The five Democrats in the race for governor had no problem agreeing to de-fund charter schools and repeal the state’s “stand your ground” self-defense law. But the harmonious debate Thursday turned flinty on another issue they all seemed to agree on: opposing President Donald Trump.
Halfway through the hourlong statewide debate, Palm Beach billionaire Jeff Greene took flak from two rivals over a key campaign theme, Greene’s vow to stand up to Trump.
The exchange began when Orlando businessman Chris King, who trails in the polls, chided Greene for having referred to Trump as a “great guy.”
Former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine intimated that Greene was on the sidelines while Levine was out campaigning for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Greene fired back, reminding Levine that he had once donated to the campaign of Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.
Not to be outdone, rival Gwen Graham said she was “appalled with what the president represents,” and that Trump is an “embarrassment.”
Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum entered the fray, saying he was the only candidate who had called for Trump’s impeachment.
“You can follow my lead,” Gillum said. “He is a danger to himself and the rest of the country and, as far as I am concerned, the entire world.”
Graham, the daughter of Bob Graham, former Florida governor and U.S. senator, came under fire for a massive mall her family’s business hopes to build on the edge of the Everglades. King chastised Graham, saying the project would not only be a “mecca for low-wage jobs” but also an environmental threat to the Everglades. Greene agreed.
Graham responded by saying she had divested her interest in the family business and has done whatever she can to avoid conflicts of interest. As for the low-paying jobs, Graham said she would push for raising the hourly minimum wage to $15.
The exchanges were departures from the generally courteous, issues-based discussions that have marked the three debates.
Thursday’s debate, the final one among the five rivals before the decisive Aug. 28 primary, took place as the candidates enter the home stretch of their campaigns with just over 10 days before early voting polls open.
Despite several tiffs, the candidates largely spoke about their positions, although limited to 30 and 45-second responses.
Graham promised to sign an executive order — despite the threat of a lawsuit from the National Rifle Association — to ban assault weapons like the one used in the attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February.
Both Gillum and Levine said they would support taxing and regulating marijuana, which would raise money for education. King proposed raising money for education with a tax on ammunition along with legalizing and taxing marijuana for recreational use.
Levine and Greene said they would shut down private charter schools. Levine conceded that some charter schools, especially those for students with special needs, should remain open until public schools could accommodate such students.
To improve school security, Greene said he would support single-entry points for schools and armed guards. Levine said he would create an Education Security Administration, patterned after the airport agency, to devise plans to safeguard schools.
But it was King who offered some of the most detailed proposals: getting rid of private prisons; tuition-free community colleges and vocational training schools; and a tax on bullets.
Candidates took turns denouncing the state’s Stand-Your-Ground law, with Graham calling the law “permission to murder,” Levine calling it a “license to kill,” and Gillum saying that law has “no place in a civilized society.” The controversial law grabbed headlines again after the Pinellas County Sheriff declined to arrest a white man who invoked the law after shooting and killing a black man over a parking spot in Clearwater on July 19.
On the issue of water quality and algae blooms that are threatening Lake Okeechobee, the St. Lucie Estuary and Caloosahatchee River, Levine proposed building water treatment plants around the lake and filling the board of the state’s five water management districts with scientists and engineers rather than political appointees. Gov. Rick Scott has appointed business leaders from agriculture and real estate, industries responsible for some of the pollution.
When asked whether they would pledge not to raise taxes, Levine was the only candidate who made a firm commitment: “Under no circumstances would I raise taxes in Florida.” Greene said raising taxes wasn’t necessary with the state’s $89 billion budget, repeating his mantra: “It’s just a matter of priorities.” Gillum said he would not raise taxes on “regular people” but would raise corporate income taxes.
Graham agreed with Greene, saying raising taxes would not be necessary if money in the existing budget was “redirected.” King stopped short of a pledge, saying “We can pay for big ideas without adding to our tax burden.”
Asked whether she would welcome former President Bill Clinton to campaign for her if she is nominated, Graham squirmed and avoided answering the question by saying she would welcome many people to campaign for her. She also demurred when asked about Clinton in a spin room interview after the debate.
Gillum, who picked up an endorsement from Bernie Sanders on Wednesday, also dodged a question about whether he considered himself a Democratic socialist.
“I consider myself a strong progressive,” Gillum said. “I believe individuals should have access to affordable healthcare, which is why I endorsed Medicare for all.”
Women’s issues were not raised during the debate. Only Graham, the lone woman in the race, touched on the issue of abortion.
“A woman’s right to choose is on the line,” Graham said. “This is not a drill, it’s time to take our state. We’ve had 20 years of one-party rule.”
Graham has maintained a slight lead in recent polls. A poll by St. Pete Polls released Thursday has Graham hanging on to her lead with 28.9 percent, latecomer Greene climbing to second with 22.8 percent, Levine at 19.3 percent, Gillum at 11.9 percent and King slipping to 3.4 percent. The poll registered 13.8 percent as undecided or favoring someone else.
All of the candidates have been ramping up their television ad campaigns. Even Gillum, who had been missing from the television airwaves, rolled out a $60,000 TV spot last week. Gillum is getting a boost from liberal megadonor Tom Steyer’s NextGen America, which launched a six-figure digital ad buy on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other digital platforms with a target audience of people under 40.
The hourlong debate was sponsored by WPBF, the ABC affiliate in Palm Beach Gardens, and the Florida Press Association and featured Palm Beach Post political reporter George Bennett as a panelist. The Republican Party of Florida opted not to participate, organizers said.
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