Name-calling, insults fly during Republican gubernatorial debate

WJXT, JU Public Policy Institute host Republican gubernatorial debate

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Republican gubernatorial candidates Ron DeSantis and Adam Putnam got serious Wednesday night in a televised debate that was likely their last pitch to voters before the Florida primary. The pair went back and forth over hot-button issues, from school safety to the environment.

Then the gloves came off.

It happened when moderator and News4Jax anchor Kent Justice asked if the candidates supported job creation incentives awarded by public-private partnerships, like Enterprise Florida, a quasi-governmental corporation and the state's economic development engine. Both said they did.

At some point, Putnam pivoted to the toxic algae bloom tainting the state's prized waterways and used the opportunity to take a shot at DeSantis:

"I look forward to talking to you about that and I'm pretty sure you're a smart guy and have that in the queue of questions," he told Justice. "Because I'm pretty sure you can take everything my opponent knows about water and put it on your sticky note and still have room left over for your grocery list."

REPLAY: Entire News4Jax/JU Public Policy Institute GOP Debate 
WATCH: News4Jax political analyst Rick Mullaney weighs-in

Besides mocking his opponent as the "Seinfeld" candidate, Putnam said he's committed to protecting Florida's water supply, calling it the state's "golden goose."

To which DeSantis replied: "Just as long as Big Sugar gets what it wants."

"Adam (Putnam) is basically the errand boy for U.S. sugar. He is going to stand with him time and time again," he added.

Cue a mixture of boos and applause.

RELATED: Facts vs. fiction in final GOP gubernatorial debate
IMAGES: GOP debate on stage of JU's Terry Concert Hall

"All his solutions are going to give them (Big Sugar) everything they want. They've pumped millions of dollars directly and indirectly into his campaign," DeSantis said. "You've got to be willing to stand up to all the power brokers and do what's right for the state of Florida."

'Trump card'

From the outset, DeSantis leaned into his endorsement by President Donald Trump. The candidates were later asked if the president's endorsement should influence the outcome of the governor's race.

"President Trump ran on a plan. You knew exactly what you were going to get," said Putnam. "You're (DeSantis) running on an endorsement. It takes more than that to serve 21 million people." 

"Having the Trump card is the only card you have, and it's a big one," he continued. "But it still means you're not playing with a full deck."

In lieu of Mr. Trump's backing, Putnam pointed to endorsements from law enforcement officials throughout the state, including the vast majority of sheriffs.

Meanwhile, DeSantis basked in the president's support, noting that he and Trump agree on immigration policy. He said both support the use of E-Verify, a system designed for employers to check whether employees can legally work in the U.S., while Putnam does not.

"One of the reasons the border isn't secure is because people like Putnam have stood for cheap, foreign labor rather than the rights of American citizens," DeSantis said. "I will sign E-Verify as governor. He's (Putnam) already helped to kill it."

Algae Bloom

For what it's worth, both candidates did address the toxic algae bloom blamed for making people sick and killing marine life in Florida's waterways. Gov. Rick Scott, the man they hope to succeed, has come under fire over criticism he slashed over $700 million in funding for the state's water management districts.

Both candidates called the issue an emergency, but each offered a different theory on the culprit.

"To me the problem is you're putting all this phosphorous into Lake Okeechobee. When the lake rises the Army Corps will discharge it into the estuaries," DeSantis said. "The ultimate solution is a reservoir south of the lake where you can clean the water and send it south."

Putnam blamed the issue on failing septic tanks.

"The septic tank research came out of the University of Florida and Florida Atlantic University, and it said that the majority of the nutrient loading going into the Indian River Lagoon was coming from failed septic systems," he said. "There's no unicorn and rainbow pixie dust solution to this. It will require that we treat water resources like infrastructure."

Other key voter topics

Gun control and school safety have been a big talking point for voters after the Parkland school shooting. The candidates were asked if new legislation, which raised the legal age to purchase a firearm from 18 to 21 and created a ban on bump stocks, went far enough.

Both candidates agreed school safety is a top priority, but said so is protecting the second amendment.

They were also in agreement on recent state laws that have expanded the use of charter schools and other school “choice” programs.

In contrast to their Democratic rivals, DeSantis and Putnam were in agreement in opposing the expansion of Medicaid in Florida under the federal Affordable Care Act.

Republican voters will decide between DeSantis and Putnam in the Aug. 28 primary. The winner will face the Democratic nominee in the Nov. 6 general election.

Gov. Rick Scott, who is running for a U.S. Senate seat, is leaving office because of term limits.

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