By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — In the midst of a firestorm about a reported lapse in background screenings for concealed-weapons licenses, four of the five top Democratic candidates vying to replace Republican Gov. Rick Scott squared off in a debate Saturday night.
Former Congresswoman Gwen Graham, former Miami Beach mayor Philip Levine, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and Orlando-area entrepreneur Chris King answered questions about a laundry list of policy issues on which the Democrats seemed to agree.
But attacks came more than midway through the hour-long debate, with Gillum lashing out at Levine’s record as mayor, King blasting Graham for a congressional vote that could have affected Syrian refugees, and Graham demanding that Gillum explain his support for a coal-fired power plant.
At the same time, Graham repeatedly scolded her opponents for the “negative narrative,” stressing the Democrats needed to unify if they want to take back the governor’s mansion after being shut out for nearly two decades.
“This election is too important. We have got to elect a Democrat in 2018,” said Graham, the daughter of Bob Graham, who served as Florida governor and U.S. senator. “We’ve got to end the chaos. We’ve got to end the negativity. We’ve got to end the attacks and start talking about what we are doing for the people of Florida.”
The evening began with a question from 11-year-old Taylor Harris, who asked the candidates about guns, already a flashpoint for Democrats following the February massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that left 14 students and three faculty members dead.
“What are you planning to do to keep me safe … from gun violence and school shootings?” the seventh-grader asked. “I want to be safe and not scared at school.”
Levine, who has made a ban on “assault” rifles and stricter background checks a cornerstone of his campaign, boasted that Miami Beach passed an ordinance outlawing assault-style weapons when he was mayor.
Gillum, who also endorses a ban on assault-style guns, bragged that he “took on the NRA and the gun lobby” twice in court, and won.
“It breaks my heart that this has to be a question that an 11-year-old would have to ask,” Gillum said. “No parent should fear that their kid will come home in a body bag.”
King, a self-professed progressive, has also proposed doing away with assault-style guns as well as imposing a tax on bullets.
Graham used the question to play up her gender, saying Florida law “allows the governor, whoever she may be,” to sign an executive order banning assault weapons, something she intends to do if elected.
Graham entered the ring Saturday boosted by this week’s backing from the Florida Education Association teachers union and former U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy. Murphy had floated the possibility of a bipartisan run for governor with another former congressional colleague, Republican David Jolly, before announcing Thursday he was throwing his support behind Graham.
But King repeatedly went after Graham, who served in Congress for two years before leaving after her North Florida district was redrawn, for a 2015 vote on the American Security Against Foreign Enemies, or SAFE, Act that would have made it more difficult for Syrian refugees to enter the U.S.
According to PolitiFact, the act — which died after the Senate refused to pass it — would have imposed an additional burden on “the processing of certain refugees that would have slowed the process, likely resulting in at least a pause in admissions.”
Graham said the act “was purely to certify the process that is already in place” and would have been better, had it passed, than the current immigration policies being carried out by President Donald Trump’s administration.
“That’s simply not true,” King said of Graham’s explanation, adding that then-President Barack Obama opposed the proposal.
“You were not there during the discussions,” Graham shot back.
King persisted, however.
“She was there, but it didn’t matter. Look, the most important job for a governor is to stand up for people who can’t stand up for themselves,” he said.
Gillum then joined in, saying no one was more informed on the issue than Obama, who opposed the legislation.
“We need leaders that will not just be thermometers but will set the temperature,” he said.
Gillum continued his attack on Graham for “voting against Obama 52 percent of the time” during her tenure in Congress.
Tampa Bay Times Political Editor Adam Smith, one of three moderators, put Levine on the spot about a contribution to Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio. Smith noted that the audience at the debate, which took place at a Pinellas Park high school, was populated with progressives.
Levine, who was a supporter of Hillary Clinton, said he’s given “upwards of $1 million to Democrats,” and “spent over a year-and-a-half of my life trying to elect the first female president of the United States.”
Levine then rattled off a list of items he said he accomplished during his tenure as mayor, including a hike in the minimum wage, decriminalization of marijuana, addressing climate change and sea-level rise and banning assault rifles.
“I’m not going to separate people. I’m going to bring people together,” he said, drawing a rebuke from Gillum.
“Marco Rubio is anti-immigrant. … He is a bad Republican. He was undeserving of any Democrats’ support whatsoever,” said Gillum, who also accused Levine of overstating his achievements.
King then jumped in, accusing Levine of bullying reporters and blocking critics on Twitter.
“Boy it’s sure fun to be the front-runner,” a laughing Levine said, drawing jeers from the crowd. “I stand on my record.”
Graham — who scored a memorable line in the candidates’ first debate, when she said it was “Gwen and the men” — used the sniping to emulate a Democratic icon.
“What Michelle Obama said: ‘When they go low, I’m always going to choose to go high,’ ” she said.
But that prompted another reprimand from King, who pointed out that Republican gubernatorial candidates — Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis — are “not going to be playing softball.”
Gillum was also on the defensive after Smith asked him about an ongoing FBI investigation of Tallahassee City Hall. Smith asked Gillum about a recent report by the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper that Gillum went on a “lavish trip” to Costa Rica with lobbyists and paid $1,400 in cash for his luxury hotel room.
Gillum said he has “zero tolerance for corruption” and that the investigation did not involve him.
“I have been elected for 15 years by doing right, not by doing wrong,” Gillum said. “Judge me by my actions, judge me by my deeds.”
Graham also demanded that Gillum explain his repeated votes in favor of a coal-fired plant in North Florida. Gillum said the coal plant never got built, “thanks to my colleagues and me, who ultimately opposed it.”
Saturday’s debate did not include billionaire Jeff Greene, who jumped into the race this week. Greene declined to attend the event or another debate slated for Monday evening in Margate.
The debates come as Democrats demand that Putnam resign from his post and drop out of the governor’s race, something none of the candidates addressed on stage Saturday night.
The focus on Putnam followed a report that a former Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services worker failed for more than a year to conduct national background checks on applications for concealed-weapons licenses.
An Office of Inspector General report from June 2017 — obtained by the Tampa Bay Times in a public records request — said that between February 2016 and March 2017, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services didn’t access an FBI crime database called the National Instant Criminal Background Check System because an employee was unable to log into the system.
Democrats jumped on the report, and the outcry over the lapse prompted Putnam to hold a press conference to defend himself against what he called “misleading headlines,” hours before the Democrats’ debate kicked off Saturday night.
“The headlines and the stories that say that there were no background checks for a year is inaccurate and misleading,” Putnam said following a campaign event in Sun City.
The former employee failed to follow through on 365 applications that were tagged by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement as having information that could make them ineligible for concealed-weapons licenses. Putnam said 291 of those licenses were later revoked. None of the recipients of the wrongly issued licenses would have been able to purchase a gun, Putnam maintained.
Around the same time as Putnam went on the defense, DeSantis blasted his opponent while campaigning in the Panhandle.
“Adam has spent years campaigning for governor, basically, in this position and the report was very concerning because it seemed like he wasn’t minding the store when we needed him to be there,” DeSantis told reporters after a Pensacola event.
But Putnam, a veteran politician who made national headlines last year when he referred to himself as a “proud NRA sellout,” said he asked for the inspector general investigation and that his office has subsequently added “new safeguards to prevent this from happening in the future.
“This is a serious issue. Make no mistake about it. But it has been misleadingly reported that 350,000 people did not have background checks. That could not be more wrong,” Putnam said.