A photograph of Republican state House candidate Anthony Sabatini in blackface made its way to media inboxes around the state, the week before voters decide whether to send him to Tallahassee.
The 30-year-old Howey-in-the-Hills Republican, running for House District 32, said the picture dates back to his sophomore year in high school, when he was 16 years old.
He confirmed the legitimacy of the photograph, but said no racial animus played a role in the costume choice.
“All that’s fake news,” he said.
Sabatini says he wouldn’t wear the costume today, but the subject of “blackface” has become a much larger conversation. NBC anchor Megyn Kelly just had her show canceled after she commented that when she was in school, costumes in blackface weren’t considered offensive.
Sabatini said the current outrage comes from liberal distortion: “The left sees the world through the lens of race,” he said. “This is from high school. It wasn’t even in the last 10 years.”
His wasn’t a Halloween costume, but an outfit Sabatini wore for “Celebrity Day” during Homecoming Week at Eustis High School.
Sabatini said he dressed as one of his closest friends, Brandon Evans, running back for the football team and point guard for the basketball team. In turn, Evans dressed as Sabatini.
“This was back when people weren’t as conscious about this sort of thing,” Sabatini said.
And in Lake County, circa 2005, that may well be true.
It’s not an unusual place to see Confederate flags in the back windshields of cars, either.
Evans confirms the two dressed as one another. In fact, the necklace Sabatini wears in the picture is one Evans wore regularly and loaned to Sabatini for the day.
But it’s not the clothes that grab attention today, but the darkening of skin.
Evans did not lighten his skin for the costume. He did wear a wig that replicated Sabatini’s swooshing and distinctly Caucasian hairstyle at the time.
Still, Evans says he never felt offense about Sabatini’s choice to blacken his skin.
“It never bothered me,” Evans said. “It still wouldn’t bother me.”
The two remain friends today. Evans says when the two attended a 10-year reunion a couple years ago, he spoke with Sabatini about some of his differing political views, but he knows Sabatini wouldn’t approach an issue from a place of hate.
A photograph was sent to Florida Politics earlier this week, claiming the picture came from Sabatini’s social media feed. But he says he didn’t post the picture on any of his social media.
Orlando Sentinel columnist Lauren Ritchie reported the newspaper had the picture for months. She opined about it today, Halloween, and less than a week before Election Day.
Sabatini in August won the Republican primary, and now faces Democrat Cynthia Brown.
The district leans heavily Republican: President Donald Trump won HD 32 with 56 percent of the vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton’s 41 percent.
Sabatini criticized Florida Politics for reporting on the story, saying the issue was akin to “Page Six” journalism, referring to the New York Post’s celebrity gossip page and website.
And he called the surfacing of the picture a political hit job.
“A left-wing whoever is trying to get somebody to run this to hurt my political chances,” he said. “It’s pathetic and sad.”