October 21, 2018
Ron DeSantis and Andrew Gillum delivered fiery exchanges in their first debate on Sunday night, showing a national audience why they are locked in a fierce, closely matched race to become Florida’s next governor. They differed not only on their strikingly opposite policy positions, but also on matters of personal integrity and character that have shaped the election.
Florida Governor Candidates Andrew Gillum and Ron DeSantis Face Off in Contentious Debate
The debate underscored that the contest between Mr. DeSantis, a Republican, and Mr. Gillum, a Democrat, both of whom won their primaries as unapologetic partisans, reflects the national ideological battle being waged inside their parties — Republicans trying to align themselves with President Trump, and Democrats weighing the appeal of a more progressive message.
Mr. Gillum, who has served as Tallahassee’s mayor since 2014, dismissed Mr. DeSantis as Mr. Trump’s “stooge.” But Mr. DeSantis, a former three-term congressman, named areas where he had disagreed with the president — such as when the administration briefly moved to open Florida’s coast to offshore oil drilling.
From the start, Mr. DeSantis went on the offensive, characterizing Mr. Gillum as a “failed mayor.” “He’s presided over a crime-ridden city,” Mr. DeSantis said. “He’s involved in corruption. He’s not the guy to lead our state.”
Mr. Gillum chuckled — “Well, that was a mouthful,” he said — and launched into a direct appeal to Florida voters, a theme he returned to throughout the hourlong debate, held in Tampa, Fla.
“I’m here this evening standing for anybody that’s ever been told that they don’t belong,” Mr. Gillum said. “That they didn’t come from the right background or the right pedigree. I’m here fighting for everyday Floridians so that this is a state that works for all again.”
The debate came at a crucial moment in the campaign: 16 days from the Nov. 6 election, and the night before early voting sites open in some of the state’s biggest counties. Most polls suggest the race is effectively tied, as is typical in Florida, the nation’s largest presidential swing state.
As has seemed inevitable this midterm year, much of the discussion centered on the president.
“Donald Trump is weak, and he performs as all weak people do: They become bullies,” Mr. Gillum said. “And Mr. DeSantis is his acolyte.”
Mr. DeSantis, who has been one of the president’s most enthusiastic devotees, did not answer a question about whether Mr. Trump is a good role model for children. Instead, he praised the president for moving the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Mr. Trump will be more agreeable to offering the full weight of the federal government’s resources to a state with a friendly governor, Mr. DeSantis insisted, an assertion sharply rejected by Mr. Gillum, who said that any sort of loyalty test was undemocratic.
“This is not Russia,” Mr. 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 of the third-largest state.”
(After the debate, Mr. Trump lauded Mr. DeSantis’s performance on Twitter.)
Mr. Gillum managed to keep attention on health care, an issue Democrats see as crucial this year, and highlighted that Mr. DeSantis has not released a health care policy plan during the campaign.
When Jake Tapper, the debate’s moderator, asked Mr. Gillum, who favors Medicare for all and campaigned in the primary with Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, why it would be wrong for Mr. DeSantis to call him a “socialist,” Mr. Gillum defended expanding Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act.
Mr. DeSantis pounced on Mr. Gillum for wanting to abolish the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, and Mr. Gillum said he would favor placing the agency under the oversight of the Department of Justice, rather than the Department of Homeland Security.
Both Mr. Gillum, 39, and Mr. DeSantis, 40, proved to be confident and effective debaters. Mr. Gillum shared his life story as the fifth of seven children in a loving, working-class family. Mr. DeSantis emphasized his sterling résumé: Yale, Harvard, Iraq. The candidates seized Sunday’s debate as an opportunity to show off their hard edges in front of a national audience.
Mr. DeSantis cast Mr. Gillum as bad for the economy, soft on crime and keen on higher taxes. He also hammered him over a continuing F.B.I. investigation into possible corruption at Tallahassee City Hall.
“We all have friends that sometimes let us down,” Mr. Gillum said. Then, he made the sort of declaration that politicians dread making on national television: “Let me be very clear about what the record is: I am not under F.B.I. investigation.”
Mr. Gillum suggested that the fact he is African-American had something to do with Mr. DeSantis’s attacks, including his questions about a pair of 2016 trips to a luxury villa in Costa Rica and a Broadway production in New York, revealed to the public in documents subpoenaed by the F.B.I. The trips are now under state ethics investigation.
“The question is, did you pay for the ‘Hamilton’ ticket, or did the undercover F.B.I. agent pay for the ‘Hamilton’ ticket?” Mr. DeSantis asked. “Did you pay to stay in the villa in Costa Rica?”
“I didn’t take free trips from anybody,” retorted Mr. Gillum, who later accused Mr. DeSantis of “showboating.” “I’m a hardworking person. I know that may not fit your description of what you think people like me do. But I’ve worked hard for everything that I’ve gotten in my life, and I don’t need anybody handing me anything for free.”
Mr. DeSantis, who has declined to return campaign contributions from a supporter who was forced to apologize for calling President Barack Obama a racist slur, said he served in Iraq with military personnel of all races. “I will be a governor for all Floridians,” he said.
Later, Mr. Gillum, who would be Florida’s first African-American governor, elaborated on the subject of race, mentioning Mr. DeSantis’s comment the day after the primary that voting for Mr. Gillum’s agenda for Florida would “monkey this up.”
“You know what, I’m black. I’ve been black my whole life — so far as I know, I will die black,” Mr. Gillum said to laughter from the audience. “But this is the point: The only color that the people of the state of Florida care about is the blue-green algae flowing out of the east and the west side of this state. And they deserve a governor who is going to protect this environment.”
Both candidates made several references to the environment, though neither delved into much detail about their proposals. This being Florida, which faces a threat from rising seas, the first debate question was about climate change. Mr. DeSantis said he supports “resiliency” efforts but does not want to be a climate “alarmist”; Mr. Gillum said he will be a governor “who believes in science.”
Mr. Gillum and Mr. DeSantis were supposed to face off last Tuesday in a debate that was called off because of Hurricane Michael. The Category 4 storm paralyzed campaign efforts in the Florida Panhandle and kept Mr. Gillum away from the trail for 10 days as his city prepared for and recovered from its brush with the tropical cyclone. A second debate is scheduled for Wednesday.
Perhaps the most surprising moment came at the start of the debate, when Mr. Tapper noted that Mr. Gillum and Mr. DeSantis had just met for the first time — a sign of how the nation’s polarized politics have given elected leaders infrequent opportunities to overlap.
“Good to meet you, Andrew,” Mr. DeSantis said in his closing statement. “It’s been a fun night.”
“I wish you well,” Mr. Gillum said, as the rivals shook hands.
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