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Democrats play nicer in Freedom Forum debate

Four leading Democratic candidates actively running for Governor stopped taking shots at each other Monday night, instead saving their punches for Republican leadership, mainly on how they spend money from the Florida Lottery, affordable housing fund and land conservation fund.

During the third 2018 Democratic gubernatorial debate, a two-hour forum Monday at the Miramar Cultural Center, Philip Levine, Gwen Graham, Andrew Gillum, and Chris King showed mostly unity as they went over the familiar ground on guns, affordable housing, marijuana legalization, education, the environment, and criminal justice reform.

They also got chances to discuss other topics — abortion, senior care, union support, and sanctuary cities — again, mostly in agreement (at least in broad terms, if not in details) of their plans.

For example, they all pledged to veto laws that would limit abortion; each supports a woman’s right to choose. In perhaps the only moment of light comedy, King described how his daughter had inspired him to declare, “Girl Power!”

Graham lifted her arms and bowed, saying: “I agree on the ‘girl power!'”

There were a few exceptions on the unity. Graham is the one candidate not committing to seeking legalization of marijuana. Levine opposes corporate tax hikes. King made it clear that he believes environmental improvements can only be addressed after eliminating the sugar industry’s influence.

The debate also was nearly entirely free of the explicit attacks launched back and forth in the first two, taking on Graham for her congressional record, Levine for his past political support, or Gillum for troubles in Tallahassee.

Gillum tried once early on, reminding the audience, without being specific, that someone on stage gave money to a Republican who sought to cut Planned Parenthood. Chris King declared it wasn’t him, and he and Gillum shared a bromance handshake. But Levine — they were talking about Levine — shook it off, decking a rebuttal, at that moment redirecting the debate away from Democrat-on-Democrat attacks. Each candidate was allowed only two rebuttals, but that turned out to be more than they needed over two hours and dozens of questions.

Perhaps the most swarming came as several questions led the quartet to discuss, and mostly agree upon, what to do with the Florida Forever Fund, intended for the purchase of conservation lands; The Sadowski Trust Fund, dedicated to promoting the development of affordable housing; and the Florida Lottery, which was set up to support public schools.

Each of the candidates pledged to end the transfers — Democrats call them raids — of money from those funds to other budgetary needs.

“In business, we call that embezzlement,” Levine said.

“To me, this is the issue that most inspired me to run for governor,” said King, whose companies build affordable housing.

“We ought to have citizens to get their own lawsuits to sue the state of Florida for not living up to its promise,” Gillum said. “That money was determined for this express purpose.”

There were no new policy announcements, and the candidates tried again to define themselves with themes.

King, the entrepreneur, declared all of his ideas to be big and bold. Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, pushed again the notion that he intends to represent the people who’ve not had a voice in Tallahassee. Levine reminded people repeatedly that he is the candidate who had taken on progressive changes, as mayor of Miami Beach.

Graham, the former congresswoman who more often defines herself as a one-time PTA mom, attempted a more soulful message.

“The soul of our country is under attack by Donald Trump. The soul of our state has been crushed by 20 years of one-party Republican rule in Tallahassee,” Graham said. “I am running to make sure that the soul of Florida is restored to the people of Florida.”

The four also took the chance to reiterate the anger they each had expressed Friday at the news that one of the leading Republicans running for Governor, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, had overseen a concealed weapons program that failed for more than a year to use a key federal database to do background checks on applicants. Putnam blamed a clerk: after discovering her practice, he said they rechecked all the appropriate permits.

The issue did not come up during the second debate, just two nights ago in Pinellas Park.

On Monday the four Democrats were not only unswayed by Putnam’s explanations, but they also accused him, variously, of a list of transgressions: throwing the clerk under the bus, not following the law, or bragging about how easy he had made it for people to obtain concealed weapons permits.

“Adam Putnam should resign, should resign immediately,” Graham stated flatly, renewing the call she first made Friday afternoon. “What happened in the state of Florida was under his watch. And so he is responsible for all the concealed weapons permits that were issued under his watch.”

Written By

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at scott@floridapolitics.com.

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