Candidates Face Off-The Orlando Times
Candidates Face Off In Final Debate Over Florida’s Future
BY DEVIN HEFLIN, TIMES STAFF WRITER
As the 2018 primary approaches, Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidates have made the Trump administration their collective centerpiece opponent. Per the typical campaign and debate model for off year elections, the opposing party out of power lambasts the current Presidential administration and lauds the accomplishments of their previous party administration, while in simultaneous manner paring both party identities and achievements into whomever occupies sixteen hundred Pennsylvania Avenue.
The Florida Democratic Gubernatorial candidate debate convened on Aug.2, days before the upcoming primary as Floridians say farewell to outgoing Governor Rick Scott and hello to whichever candidate among the pool of mayors, legislators and businessmen will serve as Florida’s executive.
Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, former Miami Beach Mayor Phillip Levine, Palm Beach magnate Jeff Greene, former U.S. Representative Gwen Graham and Chris King comprise the candidates which faced off last Thursday night in Palm Beach Gardens, FL.
The winner of the five-way primary will face either Republican Ron DeSantis or Agricultural Commissioner Andrew Putnam in the November General Election.
A Democrat last won the Governor’s contest in 1994 and at present, US Senator Bill Nelson is the only Democratic office holder statewide, who himself faces a challenger in outgoing Governor Rick Scott.
Former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and businessman Chris King attacked billionaire developer Jeff Greene, a member of Trump's Mar-a-Lago club, for saying the day after the 2016 election that Trump was a "great guy."
Greene rebutted those remarks by saying Hillary Clinton and other Democrats made similar pleas for national unity, but now that Trump has been in office and is harming the country, that no longer applies.
All five candidates went after the National Rifle Association during the hour-long televised debate sponsored by the Florida Press Association, saying it has established a stranglehold on Florida government during 20 years under Republican rule of the governorship and Legislature.
Former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham said she would welcome the NRA's opposition, while Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum said he led his city when it was sued by gun rights groups for refusing to repeal a no-longer enforced ordinance banning shooting in public parks.
After a first twenty-five minutes spent in agreement on reaching a $15 an hour minimum wage, increasing spending on public schools and finding ways to improve campus security in the aftermath of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre, the debate shifted as the candidates competed to establish who’s best competent to stand up to Trump.
Greene has billed himself as the anti-Trump candidate, running commercials featuring video of an argument he had with the president over Greene's support of Hillary Clinton in 2016.
"I am the only one who has stood up against President Trump," Greene said. "I was on CNBC, and I said exactly what I felt, that I would be scared to death to have Donald Trump as president. And let me tell you, it couldn't be worse."
King and Levine then launch the most direct attacks of the night, hunkering on Greene's post-election comments about Trump.
"Greene says he is Donald Trump's worst nightmare but after Donald Trump was elected 20 months ago, he called him a great guy who he was behind 100 percent," King said. "Now it is OK to support the president, but we have to stand up to a guy we all obviously have a lot of problems with."
Levine said Trump's conduct before the election should have precluded Greene for calling him a "great guy" after he won.
"He really mocked disabled people. He insulted every woman in America, and matter of fact, he did worse than that, he told John McCain he wasn't a war hero," Levine said. "It sounds like you (Greene) are like Donald Trump and one Donald Trump is enough."
Graham said that "as a mom, I am appalled with what this president represents. We can never normalize it. We can never make it OK...I have called Donald Trump an embarrassment."
Gillum said he is the only candidate who has called for Trump's impeachment because of his conduct during the ongoing Russian election interference investigation.
"It is very clear that he obstructed justice," Gillum said. "The fact is, there is the rule of law and this president broke it."
All five candidates were unanimous in their vow to repeal the Sunshine State’s "stand your ground" law, which allows people to use deadly force if they believe they are in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm. Some also attacked Marion Hammer, the NRA's Florida lobbyist and one of the state's powerbrokers, by name.
Gillum said he is the only candidate who has already stood up to the NRA as Tallahassee fought gun rights groups over the park ordinance. The NRA supported the lawsuit, which was rejected by an appeals court.
"It simply said you cannot shoot guns in parks where our children play and our families’ picnic. They said that was too radical," Gillum said. "We need to untangle the power hold the NRA has."
Graham said she will sign an executive order banning the sale of assault weapons, even though she knows it will be challenged in court by the NRA — "Bring it on."
Greene said, "I think what they (the NRA) have done to our communities is repulsive, making our schools unsafe."
King called for a tax on bullets to pay for school security.
Levine said the state needs to have an Education Security Administration. "People ask, 'Can we afford it? ... My answer to that is we can't afford not to."
In the debate’s aftermath, each candidate released statements regarding their respective performance in the final debate before the primary.
“I had an opportunity to stay above the fray. There was a little bit of back-and-forth. I levied my share of concerns about the other candidates but I really do believe that we did what we needed to do: Go in there and introduce ourselves as a qualified candidate,” said Gillum.
Front runner Gwen Graham said she did well but had to be asked twice whether she would campaign with former President Clinton in light of the #MeToo movement’s momentum.
Asked if she thought that was an “oops” moment in the debate, Graham said, “Absolutely not. I mean, the answer is, "Who knows who wants to come here in the general? So we'll see who is interested in coming and I welcome people to come to Florida because this is the most important election in the country in 2018.”
“I don't think I went at my competitors. I think Gwen Graham, she talked about how she was being fair to vote for the Keystone pipeline. No Democrat in America is in favor of the Keystone pipeline and I think if somebody’s in favor of the Keystone pipeline, can we really trust that she's going to protect us against offshore drilling? I think people need to know the governor has a backbone, I have a backbone,” said Greene.
Philip Levine, whom polls put in second place, right before Greene, said he was also happy with his performance.
“Look, when I started this race as an unknown, I was last,” said Levine. “So I'm happy with what happened. More importantly, we're going to continue our message, and what people are saying to me is, ‘We don't want somebody in office who has never actually been in office.’ They want people who get things done.”
Candidates have varied in category since the inception of the Sunshine State’s Governor’s race and in the aftermath of the second mid-July debate, a Reuters poll ranked Gwen Graham first at Fifty-six percent, Jeff Greene second at twenty-nine percent, Phillip Levine third at eight percent and Andrew Gillum at seven percent.
Of viewers polled, sixty-eight percent perceive Graham as the strongest general election candidate, followed by Levine with sixteen percent. More than half reported Gillum would be the weakest nominee of the five major candidates, while twenty-five percent said Winter Park businessman Chris King.
Following the August 2 debate, viewers through the same polling service decided Graham would remain the front runner and potential nominee, with sixty-three percent in favor of her standing on the Palm Beach Gardens stage, Jeff Greene, who also witnessed a boost in rankings to thirty-three percent, Andrew Gillum at four percent and Phillip Levine at two percent.
On the Republican side of the race, nearly sixty-three percent think Adam Putnam will win the nomination — compared a seventy-two percent a month ago – and thirty-seven percent think Ron DeSantis, who is endorsed by Trump, will secure the nomination.
Floridians have much to decide before the August primary of which candidate is best qualified to set the course of state policy for the next four years.