TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Three of the four Democrats vying to replace Rick Scott as governor of the third-largest state in the nation get their news first from The New York Times, and only one, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, relies on his hometown paper to find out what’s going on in the world.
The insight into who’s reading what was among the lighter moments of an hour-long debate Wednesday in Tampa, the first head-to-head matchup of the four major Democratic candidates before the August primary election.
During the debate hosted by Tampa Fox affiliate WTVT, Gillum and Winter Park entrepreneur Chris King repeatedly took shots at former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, a Tallahassee lawyer, for her voting record while in Congress. Meanwhile, Philip Levine boasted of Democratic creds racked up during his eight-year tenure as Miami Beach mayor.
Gillum attacked Graham, who earned a reputation as a moderate Democrat during her stint in Congress from 2015 to 2017, for failing to support President Barack Obama enough.
“We sent a Democrat to Congress to defend the president … to move a more progressive agenda,” Gillum said. “Her votes … 54 percent of the time against Obama was not what I wanted from my member of Congress.”
Graham shot back that, when meeting with Obama, the president “put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Gwen, I am so proud of you.’ ”
After repeatedly defending herself against attacks from King and Gillum she characterized as “just wrong,” Graham sighed.
“I seem to be the one,” said Graham, the daughter of Bob Graham, who served as both U.S. senator and Florida governor. “It’s Gwen and the men.”
Levine, meanwhile, stumbled when asked by moderator Craig Patrick to name the outgoing Florida House minority leader and his or her biggest accomplishments.
“Being a minority, anything is very, very challenging,” said Levine, who has largely funded his own campaign and has spent upwards of $6 million on television ads thus far.
When pressed if he knew who the outgoing leader was, Levine said: “Yeah. McGhee.”
Rep. Kionne McGhee, a Miami Democrat, will take over as leader after the November elections; the House’s current minority leader is Janet Cruz.
When Patrick pointed that out, Levine said, “Oh, Janet. Yeah.”
Levine’s gaffe was even more striking since the debate took place on Cruz’s home turf in Tampa, and the Democratic leader just announced a bid to run against Republican Sen. Dana Young in what will be one of the state’s most hotly contested Senate races. Democratic contender Bob Buesing just dropped out of the race to make room for Cruz.
Levine also was unable to answer exactly how much the state spends on public education.
“I know it’s right in the billions,” he said.
When asked if he could “narrow that down,” Levine said: “There’s no question we absolutely need to spend more going forward.”
But later, the former mayor scored one of the debate’s best one-liners, also on the education issue.
“Stop the testing. Start investing,” Levine said. “And stop investing in someone else’s business, charter schools.”
Graham also attempted to stand out on the education issue, one of the most important to Democratic base voters. She pointed to problems in school funding.
“This is going to be my number one priority,” she said. “There is no magic number. It’s whatever I determine after taking a look at the whole budget.”
Gun restrictions --- including proposed bans on “assault” weapons and high-capacity magazines, commonly used in mass shootings over the past few years --- have become one of the main issues for state and national Democrats following the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that left 14 students and three faculty members dead.
Douglas High students who survived the shooting spree by 19-year-old gunman Nikolas Cruz have led a nationwide effort to impose stricter gun regulations.
The Democratic gubernatorial candidates seeking to replace Scott have increasingly tried to one-up each other over their gun-regulations support, with Gillum boasting that his city defied a statewide law requiring local governments to do away with gun ordinances that are stricter than those imposed in Florida law.
Levine, meanwhile, helped organize a rally in Tallahassee in which hundreds of protesters urged state lawmakers to pass stricter gun laws, and he bragged Wednesday that, when he was mayor, his city approved a “non-binding resolution” condemning assault weapons.
But the Fox channel moderator gave the gun issue short shrift Wednesday, asking only how the candidates would define “assault weapons.”
Most of the candidates responded that the definition would rely on how many rounds per minute --- 40 or more --- a gun can fire.
But King attacked Graham for failing to propose an assault-weapons ban following the attack on Orlando’s Pulse nightclub two years ago that left 49 clubgoers, many of them gay and Hispanic, dead.
King also tried to set himself apart from his opponents.
“I’m the candidate that is the outsider with new ideas and fresh vision,” he said, calling himself “the first candidate in a generation that said I will not take a dime from the sugar industry.”
“That takes courage,” he continued.
Gillum was the only candidate to support recreational use of marijuana, saying the position is rooted in the “over-criminalization of young people of communities of color” over the use of a plant. Florida voters in 2016 broadly legalized medical marijuana.
“We’ve got to end this prison-industrial complex that is being built all around a plant that … provides more redemptive use than it does harmful,” Gillum, who is black, said.