On the first morning of Florida’s nationally watched general election campaign for governor, President Donald Trump branded Democratic nominee Andrew Gillum a “failed socialist mayor” and Republican nominee Ron DeSantis used a term that Democrats called racist to describe the African-American Gillum’s policy agenda.
U.S. Rep. DeSantis, whose endorsement by Trump helped him blow out Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Adam Putnam in Tuesday’s GOP primary, told Fox News that Florida voters should choose him over Tallahassee Mayor Gillum, the unabashed liberal whose stunning Democratic primary upset made him the first black nominee for governor in the state’s history.
“The last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda with huge tax increases and bankrupting the state,” DeSantis said.
Democrats quickly blasted DeSantis for using the term “monkey this up” to describe a black politician’s agenda. A DeSantis spokesman called those criticisms “absurd.”
Gillum, appearing on Fox News in the afternoon, said DeSantis’ use of the term “wasn’t lost on me. It’s very clear that Mr. DeSantis is taking a page directly from the campaign manual of Donald Trump.”
Gillum added: “In the handbook of Donald Trump, they no longer do whistle calls. They’re now using full bullhorns … He (DeSantis) is very clear on day one that he’s willing to go down to the gutter. In our opinion, we’re going to win this race because we’re going to stay high and we’re going to remind Floridians of what the true spirit of the American way is.”
DeSantis’ Fox News comment came shortly before a scheduled Florida Democratic Party conference call with reporters to denounce DeSantis.
“I’ve learned dealing with the affiliates of the Trump administration that they always find a way to add some sort of insult to African-Americans and make it racist,” said U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, who is black, during the call.
“That was more than a dog whistle. That was absolutely a racist, disgusting statement and I don’t think there’s any other way to interpret it,” said U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach.
The DeSantis campaign rejected the charge.
“Ron DeSantis was obviously talking about Florida not making the wrong decision to embrace the socialist policies that Andrew Gillum espouses. To characterize it as anything else is absurd. Florida’s economy has been on the move for the last eight years and the last thing we need is a far-left Democrat trying to stop our success,” said Stephen Lawson, the communications director for DeSantis’s campaign.
Palm Beach County Republican Party Chairman Michael Barnett, who is black and who supported Putnam over DeSantis in the GOP primary, said DeSantis made “a poor choice of words, but harmless nonetheless … He’s not a racist.”
Barnett accused Democrats of “trying to turn this campaign into an issue of race” to divert attention from the “crazy, left-wing views, socialist views” of Gillum.
Gillum was endorsed by self-described democratic socialist U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Gillum favors universal health care, a $15 minimum wage, higher spending on education, legalizing and taxing recreational marijuana use and increasing Florida’s corporate tax rate to raise $1 billion.