Governor hopefuls in 11th-hour race for votes

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Leaving the Sunshine State’s limited train system in the dust, Florida’s gubernatorial wannabes are hopping on planes, buses and automobiles as they crisscross the peninsula making last-ditch attempts to garner votes in advance of Tuesday’s primary elections.

Former Congresswoman Gwen Graham, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine all made whistle stops in Tallahassee this week as part of their plans to capture the Democratic nomination for governor in a crowded primary that also includes Palm Beach billionaire Jeff Greene and Winter Park entrepreneur Chris King.

Rhea Stevens, 46, was among about 30 supporters who waited outside the Leon County courthouse Thursday morning for Graham and her husband, Stephen Hurm, to cast ballots.

Stevens brought along her 16-year-old daughter to cheer on the candidate they hope will become Florida’s first female governor.

“Her spirit. Her personality. She’s sincere. Very caring. And she’s humble,” Stevens, who works as a domestic-violence counselor, said, when asked why she supports Graham. “She’s just real. And she’s a woman.”

Stevens, who is black, said her friends are split between Graham and Gillum, who would be the state’s first black governor if elected in November.

But, Stevens insisted, “It’s her time,” reiterating her endorsement of Graham.

More than 150 miles away, 34-year-old Sondra Fetner cast her ballot at the Murray Hill branch of the Jacksonville Public Library.

Fetner, who lives in the upscale Avondale neighborhood, said she had registered as a voter with no party affiliation until 2016, when she registered as a Republican so she could vote in a heated race for state attorney.

But the mother of two said she switched her registration again this year, signing up as a Democrat so she could weigh in on Tuesday’s gubernatorial primary.

“It’s a really important race,” Fetner told The News Service of Florida from the front seat of her SUV. “There was a really good line-up for the primaries. It was a tough one.”

Fetner wouldn’t disclose which candidate won her vote, but said the choice was between “two good candidates instead of picking between two candidates I didn’t really like,” referring to Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, the two Republicans duking it out to replace outgoing Gov. Rick Scott.

As the “establishment” candidate, Putnam had been considered a virtual shoo-in for the nomination --- until DeSantis bagged the backing of President Donald Trump. Now, most polls show DeSantis leading the two-term Cabinet member, who started his political career more than two decades ago in the Florida Legislature and also served in Congress.

Speaking to about 80 supporters Friday at a popular buffet-style restaurant, The Oaks, in Marianna, Putnam continued to press his case that, as a fifth-generation Floridian with roots in the cattle and citrus industries, he’s the best man to earn the GOP mantle for governor.

As proof, Putnam joked he’s the only candidate who knows how to properly pronounce Lafayette --- “Lah-FAY-ette” --- County.

Jackson County Commissioner Clint Pate said voters in the Panhandle community know Putnam because “he’s been here a bunch of times, he’s been around a long time and people feel he’s done a good job.”

Pate pointed out DeSantis “is getting a lot of coverage from Fox News.” Pate said his mother, like many other Republicans, is a fan of the conservative news network.

“My mother said, ‘I like that Ron DeSantis.’ When I pointed out that (DeSantis) is running against Adam, she said, ‘I don’t like him anymore,’ ” Pate told the News Service.

The candidates’ schedules in the final days leading up to the primaries would make even the heartiest Floridians wilt.

Putnam is headed to the GOP stronghold of The Villages on Saturday, followed by stops in Sanford and Temple Terrace before teaming up with Attorney General Pam Bondi for appearances in Jacksonville, Orlando and the Panhandle on Monday. He’ll wind up with an election-night party in Lakeland on Tuesday.

DeSantis is doing a six-city statewide blitz Monday, traveling to Jacksonville, Palm Harbor, Fort Myers, Miami, West Palm Beach and Daytona Beach, before heading to Orlando for an election-night gala.

Graham, who after voting Thursday headed south for a campaign event with singer Jimmy Buffett in Hollywood, spent Friday on a “workday” in Martin County alongside the Ocean Research and Conservation Association focused on the health effects of a toxic algae outbreak in the region.

“This race is going to determine Florida’s future,” Graham told a clutch of reporters after casting her ballot in her hometown Thursday morning.

On Saturday, she’ll do a workday at Se7en Bites Café in Orlando. The next morning, Graham will attend a service at an African-American church in Hillsborough County, followed by a work session at Open Café in Tampa.

On Monday, she’ll visit senior centers in Jacksonville. And on Tuesday, Graham will make appearances in Miami, West Palm Beach and Kissimmee, before finishing up the evening for her election-night party in downtown Orlando.

“There will be dancing,” she promised.

Meanwhile, Gillum started out Friday in Southwest Florida with stops in Bradenton, Sarasota, Cape Coral and Fort Myers before heading to meet with supporters in Immokalee and Belle Glade.

The mayor, who’s trailed in fundraising and in the polls but received a late financial boost from organizations linked to billionaire liberals George Soros and Tom Steyer, will continue a bus tour Saturday with a visit to seniors in West Palm Beach’s Century Village, and cap off the day at a “Miami Unidos por Gillum” event with Julian Castro, who served as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development under former President Barack Obama.

On Sunday, Gillum will attend church services in Broward County and make early voting stops in Miami-Dade County before heading home to Tallahassee, where he and his wife, R. Jai, will vote on Election Day.

In between knocking on doors across the state in a final push to net Democratic votes, Levine addressed supporters with a megaphone outside the downtown early voting site in Tallahassee this week. Recent polls have shown the former Miami Beach mayor in second place behind Graham in the Democratic contest.

“I walked into this race with no name, just Philip Levine. So I’m honored to be in the position we’re in,” said Levine, who spent Friday campaigning in Tampa, Jacksonville and Orlando.

The Orlando area’s vote-rich I-4 corridor --- the newfound home of many Puerto Rican émigrés who fled the island after Hurricane Maria --- will be a draw for candidates of both parties over the next few days.

King is headed for a “day of action” in Central Florida on Saturday and will visit churches in Orlando and the Tampa Bay area on Sunday.

Levine will spend much of the weekend drumming up support in Central Florida, making Orlando-area appearances with Sila María Calderón, a former governor of the hurricane-ravaged island.

Janet Ferris, a former Leon County circuit judge, said she’s enthusiastic about Levine, who made his fortune in the cruise industry before being elected mayor of Miami Beach in 2013.

“I think he will do something,” Ferris, who served as secretary of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation under the late Gov. Lawton Chiles, told the News Service.

Ferris said she sees the tenacious Levine, with experience as a leader in both business and government, as the candidate best suited to manage the Republican-dominated Florida Legislature.

“I think, now, politics is more of a knife fight. You have to really be willing to go toe-to-toe with the opposition. And if you haven’t been in those kind of situations, it’s really hard to envision how that turns out,” she said.


News Service of Florida staff writers Christine Sexton and Jim Turner contributed to this report.