Heckles and dog whistles: Florida's battle for governor exposes bitter racial divide

Sabrina Siddiqui in Fort Myers
Andrew Gillum said: ‘I would conclude that the president is in some ways complicit in the deteriorated rhetoric that is leading people to resort to political violence.’ Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

It was an immediate viral moment.

Andrew Gillum, a Democrat seeking to become the first black governor in Florida’s history, turned to his Republican opponent, Ron DeSantis, with a blistering critique amid an unusually contentious debate.

“I’m not calling Mr DeSantis a racist,” Gillum declared. “I’m simply saying the racists believe he’s a racist.”

Probably a defining moment in the race to be Florida’s governor, the exchange epitomized the sharp and increasingly personal tone that has engulfed American politics under Donald Trump.

Florida, one of the country’s largest battlegrounds, ranks among the most competitive and closely watched contests.

On one side is Gillum, the mayor of the state capital, Tallahassee, who mounted an improbable bid to become the first Democrat in 24 years to be elected to Florida’s highest office. He has campaigned on a decidedly progressive agenda that includes raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and a Medicare-for-All, single-payer-style healthcare system.

DeSantis, by contrast, is a former navy prosecutor and ex-congressman who rose to prominence as a Trump acolyte. He favors cutting taxes for business and appointing conservatives to the state supreme court, and has labeled his opponent a “socialist”.

But the policy differences have largely been overshadowed by the persistence of racial politics, culminating in one of the most dramatic buildups to the 6 November election.

Tensions were further enflamed in recent weeks after a series of packages containing explosive devices were sent to several top Democrats and Trump critics. The suspect, Cesar Sayoc, was a resident of Florida. Days later, 11 people were killed at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.

The events all but ensured that the final days going into the midterm elections would be defined not by local issues, but a hyper-partisan battle for the country’s identity.

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As political violence continued to dominate the news, the crowd awaiting Gillum outside the African American Research Library in Fort Lauderdale was almost in a trance.

Gathered in the building’s parking lot, the roughly 200 people who had braved south Florida’s sweltering heat rocked back and forth to the soothing sounds of We Are the World, the famous 1985 charity song intended to emphasize global unity.

But the atmosphere was short-lived as Eric Holder, the attorney general under Barack Obama, took the stage. He had barely uttered a few words when a heckler, clutching a megaphone, asked: “Why won’t you condemn mob violence?”

Holder, who was among those mailed a pipe bomb last week, retorted: “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Why don’t you cut out the fake outrage, my man?”

Another heckler raised his voice. Within minutes, a minor scuffle broke out in the crowd – forcing the swift intervention of police officers. Urging the crowd to channel their emotions into action at the ballot box, Gillum told attendees to “vote like your lives depend on it”.

Florida voters for Gillum at a rally in Orlando earlier this week. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

If elected, Gillum vowed to expand Medicaid, raise salaries for teachers, enact stricter gun laws and combat climate change. But the moment, as Gillum described it, was about much more than his own prospects.

“I am eager to send a message to the president of the United States,” Gillum said, “that his kind of politics, that his brand of politics, his brand of hatred, his brand of division, his brand of attempting to turn Americans against Americans, citizen against citizen, humanity against humanity, has come to an end in the state of Florida.”

Trump carried Florida in 2016 by a 1.6% margin over Hillary Clinton. The state, which had elected Obama twice before, is often referred to by Trump as his second home. The president often spends weekends at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach.

Although he condemned the pipe bombs, Trump was also defensive. He blamed the media for perpetuating anger and chafed at the notion that his own rhetoric might have been a factor.

Sayoc, the suspect, frequently tweeted about Gillum. Gillum said Trump and DeSantis bore some responsibility for using “extremely charged rhetoric … that hit at a deep emotion for their supporters”.

“Those same supporters then begin to take license from that to then take it to another extreme,” Gillum told the Guardian. “Now, did Donald Trump put the gun in the hand of somebody? No.

“But did he help to sow seeds of discord, did he help to give cover for that kind of thinking, under the shelter of his words? Then, yes, I would conclude that the president is in some ways complicit in the deteriorated rhetoric that is leading people to resort to political violence.”

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With his wife, Casey, at his side, DeSantis warmed the crowd with an anecdote about being a father to young children. One particular morning was so chaotic, he noted, that he failed to notice when brushing his teeth that his daughter, Madison, had replaced the toothpaste with diaper rash cream.

The crowd packed inside Leroy’s Southern Kitchen, a downtown restaurant in the red-leaning city of Punta Gorda, laughed heartily. But the conversation soon took a more ominous tone.

“We have a generational opportunity with this election to protect the rule of law,” DeSantis warned.

“Law enforcement looks at Andrew Gillum, and they don’t see someone they can work with. They see an enemy.”

“They see someone who is hostile to their mission and hostile to their purpose,” he added.

DeSantis, who rolled out several endorsements from police unions, has sought to make Gillum’s relationship with law enforcement a focal point in the closing days of the election.

DeSantis in his televised debate with Gillum in October. Photograph: POOL/Reuters

It appeared an unmistakable attempt to talk about police brutality – a conversation that has stemmed from several high-profile killings of unarmed black men. Gillum has said he favors “police accountability” and believes officers must restore trust in the communities they serve.

The mood grew somber inside Leroy’s. Attendees quietly nodded as DeSantis suggested Gillum would usher in “the most radical anti-police elements” inside the governor’s office.

DeSantis decried Gillum as favoring the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice), a law enforcement arm of the Department of Homeland Security. (Gillum wants Ice to be “abolished in its current form” and replaced with “a more compassionate and focused” agency.)

“How is that keeping our communities safe?” an incredulous DeSantis asked the crowd, comprising mostly older white men and women.

Pledging to lower taxes, DeSantis dismissed Gillum’s campaign platform as “free this, free that”.

Jonathan Hughes, a 19-year-old student at South Florida State College, said he was supporting DeSantis because he believed Gillum’s “rhetoric toward toward our law enforcement is very worrisome”.

Hughes also took issue with Gillum having received campaign funds from liberal mega-donor George Soros, who has been at the center of right-wing conspiracy theories and was a target of last week’s suspicious packages.

“Gillum’s close relationship with George Soros concerns me a lot,” said Hughes. “He’s doing a lot that is anti-American and he’s trying to further a goal of globalism.”

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DeSantis’s ascent to the Republican nomination in August, much like Trump’s in 2016, was the result of an insurgent campaign that defied the wishes of the party establishment. He defeated Adam Putnam, Florida’s incumbent commissioner of agriculture, long regarded as the successor to the outgoing Republican governor, Rick Scott.

A regular on Fox News, DeSantis positioned himself as a close ally of the president’s and has repeatedly attacked Robert Mueller’s credibility. DeSantis garnered Trump’s endorsement in the primary despite the White House’s insistence that Trump would not get involved in the Florida governor’s race.

DeSantis wasted little time fashioning himself in Trump’s image, running a television ad in which he encouraged his two-year-old to “build the wall” with her toy blocks. In the same spot, DeSantis read Trump’s book, The Art of the Deal, and attempted to teach his infant daughter how to talk by saying “Make America Great Again”.

In the Democratic primary, Gillum pulled off his own stunning victory over Gwen Graham, a north Florida congresswoman who had been comfortably ahead in the polls. In doing so, Gillum became the first African American major-party candidate for governor in Florida’s history.

The contrast became apparent: a progressive, Bernie-Sanders backed Democrat against a Republican torchbearer for the Trumpian brand of politics.

But the dust had barely settled when the topic of race swiftly reared its head.

On Fox News the day after the primary, DeSantis urged Floridians not to “monkey this up” by voting for his opponent. His remark was derided as a dog whistle. DeSantis refused to apologize, insisting he meant no racial intent, even as Fox News distanced itself from the remarks.

Gillum said the language was nothing short of coded and, in fact, a tactical move by DeSantis to appeal to a certain faction.

As both candidates looked to refocus attention on policy, it became clear the controversy had only just begun.

Days later, a white supremacist group released a robocall referring to Gillum as a “negro” and a “monkey”. The same group released a second robocall last week, featuring a man claiming to be Gillum, stating in a caricature of a black dialect: “I is the negro Andrew Gillum, and I be asking you to make me governor of this here state of Florida.”

DeSantis’s campaign denounced the ads, but Gillum said the rhetoric had emboldened such voices and condemned the Republican for holding ties to neo-Nazis. As evidence, Gillum has cited DeSantis’s refusal to return funds from a donor who referred to Barack Obama as a “Muslim n—” and his appearance at a conference with a host of alt-right figures, including the former White House chief strategist Steven Bannon.

Gego Payne, a resident of Fort Lauderdale who voted early for Gillum, said the racial politics were impossible for black voters to ignore.

“He comes out racist right off the bat, calling [Gillum] a monkey,” Payne, a retired construction worker, said of DeSantis. “What it said is that he and Trump are the same person.”

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The president was greeted by a sea of red in south-west Florida, where more than 7,000 supporters donning Make America Great Again caps and pro-Trump shirts packed the Hertz Arena after queueing for hours under the beaming sun.

Stumping on behalf of DeSantis and others in Fort Myers, a Republican stronghold, Trump hit all the usual notes. He spoke mostly of his own success and how the media had treated him unfairly, and sounded the alarm over a group of migrants fleeing poverty and violence in Honduras and bound for the US-Mexico border.

“We’re getting prepared for the caravan, folks, you don’t have to worry about that,” Trump told the crowd. “A vote for Democrats is a vote to liquidate America’s borders.”

As he took the stage midway through the president’s rally, DeSantis didn’t hesitate to relish in the potential Trump effect.

“Is south-west Florida Trump country or what?” he yelled.

As DeSantis railed against Gillum, chants of “Lock him up!” reverberated – echoing the “lock her up” cries long a staple of Trump rallies in reference to Hillary Clinton.

Trump shakes DeSantis warmly by the hand. Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

DeSantis and his allies have pounced on a federal inquiry into Tallahassee’s city government and drawn attention to a ticket Gillum received in 2016 to see the Broadway musical Hamilton from a group that included an undercover FBI agent.

There is no evidence Gillum is being personally investigated and he has not been charged with a crime.

Trump nonetheless escalated the matter two days before his arrival in Florida, stating on Twitter that Gillum was a “thief”.

“In Florida there is a choice between a Harvard/Yale educated man named RonDeSantis who has been a great Congressman and will be a great Governor – and a Dem who is a thief and who is Mayor of poorly run Tallahassee, said to be one of the most corrupt cities in the Country!” Trump tweeted.

The White House could not substantiate the president’s characterization of Gillum, who often opens up on the campaign trail about his humble beginnings, and how he was the first in his family to graduate high school and attend college.

Gillum told the Guardian the comments were another example of the president failing to show restraint.

“I think the president should grow up,” he said. “These kinds of attacks are baseless, but mostly unfortunate, because I think this is the kind of stuff that gives rise to people.

“I think the president should demonstrate much more maturity and restraint.”

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Polling has shown a tight race in Florida, with Gillum marginally ahead, according to some averages.

His fate will probably be determined by whether he can corral a coalition of minority and progressive voters, although that has not stopped him from seeking support in Republican-leaning counties.

DeSantis, by contrast, told the Guardian he believed Trump had the power to persuade “tens of thousands of people to go to the polls who may not otherwise have been willing to do it”.

In the final stretch, he has kept little distance between himself and Trump – throwing his support behind the president’s call to end birthright citizenship.

But while hugging Trump helped propel DeSantis to become a contender for the governor’s office, it’s unclear how Trump will factor on Tuesday.

“DeSantis has been snake-bitten from the minute he did that Trump ad. That made it a base-only contest,” said Rick Wilson, a Republican operative in Florida and the author of Everything Trump Touches Dies.

“If you’re a Donald Trump guy, you probably like DeSantis just fine. But that’s only 35% in Florida, and last time I checked you have to get to 51.”