Andrew Gillum and Ron DeSantis sparred over each other’s personal integrity as well as issues like health care and immigration in a heated debate on Wednesday that underscored the fierce divide between the two gubernatorial candidates with less than two weeks before Election Day.
In the candidates' first debate on Sunday, they attacked each other over their histories and how they would work with President Trump to help Floridians. During their second and final debate on Wednesday, DeSantis and Gillum debated substantive issues including taxes, gun control and education.
But they also continuously reverted to questioning each other’s honesty and morals.
DeSantis, the Republican nominee and a former three-term congressman, characterized Gillum as corrupt and said he lied about accepting gifts from a businessmen posing as undercover FBI agents.
Gillum, a Democrat, highlighted DeSantis’ connection to far-right conferences, including an appearance at a David Horowitz Freedom Center conference.
“He has spoken at racist conferences. He has accepted a contribution and would not return it from someone who referred to the former president of the United States as a Muslim n-i-g-g-e-r,” said Gillum, who is Tallahassee's mayor and would become the state’s first African American governor. “I’m not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist. I’m just saying the racists believe he is a racist.”
DeSantis defended his ties to the conference. He at one point slamed his hand on the lectern and yelled, “How the hell am I supposed to know every single statement somebody makes.” He then shifted to attacking Gillum for his trip to New York with the undercover agents.
The jabs coincided with reports on Wednesday that someone sent pipe bombs to former President Barack Obama, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and other high-profile Democratic politicians. A question during the debate about the shipments led to the candidates blaming each other for creating political divisions.
The hour-long debate, held at Broward College and hosted by the Florida Press Association and Leadership Florida, came as the race hits a final stretch before the election on Nov. 6. More than 1.4 million people have voted early, according to the state's division of elections. And most polls have showed a tight race.
The affair also followed the release of text messages questioning Gillum's past statements regarding trips he took in 2016.
The documents were released as part of a state ethics commission investigation and show that Gillum knowingly accepted a ticket to the Broadway musical, "Hamilton," in New York from a undercover FBI agent acting as the businessman. Gillum did not report the tickets as gifts as required by the state government.
On Wednesday, Gillum reaffirmed that he nor his government are under investigation by the FBI. And he said that at the time of the trip, he didn't think there was anything wrong with accepting the "Hamilton" tickets.
“The problem that I have is that I should have asked more questions to make sure that everything that had transpired was above board,” he said.
Gillum then said Floridians are dealing with more important issues than his "Hamilton" tickets. But DeSantis said the mayor lied and called on him to release all information and documents about the trips.
“If you’ll commit to doing that, then I think we can maybe all put this to bed,” he said.
Gillum responded by calling on DeSantis to release the records of more than $145,000 in taxpayer-funded trips he to took to New York to appear on Fox News while he was still a congressman.
The arguments continued over other topics like education and health care. Gillum stressed that expanding Medicaid will help the state hire more doctors and sighted his own experiences of waiting in line when he was younger to get his teeth cleaned by a free dental clinic.
DeSantis—who is against Medicaid expansion—said he would pass a bill to protect healthcare for people with preexisting conditions. He also criticized Gillum for supporting a single-payer health plan, which DeSantis said would force people off their health plans.
Another exchange involved a question about immigration. Gillum expressed resistance to complying with detainer requests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Undocumented immigrants who have committed a crime should instead go through the normal legal process, he said.
DeSantis, however, said governments should cooperate with the ICE requests for undocumented immigrants who have been convicted of crimes. He said letting the immigrants go through the usual legal process could result in them committing more crimes after they are released from jail.
“Say you’re convicted of child molestation,” DeSantis said. Gillum’s policy “means that child molester gets released back on to the streets after serving his sentence and guess what? That child molester will reoffend and someone’s son or daughter in Florida will end up paying the price.”
Some people in the audience cheered in response while others booed. Gillum called the comment “shameful."
“This is too important a claim. It is consistent with the way Mr. DeSantis has run his campaign," the mayor said before the two candidates returned to discussing race and corruption.
OUTSIDE THE DEBATE
Before the debate, supporters of both candidates chanted and held signs in the parking lot of Broward College.
Bob Kunst, from Miami Beach, identifies as a Democrat but backs DeSantis and Trump. He said Gillum is dangerous for wanting to impeach Trump and abolish ICE.
"Gillum is the anti, the anti," said Kunst, who set up 'Trump Vs. Tramp' signs that he made from the 2016 presidential election outside the college's Bailey Hall. "What is the point. We're going to sit here for another two years and argue about how we're going to go after Trump."
Gillum rallyers, like Michelle DeMarco, said they did not care about the recent news involving Gillum’s trip to see "Hamilton."
DeMarco, an adjunct professor at Broward College, said the case against the mayor pales in comparison to the corruption scandals surrounding Trump.
“It’s a drop in the bucket,” she said, referring to the text messages. “It’s something that the right is trying to bring up to debase Gillum and make him look like a shyster.”
WATCH PARTY IN COOPER CITY: LOVING THE PUNCHES
About 30 people gathered at a Republican Party office in a strip mall in Cooper City Wednesday night to watch the gubernatorial debate. They sat on folding chairs watching a livestream of the event projected onto the wall while eating pizza and wings from a restaurant next door and mandarin orange cake baked by one of the attendees.
DeSantis signs were everywhere, including ones in Spanish announcing Colombians, Venezuelans and Puerto Ricans — "Boricuas" — support for the Republican ticket. DeSantis' major ally, President Trump, had a presence there, too; portraits of the president and First Lady Melania Trump beamed off of one wall while a life-size cutout of Trump leaned on another. A woman wore a T-shirt that said "Trump girl."
As DeSantis hammered Gillum for the FBI investigation into city government corruption in Tallahassee, where the Democrat is mayor, people cheered and yelled. One woman shouted, "Finally!" A man: "What do you say now, crook?"
Marie Leandre said she thought DeSantis' performance was stronger in this second debate.
"I love it that I saw some more punches from DeSantis today, in comparison to Sunday's debate — it was a little bit subdued. Today, I see a real leader with some good punch," she said, hitting her own fist against her other palm.
Leandre is a Haitian immigrant and said she supports DeSantis because she believes Republican policies are better for the economy and can help all people prosper.
The economy was the most important issue for several of the voters there.
Herb Vargas is from Bolivia and lived in California before moving to South Florida. He argued the high taxes in California hurt the economy in that state, and he said he doesn't want to see the same thing happen in Florida.
Gillum wants to raise corporate taxes to pay for higher teacher salaries. Vargas argued DeSantis could achieve the same thing if he improves the economy, because, when property values are higher, more tax money can be generated for public schools. He made similar arguments about how a strong economy could help in other areas.
"So [DeSantis'] plan of focusing on the economy, and letting the economy take care of the health care, the education, the environmental cleanup and all of that, to me, is the right approach," he said.
Vargas hasn't voted yet. His daughter is away at college now, and he's waiting for her to come home so they can go together with his wife to the polls. It's a family tradition.