one another.
Former Rep. DeSantis sought to cast Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, as a failed leader whose policy proposals would drag Florida into economic ruin. Meanwhile, Gillum painted DeSantis as an acolyte of President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE, who would blindly take his cues from the White House.
Here are five takeaways from the contentious debate.
Trump plays a dominating role in the race
During Florida’s gubernatorial primaries, DeSantis surged to victory on the back of Trump, while Gillum positioned himself as a staunch critic of the president.
Sunday night’s debate demonstrated that dynamic hasn’t changed.
As the war of words got underway, Gillum came out swinging, accusing DeSantis of being a foot soldier for Trump’s agenda. At one point, he called DeSantis an “acolyte” to the president.
“Donald Trump is weak and he performs as all weak people do,” Gillum said. “They become bullies.”
The Tallahassee mayor also accused DeSantis of seeking to protect Trump from special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN’s Toobin warns McCabe is in ‘perilous condition’ with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill’s 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE’s probe into possible collusion between his presidential campaign and Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 election.
DeSantis was quick to cast himself as the candidate who, if elected, would work hand-in-hand with the Trump administration to address Florida’s policy priorities.
But he also demurred when asked by CNN’s Jake Tapper if the president served as a good role model, opting instead to tout Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — a tactic that drew criticism from Gillum.
Gillum, DeSantis tackle their political baggage
Since he won his party’s gubernatorial nomination in August, Gillum has faced attacks from Republicans over the ongoing FBI investigation into possible corruption in his city government.
Likewise, DeSantis has dealt with accusations of racism since the day after his primary win, when he warned voters not to “monkey this up” by voting for Gillum, who is black.
On Sunday, both issues were on the table.
Gillum insisted that neither he nor his City Hall were targets of the FBI probe in Tallahassee. Asked about his relationship with a lobbyist that has fallen under investigation, the Democratic hopeful remarked: “We all have friends that sometimes let us down.”
“I am not under FBI investigation and neither is my city government,” he said. “And what we have done is we welcome [the FBI] in.”
DeSantis, a U.S. Navy prosecutor, headed off questions about his past comments by recalling his time serving in Iraq. He said that when he was “down range in Iraq, it didn’t matter your race.”
“Floridians can know that I’ll be a governor for all Floridians. That’s the only way you can do it,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we’re going to agree on every issue. But you know what? If we disagree tomorrow, maybe two weeks later we’ll find some common ground.”
Climate change and the environment take center stage
Gillum and DeSantis addressed questions about climate change and Florida’s toxic algae crisis right off the bat, yielding a discussion that was less about policy differences than about the need to tackle the state’s environmental challenges.
DeSantis did not deny that rising temperatures pose a threat to Florida, but said he didn’t want to be an “alarmist.”
“I don’t want to be an alarmist,” he said. “I want to look at this and do what makes sense for Florida.”
“I also think you have to just look at facts,” he continued. “The fact is, you look at South Florida, we need to do resiliency. You have more water; you have flooding. So as governor, that’s something that I’m going to take on full throttle.”
He also accused Gillum of wanting to implement a “California-style energy policy” that would cause electricity rates to skyrocket.
Gillum fired back, saying that, if he is elected governor in November, the state would have a chief executive “who believes in science.”
“I’m not sure what is so ‘California’ about believing that the state of Florida ought to lead in solar energy. We’re known as the Sunshine State,” Gillum said.
“At the very least what we can do is be a global leader here. We gotta teach the other 49 states of what to do and what it means to have a state that, quite frankly, leans into the challenges of the green economy.”
Law enforcement emerges as key issue
DeSantis was quick to cast himself as a kind of law-and-order candidate, repeatedly invoking his tenure in the Navy and his experience as a prosecutor to show off his law enforcement chops.
He also dinged Gillum over Tallahassee’s murder rate, which has risen in recent years, insisting that the mayor isn’t only unprepared to lead the state, but is also an opponent of strong law enforcement.
Meanwhile, Gillum defended his record in Tallahassee City Hall, saying that the state capital’s overall crime rate was going down and vowing to build cooperation between law enforcement and the communities they are sworn to protect.
The conversation also touched on immigration, with DeSantis stressing the need to detain and deport undocumented immigrants that commit crimes in Florida.
“We are not in the immigration business,” he said. “But if someone comes in contact [with law enforcement] and they’re here illegally, that’s when we deport them.”
DeSantis also blasted Gillum for calling to abolish U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in its current form.
Gillum, in turn, called for comprehensive immigration reform and hit Congress for failing to pass legislation to address the matter holistically.
“We have no real comprehensive way to deal with this challenge,” he said, adding that Florida is “not going to become a ‘show me your papers’ state.”
The Parkland shooting is still a political force
The mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in February sent shockwaves throughout the state and put pressure on politicians at the state and national level to address the rash of gun violence in the U.S.
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More than eight months later, the tragedy is still looming over Florida’s political environment.
On Sunday, Gillum and DeSantis went toe-to-toe on everything from law enforcement’s handling of the mass shooting to the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) influence in politics.
“He is wholly owned by the NRA,” Gillum said of DeSantis. “He’s not going to stand up to the National Rifle Association — that’s why they’re running all these ads against me. Because they want the man that they bought.”
DeSantis defended his past comment that he would have vetoed a measure signed earlier this year by current Gov. Rick Scott (R) that raised the minimum age to purchase a firearm in the state.