Gillum and DeSantis exchange opening blows in Florida governor race


Democratic nominee defends leftwing policies and calls for Trump-endorsed opponent to ‘rise above’ racist attacks

Andrew Gillum “wants to turn Florida into Venezuela”, his Republican opponent claimed on Sunday, before the Democratic nominee for governor in Florida faced insistent talkshow questioning about his leftwing policies.

Gillum also called on Ron DeSantis to “rise above” racist attacks on his nomination, the first of an African American for governor in Florida, and said the Republican should be “careful” in his own remarks.

DeSantis, a 39-year-old US representative, was a surprise winner of the Republican primary, thanks in large part to Trump’s support. Previewing the tone of many midterm contests featuring progressive Democrats, he told New York radio host John Catsimatidis: “This Andrew Gillum, he’s on the far-left socialist fringe. He’s a Bernie Sanders, [Alexandria] Ocasio-Cortez type candidate.”

Gillum, the 39-year-old mayor of Tallahassee, was the surprise winner of the Democratic nominating contest. He is endorsed by Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. Ocasio-Cortez, a young leftwinger from New York, won a primary in June and will run for election in November.

Trump greeted Gillum’s win with a tweet, saying “a failed socialist mayor … who has allowed crime & many other problems to flourish in his city … is not what Florida wants or needs!”

Speaking to Catsimatidis, DeSantis duly highlighted Gillum’s support for leftwing priorities such as “Medicare for all” and abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice). The mayor has also promised to suspend the death penalty and has a low rating from the National Rifle Association.

“I would say it’s very untraditional for Florida,” DeSantis said, adding that he was “a solid conservative in the Reagan tradition and I’ve been supportive of the president’s agenda”.

“If you have a guy like this enacting a socialist agenda it’s going to absolutely destroy all the progress that Florida has made. He wants to turn Florida into Venezuela.”

Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum speaks to supporters as his wife R Jai Gillum listens during a Democratic party rally on 31 August. Photograph: John Raoux/AP

Venezuela has subsided into chaos under a repressive leftwing government. Trump reportedly asked advisers last year why the US could not invade and replace the regime of President Nicolás Maduro.

Appearing later on CNN’s State of the Union, Gillum was repeatedly asked if he would raise taxes to pay for his policies, particularly Medicare for all.

“I will absolutely not raise taxes on everyday working Floridians,” he said, after first repeatedly promising to secure federal funds and work with other states. He would raise taxes on corporations that have benefited from Republican tax cuts, he said, adding: “Being a cheap date state has not worked for the state of Florida.”

Gillum also defended his record on crime in Tallahassee and said he wanted to reform Ice, rather than abolish it, as part of opposition to Trump policies he said were “wholly unAmerican”.

In his interview, DeSantis was not asked about a controversial comment this week, in which he told Fox News: “The last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda with huge tax increases and bankrupting the state.”

After the Republican was accused of using “dog whistle” racist tactics, Gillum told MSNBC he thought DeSantis had “decided to pull a page from the Trump campaign playbook” and should “apologise to Florida voters”.

DeSantis told Fox he would not apologise, “because I didn’t say anything about race”.

On Sunday, Gillum was asked about a white supremacist robocall that went out in opposition to his nomination.

“I do find it deeply regrettable,” he said. “On the day right after I secured the Democratic nomination, we had to deal with some of the dog whistles directly from my opponent.”

DeSantis condemned the robocall.

“We can have a challenge between ideas and around what we think the people of the state of Florida deserve,” Gillum continued. “What I don’t want this race to turn into is a race of name-calling.

“I want to make sure that we don’t racialise, and frankly weaponise, race as a part of this process, which is why I’ve called on my opponent to really work to rise above some of these things. People are taking their cues from him and from Donald Trump.”

Appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press, Gillum said DeSantis “must be careful about his language”.

“I have not called him a racist”, he said. “What I have said is that his rhetoric, in my opinion, has to be toned down.”

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