By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — With one candidate equating this year’s election to the Normandy battle and another proclaiming it “the most important election in Florida’s history,” five Democrats seeking to succeed Gov. Rick Scott briefly took off the gloves Thursday night in their last onstage matchup prior to the Aug. 28 primary.
The televised debate in Palm Beach Gardens featured a few fireworks, including a clash between former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and Palm Beach billionaire Jeff Greene, a latecomer to the Democratic race.
One of Greene’s first TV ads highlighted a confrontation between the Democratic candidate and president-elect Donald Trump at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort. Greene is a neighbor of the resort.
“Look, I am the only one who stood up against President Trump. The day before the election, I went on television and I was on CNBC and I said exactly what I felt. I would be scared to death to have Donald Trump as my president. And let me tell you something, it couldn’t be worse,” Greene said when asked how he would stand up to Trump while paying dues to the private club, of which he is a member.
But noting he had spent “a year-and-a-half of my life” supporting Hillary Clinton in her White House bid, Levine blasted Greene for showing support for Trump after the Republican was elected in 2016.
“My God, you went on and said he’s a great guy. … He literally mocked disabled people. He insulted every woman in America. Matter of fact, he did worse than that. He told John McCain he wasn’t a war hero. Told him he was a coward. Even worse than that, he accepted David Duke’s endorsement. I gotta tell you something. Seriously, that sounds more like you’re like Donald Trump, and I gotta tell you one Donald Trump is enough, Jeff,” Levine said early in the debate.
But Greene shot back, accusing Levine of giving campaign contributions to Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio. Greene also said his post-election support of Trump mirrored that of former President Barack Obama and Clinton.
Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who trails in the polls and in fundraising but who has garnered a slew of progressive and left-leaning endorsements, including that of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, boasted that he is “the only candidate on this stage who has actually called for an impeachment of Donald Trump.”
Former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham was asked whether she would welcome former President Bill Clinton on the campaign trail in the midst of the “Me Too” movement against sexual harassment and assault. The former president, who became mired in a sex scandal because of his relationship with a White House intern, supported Graham in her 2014 bid for Congress.
“As the only woman in this race, I am intimately aware with the Me Too movement. It is an imbalance of power. It is an indication where women sadly too often are at the disposal, so to speak, of the men that they work for … and it’s a lack of respect,” Graham said, adding that she is “uniquely able” to address the issue.
When pressed to answer the question, Graham said both Clintons “have served our country well.”
“When we are the general election nominee, we will be welcoming many people to Florida. And I look forward to considering people across the country who want to come down and campaign in Florida because this is the national race in 2018, and we’ve got to win Florida back for Democrats,” she said, drawing a rebuke from Levine, who did not miss the opportunity to praise the former president who continues to enjoy major support from Democrats.
“The Me Too thing is a terrible, horrible tragedy happening in our country, and we need to change the culture in Tallahassee,” Levine said. “But the one thing I can tell you, if one of the greatest presidents in American history wanted to come down and campaign for me, I would welcome him with open arms.”
Graham, who decided not to seek re-election in 2016 after her North Florida district was redrawn, was also asked about her support for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline during her single term in Congress.
Graham, who has led recent polls in the crowded Democratic race but who has been criticized by progressives for being too conservative, said she has answered questions about her vote “over and over and over again.”
“When you’re faced with making a tough decision, you weigh both sides of the issue,” she said Thursday, saying the “old pipeline” could have caused environmental problems.
The new pipeline reduced the impact of carbon emissions, she said, which benefited Florida.
“Wherever there’s an opportunity to decrease carbon emissions … you have to take it,” she said.
But Greene, punching back, said “this was not a difficult decision,” and went after Graham and her family for harming Florida’s environment by backing what will be the country’s biggest mall on the edge of the Everglades in Miami.
“Will it be a difficult decision for you when Donald Trump is trying to drill (for oil) off our coast?” Greene said, drawing a snide rejoinder from Graham.
“I welcome you to the Democratic campaign for governor,” she said, adding that she backed a measure that would ban oil drilling off the Florida coastline. “You’re right. I was in Congress. I did have to make tough decisions.”
The candidates all indicated they would support a repeal of the state’s first-in-the-nation “stand your ground” law, which allows people to use deadly force when they feel their lives are in danger.
“Well, I know a little about this subject matter in an intimate way as a black man but also a father to two black boys,” Gillum said, adding that “racial bias” is evident in a variety of ways in communities of color. “We need a governor who is understanding of the nuance of this community.”
Thursday’s debate came two days after Trump held a rally in Tampa, where he was joined by U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, a Republican running against Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam in the GOP primary for governor.
The 2018 election in Florida “is the most important election in the world,” Levine said.
“This is the Normandy for the Democratic Party in Florida. … We cannot fail that,” he said.
Graham called 2018 “the most important election in Florida’s history” and pointed out she is the only Democrat on the stage that has defeated an incumbent Republican.
“If you’re ready to end 20 years of Republican rule, I am ready to lead,” she said.
Winter Park businessman Chris King, the fifth candidate in the Democratic primary, predicted DeSantis would capture the GOP nomination.
“That should scare everyone in Florida,” King said. “He is competing to become Donald Trump’s apprentice.”