As the five dominant Democrats running for Governor shared a debate stage in Fort Myers, discharges from Lake Okeechobee rose to the top of a list of progressive causes discussed.
The debate participants universally promised to fight Big Sugar and find solutions to the closely watched environmental issue.
“If you don’t have the political courage to stand up to the industry that has had a vice grip on environmental politics in the state of Florida for 20 years, paying off politicians all throughout the state of Florida, you are now willing to hold this office,” said Orlando businessman Chris King.
All the candidates promised not to take sugar money. King zinged former Rep. Gwen Graham for accepting money in the past, but she noted that one had all gone to help the Indian River Lagoon.
“I am proud sugar money is being used to clean up the mess they created,” Graham said.
Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum said stopping Big Sugar influence would involve more than environmental regulation. He said fixing problems around Lake Okeechobee also offered the chance to help redefine the economy of communities that now rely on the industry.
“We need to put the interests of everyday people first,” he said. Gillum noted areas around Lake Okeechobee, many communities of color, will need new economic drivers, a problem that cannot be solved within the “elite towers of liberalism,” and that the next Governor will need to take a New Deal approach to job growth.
Quality of life and education issues also loomed large in the debate. Standing at a podium next to billionaire Jeff Greene on the debate stage for the first time, former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine stressed his public and private sector success while taking a thinly veiled shot at his primary opponent.
“Don’t elect someone just from the private sector who was never tested in the public sector,” Levine stressed.
Greene, though, said his financial success would allow him to help Democratic candidates all the way down the ballot, including in Senate and House races, to be elected. And he said his background made him the best candidate to stand up to President Donald Trump.
“I’ve been fighting with Donald Trump as long as I’ve known him,” Greene said.
Green also promised to put an end to state funding of charter schools, suggesting it’s the lobbying and political influence of professionals in the industry who led to a sudden interest in Tallahassee in expanding charter options.
As for working with the president? Gillum, while calling Trump “uniquely unqualified” for his office, said he’d work with him on high-speed rail. Graham said she’d push for a Medicaid expansion in Florida — and accept the funding.
A message pushed repeatedly was ending the Democrats’ losing streak. Graham frequently talked of the 20 years of Republican rule in Florida, noting she had won a Panhandle congressional seat during a red wave year in 2014.
King reminded people the last time a Democrat won the governor’s mansion was his freshman year in high school.
Levine promised to deliver results in both the election and in the job, noting past success passing a living wage rule in Miami Beach before Gov. Rick Scott put a stop to it.
Gillum appealed to history, noting that the Aug. 28 primary this year will occur on the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” and the day Barack Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for president.
Moderating the debate were WINK News anchors Chris Cifatte and Lois Thome; it was at Florida Gulf Coast University.