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Democratic Candidates Go On The Offensive In Second Gubernatorial Debate

Roberto Roldan
WUSF Public Media
Compared to the first televised debate back in April, Saturday's debate was more of a brawl than a discussion.

Democratic candidates for governor sparred over the big issues in Florida politics at the second televised debate Saturday night at Pinellas Park High School.

Compared to the first debate back in April, Saturday's event was more of a brawl than a discussion. Candidates spent much of the debate going after each other's records on everything from an ongoing FBI investigation to Syrian refugees.

One of the most contentious moments came when former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine was attacked from all sides over his $2,400 political donation to Republican Senator Marco Rubio.

Levine threw up his hands and quipped, "Boy, it's sure fun to be the frontrunner," to loud boos from the crowd.

The event was sponsored by a number of organizations including Women’s March Florida, Fired Up Pinellas and Indivisible FL 13. Adam Smith of the Tampa Bay Times, Spectrum News 13 anchor Tammie Fields and Spectrum Bay News 9 anchor Holly Gregory moderated the debate.

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and former U.S. Congresswoman Gwen Graham were also magnets for attacks from fellow candidates.

Gillum was asked if he thought he was too much of a controversial candidate to run in the general election given an FBI corruption investigation into Tallahassee politicians and reports that he went to Costa Rica with a lobbyist. Gillum responded that some people "would like to criminalize every relationship" that he has.

“I have a zero tolerance for corruption,” Gillum said. “I have been elected for 15 years by doing right, not by doing wrong.”

Opponents hammered Graham on her voting record, particularly her 2015 vote in favor of the SAFE Act, which would have added an additional layer of screening for refugees. The bill was opposed by then-President Barack Obama.

Orlando businessman Chris King and Gillum argued it was one of many examples of Graham breaking from the Democratic Party during her time in Congress. King also argued the bill would have made it more difficult for Syrian refugees to come to America.

“I am the granddaughter of a Syrian-Lebanese refugee,” Graham responded. “It was not a ban on Syrian refugees, it was purely to certify the process that was already in place. I would argue that we would be in a better place if that piece of legislation had passed, than what we have with Donald J. Trump.”

A student from Thurgood Marshall Middle School in St. Petersburg asked candidates what they would do to ensure schools are safe. Both Graham and Levine unveiled new policy proposals on the issue.

Graham pledged to ban assault weapons sales using a little-known state law.

"I have found a public safety statute that allows the governor, whoever she may be, to sign an executive order for public safety reasons banning that sale of military-style assault weapons," Graham said.

Levine said he wants to create a new state department specifically concerned with school safety.

"What I propose to do is create an Education Security Administration, an ESA," he said. "You know when you got to the airport you have a TSA? We're going to be getting an ESA in the state of Florida and we are going to make our schools safe."

Asked about institutional racism and whether it was a threat to democracy, Gillum highlighted his opposition to Florida's "Stand Your Ground" laws, using the shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman as an example.

“Because of 'Stand Your Ground' laws, which have no place in civilized society, (Zimmerman) was able to engage (Martin), snuff out his life, and get away with it," Gillum said.

He added that, as governor, he would be willing to root out bad police officers involved in racially-motivated shootings.

In the last question of the debate, candidates were asked to name something they think Trump has gotten right.

While many of the candidates refused to say something positive about the Republican's policies or campaigning, King said it was important for Democrats in 2018 to campaign on economic issues like Trump did.

"He tapped in to the anxiety across this state for so many people who have not seen the Democratic Party talking about pocket book issues," King said. "The Democrats, to win, have to have an economic vision."

Palm Beach billionaire Jeff Greene, who filed to run as a Democratic candidate for governor on June 1, was invited to the debate, but refused to attend.

Saturday's event was one of four Democratic gubernatorial debates scheduled for the summer. Others will be held in Miramar, Fort Meyers and Miami.

Roberto Roldan is a senior at the University of South Florida pursuing a degree in mass communications and a minor in international studies.