The Florida governor's race took another sharp twist on Wednesday when Democrat Andrew Gillum said of his opponent, Republican Ron DeSantis, during a debate that "racists believe he's racist."
Gillum, who would be the state's first black governor if elected, made the comment while discussing DeSantis' decision to speak at conferences hosted by David Horowitz, an anti-Muslim conservative political activist.
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"My grandmother used to say, 'A hit dog will holler,' and it hollered through this room," Gillum said after DeSantis loudly rejected any common cause with Horowitz.
"First of all, he's got neo-Nazis helping him out in this state," he continued, referring to a white supremacist group that is running racist robo-calls against Gillum in the state (DeSantis' campaign has disavowed the calls).
"Now, I'm not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist, I'm simply saying the racists believe he's a racist," Gillum said.
When debate moderator Todd McDermott brought up Horowitz to DeSantis in the previous question, the former Republican congressman interrupted him -- no question was ever posed aloud -- to suggest he was unaware of the provocateur's racist past.
"How the hell am I supposed to know every single statement someone makes?" DeSantis said, before pivoting to an attack on the press, declaring, "I am not going to bow down to the altar of media correctness."
Race has been a defining issue of the campaign since the very beginning of the general election, when DeSantis went on Fox News to warn Florida voters not to "monkey this up" and back Gillum. He has denied the remark was a reference to Gillum's race. Recent polling shows Gillum with a double digit lead over the former Republican congressman, despite the shadows cast by a probe into potential public corruption in Tallahassee, where he serves as mayor.
DeSantis had started off the debate by accusing Gillum of lying about the source of a high-priced theater ticket given to him by an undercover FBI agent back in 2016, a point of contention within the broader scope of a federal corruption investigation that has dogged Gillum, despite his insistence that the FBI told him he was not a target.
Gillum said again on Wednesday that his brother, Marcus Gillum, gave him the ticket but also acknowledged what had become clear earlier in the week, when former Florida lobbyist and longtime friend Adam Corey turned over about 150 pages of text messages and emails under subpoena from the state ethics commission.
"I was aware that Adam Corey and (an agent known as) Mike Miller arranged so that we could go and see the show. I arrived at the theater and received my ticket from my brother," Gillum said. "The problem that I have is that I should have asked more questions to make sure that everything that had transpired was above board."
Gillum pushed back in part by challenging DeSantis to release records detailing the more than $145,000 in taxpayer funds the Republican reportedly spent on travel during his time in the House. And in an email statement, the Florida Democratic Party, citing the Naples Daily News, called DeSantis's decision to withhold the information "a stunning failure to be transparent with Floridians -- that's made even worse by the fact that that some of the travel was used to fund two trips to New York City to appear on Fox New and boost his public profile."
Like he did during the pair's first meeting on CNN Sunday night, Gillum also sought to turn the issue around on DeSantis by pointing to what he described as Republicans' shoddy treatment of the FBI on Capitol Hill.
As for his own dealings, Gillum said he understood that his brother gave Corey and Miller tickets to see Jay-Z and Beyonce, which he believed "solved whatever the issue was with regard to the expenses associated with it."
The Tallahassee mayor took responsibility for "not having asked more questions" about the exchange, but then tried to downplay the issue in the context of the race: "I'm running for governor and the state of Florida, we got a lot of issues," he said. "In fact, we got 99 issues and Hamilton ain't one of them."
DeSantis argued that Gillum's explanations didn't make sense -- and suggested the corruption probe was hitting closer to home than Gillum cared to admit.
"Think about what he wants you to believe," DeSantis said. "He wants you to believe that he is not under investigation. Why would an undercover FBI agent posing as a contractor give him a thousand dollar ticket to Hamilton?"
The Republican former congressman also recalled Gillum's remarks from a few nights earlier.
"He was asked a question by me, 'Did you pay for it?' He was indignant. He said I'm a grown man, I pay for my stuff," DeSantis said. "He lied the other day. The text messages show he knew it came from Mike Miller, who he didn't know was an undercover FBI agent at the time. But now we know that."
The text messages between Corey and Gillum, released after being subpoenaed by the state ethics commission, are the latest development in connection with a federal investigation into public corruption in Tallahassee.
In a message from August 8, 2016 -- only made public this week -- Corey texts Gillum saying, "Mike Miller and the crew have tickets for us for Hamilton tonight at 8pm," then asks if Gillum can join them and notes: "I think your brother has already arrived by the way."
Gillum's campaign pushed back on Tuesday against any implication that he had misled the public, saying that his brother, the previously named source of the ticket, was part of the "crew" cited in the text.
"These records vindicate and add more evidence that at every turn I was paying my own way or was with my family, for all trips, including picking up tickets from my brother, Marcus, who was with a group of his own friends," Gillum said in a statement released by the campaign.