Republican Rep. Ron DeSantis during a Wednesday debate angrily rejected charges from his Democratic opponent in the Florida governor's race that he's soft on racism and, in a tense moment, said he refuses to be smeared with the label that so many Democrats are trying to apply to GOP candidates.
DeSantis debated Democrat Andrew Gillum, Tallahassee's mayor, in their last face-off before voters decide who their next governor will be on Nov. 6. The racism charges flew when Gillum said DeSantis encourages racism and racists because he spoke at an event organized by David Horowitz, a conservative who has made comments deemed racist by some, including one claiming that the race war in America is being waged against whites.
DeSantis said the Horowitz event he spoke at was headlined by a medal of honor winner and said he had no idea Horowitz made the statement.
“How the hell am I supposed to know every single statement someone makes?” DeSantis responded angrily.
DeSantis defended his record working for all races and pledged to do so as governor, adding that he wouldn't sit by and be smeared.
“I am not going to bow down to the altar of political correctness,” DeSantis said. “I am not going to let the media smear me, like they like to do to so many people, and I’m not going to take anything from Andrew Gillum, who has endorsed the Dream Defenders, which said Israel is an apartheid state and believe the police and prisons have no place in justice.”
Gillum dodged questions about his support of the Dream Defenders group, who label law enforcement as racist and have called police “slave catchers.” Instead, Gillum focused on the emotional response from DeSantis and continued to accuse him of being a racist.
“My grandmother used to say a hit dog will holler, and it hollered through this room,” Gillum said, eliciting howls from the audience.
DeSantis, Gillum said, has “neo-Nazis helping him out in the state.”
In addition to speaking at a Horowitz event, Gillum said, DeSantis has "accepted contributions and will not return it, from someone who said the former president of the United States is a Muslim n----r.”
Then Gillum added the kicker: “I’m not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist, I’m simply saying the racists believe he’s a racist.”
DeSantis landed his own blows against Gillum, who has a small lead in the polls, but had to fight off corruption accusations and claims that he lied about who purchased his $1,000 ticket to the Broadway play "Hamilton" in 2016.
DeSantis, a former prosecutor, used up his time to lay out the case that Gillum lied about the "Hamilton" ticket, which he initially said was purchased by his brother, Marcus. The ticket was instead paid for by an undercover FBI agent posing as a developer.
DeSantis also argued that he believes Gillum is the subject of an FBI investigation, a charge Gillum dismissed.
“Think about what he wants you to believe,” DeSantis said. “Why would an undercover FBI agent, posing as a contractor, give a him a thousand-dollar ticket to 'Hamilton'?”
The Florida Ethics Commission is investigating Gillum’s 2016 trip to New York as well as a Costa Rica trip Gillum and wife took with lobbyists the same year.
“The lobbyist who funded that trip ... he gave him a $2 million contract to build a restaurant," DeSantis said. "That is what’s wrong and he won’t tell the truth about it.”
Gillum said he should have asked more questions at the time to ensure the ticket was not purchased by Mike Miller, the FBI agent pretending to be a developer. He said he believed his brother had exchanged tickets to a Jay-Z concert in exchange for the Hamilton ticket.
“I understood that to have solved whatever it was in regard to the issues associated with it,” Gillum said, adding that he has “zero tolerance” for corruption.
The corruption and racism issues dominated much of the debate, but the two also battled over policy issues, most notably immigration.
DeSantis said Gillum would make Florida a "sanctuary city" state, which would mean an illegal immigrant convicted of even the most heinous crime, such as child molestation, would be let back out on the streets rather than handed over to immigration officials and deported.
“Shame on you, shame on you,” Gillum said. “You’re disqualified, in my opinion.”
Gillum said he would “absolutely cooperate” with immigration enforcement, “because that’s the law of the land.”
But Gillum also said illegal immigrants would serve time for crimes “through the normal judicial process” and that “he is not going to criminalize people because of their personhood,” such as the color of their skin or their neighborhood.