Unwilling to attack each other this early in the 2018 campaign for Florida governor, the three Democrats running so far chose a different opponent Saturday: President Donald Trump.
“The biggest challenge we have facing the United States is without question Donald Trump,” said former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee. “And quite honestly, he’s the biggest challenge facing the world as well.”
“I agree 100 percent with her responses,” Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum said.
They had been asked about the biggest problems confronting the world, the nation and the state. Orlando entrepreneur Chris King offered the first answer, blaming the Republican president and Congress for trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act, pulling out of the Paris climate agreement and cracking down on U.S.-Cuba relations.
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“Trump’s taking us backwards again,” King said. “There’s a common theme.”
The first forum among the Democratic rivals since all three declared their candidacies offered few areas of disagreement. That was by design: “This is not a debate,” said the moderator, former state Rep. Keith Fitzgerald of Sarasota. “These questions are sort of general.”
Instead, each candidate tried to win over activists involved in Leadership Blue, the Florida Democratic Party’s largest annual fundraiser held at the Diplomat Beach Resort in Hollywood. The forum was put on by the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida, a fact not lost on the candidates, who attempted to cement their progressive bona fides.
That was especially true for Gillum, who has cast himself as the most left-leaning candidate in the field.
“The only way we win is not by shrinking from who we are, but by standing up for the values that make the Democratic Party,” he said. “We are the party that stands for you, and we’re going to stand up unapologetically.”
Neither Graham nor King made as overt a progressive pitch. Graham, whose moderate congressional voting record has drawn criticism from some Democrats, favored a state-sponsored public health-insurance option. But her chief electoral argument was altogether different: that she could win the state Trump won in November.
“I won, with your help, in a red year, a red Republican wave, in a red district,” she said of her 2014 election. “I did it by going all over 14 counties in North Florida, talking to everyone, connecting to everyone — bringing out the base in Tallahassee but, you know what? Doing well and better than any Democrat has done in North Florida in a very, very long time.”
King, who’s never run for office before, called his newcomer status a challenge but characterized his gubernatorial bid as one full of big ideas to boost Florida’s economy.
“Our state has become a back-of-the-pack state,” he said. “Every four years, the Democrats say pretty much the same thing: We say we need more jobs, we need higher wages. But what’s our vision?”
All three candidates backed expanding Medicaid, restoring felons’ voting rights and banning fracking. They pledged to raise the minimum wage and put money into public schools, accusing Republican Gov. Rick Scott and the GOP-controlled state Legislature of favoring privately managed charter schools with House Bill 7069, controversial legislation adopted this session that among other things makes it easier for charter schools to expand.
King and Gillum endorsed open Florida primaries. Graham preferred “jungle” primaries where the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, go to a runoff.
Only one potential Republican contender for governor was mentioned: House Speaker Richard Corcoran of Land O’Lakes, whom Gillum criticized in the context of HB 7069. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam is the lone Republican who has declared a candidacy so far, though Corcoran, Senate Budget Chief Jack Latvala of Clearwater and U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of Ponte Vedra Beach might jump in the race.
The Democratic field is likely also incomplete. Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, who has even floated the possibility of running without party affiliation, worked the Diplomat lobby Saturday evening, taking meetings in plain view of his likely rivals’ political consultants and volunteers. Miami-Dade County State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, who’s mulled a run of her own, attended the forum. Orlando trial attorney John Morgan, who bankrolled last year’s successful ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana, might also run.
The race is still so far off, however, that the candidates and the energized crowd that came to see them displayed little appetite for engaging already in what will inevitably become a hard-edged campaign. Democrats lost the Governor’s Mansion in 1998 and haven’t won it back since.
“I just want to say right here that I love you, Andrew. And I don’t know Chris as well, but I love you, too,” Graham proclaimed. “We need a whole lot more love in this world.”