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FL-Gov: In CNN debate, Gillum and DeSantis spar over climate change, health care, and Trump

Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum (right) speaks as Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis looks on during a CNN debate Sunday in Tampa, Florida. (Chris O'Meara-Pool/Getty Images)

In a televised debate on Sunday night, Florida gubernatorial candidates Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum (D) and Rep. Ron DeSantis (R) sparred over a number of issues, including their positions on climate change, health care, and their views of President Donald Trump.

CNN anchor Jake Tapper moderated the debate. This was the first debate between these two candidates, who met for the first time only minutes before the debate started.

Race relations

Tapper asked DeSantis why he had not returned a donation from GOP activist Steven M. Alembik ,who had tweeted that former-President Barack Obama was a “F---- MUSLIM N----.” DeSantis had denounced Alembik's comments, but had kept his donation.

Tapper also brought up DeSantis's comments about how Florida voters should not “monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda” when they vote. Gillum and his supporters had denounced this comment as racist, while DeSantis has insisted that it was just a saying and had no racial connotations.

DeSantis told Tapper that he kept the money because Alembik “made a mistake, [and] he apologized.”

DeSantis also broadly defended himself on race issues, citing his military service.

“When you're downrange in Iraq, it didn't matter your race," he said. "We all wore the same uniform, we all had that American flag patch on our arm, and that was end of story. You look at me as a prosecutor for law enforcement. It didn't matter the race of the victim, we were there to support the race of the victim. So Floridians can know that I'll be a governor for all Floridians.”

Gillum responded by quipping, “He has only continued in the course of his campaign to draw all the attention he can to the color of my skin. And the truth is, I've been black all of my life. So far as I know, I will die black. But this is the point: The only color that the people of the state of Florida care about is the blue green algae flowing out of the east and the west side of this state, and they deserve a governor who is going to protect this environment after 20 years of environmental protec — degradation.”

Relationship with Israel

DeSantis responded to his opponent's accusations of racism by criticizing Gillum for signing a pro-gun control pledge with the Dream Defenders. That group has called for boycotting, divesting from, and sanctioning the nation of Israel which it refers to as a “continued settler colonial project.” Gillum said he had “no idea” what DeSantis was referring to. While the pledge Gillum signed did not mention Israel, a spokesman for his campaign had previously stated that Gillum did not agree with the Dream Defenders when it came to Israel.

Gillum, in turn, slammed DeSantis for moderating a "xenophobic, racist Facebook page.” While DeSantis did not deny that the page itself was racist, he said that he had been made a moderator for the page without his knowledge.

Both candidates insisted that if they were elected, they would have a good relationship with Israel.

Climate change

Tapper brought up how DeSantis has insisted that he's neither a believer nor a denier when it comes to climate change. DeSantis responded that he wasn't an "alarmist" on climate change.

"I want to look at this and do what makes sense for Florida," DeSantis said. "For example, for the people of northwest Florida: I will be there for you. You guys are resilient, you're fighting, this was a terrible storm, and we will rebuild.”

DeSantis also said that he wanted to address an increase in flooding in South Florida, without doing a “California-style energy policy” which he accused Gillum of promoting. He argued that such a policy would “cause energy rates to skyrocket,” hurting senior citizens.

Answering a follow-up question, Gillum said he would hold the “biggest corporate polluters” accountable, but did not go into detail about what exactly this might entail.


Health care

DeSantis accused Gillum of being for single-payer health care, arguing that a lot of people would lose their health care under Gillum's plan. Gillum said DeSantis would take away health care from pre-existing conditions. Both accusations have been repeated by these candidates while on the campaign trial, and each firmly denies the accusations against them.

Accusations of corruption

DeSantis questioned Gillum about an ongoing FBI probe into the government of Tallahassee, which occurred while he was mayor of the city. DeSantis specifically demanded to know who paid for a ticket to see the Broadway musical "Hamilton." Gillum had unwittingly attended the play with an undercover FBI agent.

Gillum said that his personal friend lobbyist Adam Corey had given him the ticket. “We all have friends that sometimes let us down,” he said, referring to Corey.

Gillum has also repeatedly insisted that he was not the focus of the corruption probe, and that he himself is entirely innocent of any wrongdoing. In September, he released documentation that he said proved his innocence. However, this documentation failed to include the "Hamilton" tickets.


President Donald Trump

DeSantis criticized Gillum for saying that hoped Trump would be impeached, arguing that “you've gotta be able to work with the administration” in order to work with the federal government to solve problems in Florida.

As governors, neither of the candidates would have a say in whether or not a sitting president could be impeached, but being outspokenly for or against impeachment could impact a working relationship with Trump.

Gillum called DeSantis a Trump “stooge.”

“Donald Trump is weak,” he said. “And he performs as all weak people do: they become bullies and Mr. DeSantis is his acolyte. He's trying out to be the Trump apprentice at every turn. He's tweeting at him and he's talking to him. He's showing up. He's complimenting him.”

Coincidentally, after the debate ended, Trump tweeted his support for DeSantis, saying that he “had a great debate victory” and arguing that Gillum “will make Florida the next Venezuela.”


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