With under three weeks to go in the Democratic race for Governor, former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham leads in most polls against her four opponents going into a televised Thursday forum in Jacksonville.
It was incumbent upon former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, West Palm Beach billionaire Jeff Greene, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, and Winter Park businessman Chris King to make their cases to voters in an hour-long town hall, counterprogrammed by the home opener of the Jacksonville Jaguars’ preseason.
The question going in: Could any of the four change the narrative of the campaign heading into in-person early voting with approximately nine minutes each of screen time, one that had seen Graham’s slow and steady campaign impervious to attacks from the rest of the field?
The answer: a hard no.
The discussion stayed in the policy vein. There was no need for moderator Kent Justice to quiet the crowd, a contrast to the pitched GOP debate in this theater the night before. And while educational for viewers, the narrative of the race didn’t change, with candidates focusing on attacking Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis, rather than each other.
Levine spoke in favor of cannabis legalization and against President Donald Trump. He described the “sanctuary cities” construct as a “Republican ploy to divide us.” And while he supports Enterprise Florida, he doesn’t back “bribing corporations to come [to Florida].”
Greene, who had lobbied vicious attacks on Graham regarding the “American Dream” mall development, had no opportunity to throw elbows in this forum, instead relegated to familiar, positive talking points, such as “Florida needs someone who can be a leader,” along with advocacy for expanded pre-K programs.
“We’re 38th in the country, we should be top 5,” Greene said regarding educational spending.
As was the case with Levine, Greene had no use for Trump (“a national embarrassment”) or paying companies to relocate to the state.
Graham was up next. She noted her past as a PTA mom; she was pressed on the relevance of that, and noted to scattered laughter that the job may have been her toughest ever.
When asked about experience as a chief executive, she noted she ran her household, in addition to spending a term in Congress.
Graham also noted that more money needs to be spent on education, with a “public option” for health insurance allowing for savings via expanding Medicaid.
Her “commitment to health care,” she said, was her biggest difference with the rest of the Democratic field.
It was up to the moderator to ask Graham about the American Dream mall hit.
“My family is not building a mall. Period. End of story,” Graham said, adding that she worked to avoid “an appearance of conflict.” If she could be accused of such a conflict as Governor, Graham said she would recuse herself — and challenged her opponents to make the same declaration.
Her moderate voting record in Congress came up also, with Graham noting she voted with Democrats over 80 percent of the time.
“We could elect robots to Congress and save a lot of money,” Graham said, if “straight party voting” was the desired outcome.
Gillum got his nine minutes next.
“I have been proud to lead this field over a whole range of issues,” including “Medicaid for all” and a “$1 billion program” to improve education and “pay teachers what they’re worth.”
Gillum’s support from Bernie Sanders, a “Democratic socialist,” was questioned.
“These labels are insignificant when it comes to everyday life of people in the state … I’m a Democrat and an individual who believes people have had a rough ride in this state … these labels are easy to throw on folks,” Gillum said, “but mean nothing.”
Gillum also described himself as “the most qualified candidate” in the race, given his tenure in Tallahassee, noting that “business experience” doesn’t equate to governing aptitude.
Gillum went on to invoke a Koch Brothers study that said Medicare for All would save the health care system money, saying that Medicaid expansion would be an immediate priority, were he to be elected.
“Being a cheap date hasn’t worked for Florida,” Gillum said when asked about a proposal to increase the corporate tax rate.
King was the closer. In single digits in most polls, he nonetheless represented his agenda and his candidacy with the grace he’d brought to the trail throughout this bid.