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How racist robocalls and an FBI inquiry are shaking up the Florida governor’s race

Andrew Gillum versus Ron DeSantis is one of 2018’s most important campaigns.

Andrew Gillum, the Democratic candidate for Florida governor, at a campaign rally on August 31, 2018, in Orlando, Florida.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

With racist robocalls and an FBI investigation into corruption in the state’s capital, the Florida governor’s race to lead America’s most unpredictable swing state has become one of the most dramatic campaigns in the 2018 midterms.

Andrew Gillum, the Democrat, is the first black candidate for governor in Florida history, and he got the endorsement of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) during his primary campaign. He has also been the mayor of Tallahassee for the past few years, and an FBI investigation into corruption in the state capital has already raised some uncomfortable questions for Gillum, about a Broadway staging of Hamilton, a trip to Costa Rica, and a former college friend.

Ron DeSantis, the Republican, has tried to seem as pro-Trump as possible, building the president’s wall with his daughter in a campaign ad and calling President Donald Trump directly to ask for his endorsement. But DeSantis has already been forced to disavow the president’s conspiracy theory about the hurricane death toll in Puerto Rico, and white nationalists have sent out multiple racist robocalls to Florida voters attacking Gillum.

Florida is a state of 21 million people and political contrasts: Trump won the state by a single point in 2016, and most in-state politicos believe this year’s governor and Senate races could be just as close.

The influx of Puerto Ricans after Hurricane Maria and a national anti-Trump environment could be a boon for Democrats — so could the fact that Gillum is an energetic black progressive — but the Sunshine State has stayed stubbornly favorable toward Trump, a sentiment DeSantis clearly wants to tap into.

The racist attacks on Democrat Andrew Gillum, explained

Gillum is the first black major-party gubernatorial candidate in Florida’s history, and his shocking win in the Democratic primary was in large part thanks to the enthusiasm of black voters, who make up a solid third of the Democratic base in the state.

Then the same week Gillum won the Democratic nomination and made history, Florida voters started receiving calls featuring racist imitations of Gillum and apparently funded by a neo-Nazi group based in Idaho.

The Tallahassee Democrat had the story:

The automated calls are narrated by someone pretending to be Gillum and using an exaggerated minstrel dialect with jungle noises in the background. The calls end with a disclaimer that they were funded by The Road to Power, an anti-Semitic, white supremacist website and podcast linked to Scott Rhodes of Sandpoint, Idaho.

Terry Kant-Rauch, a Tallahassee realtor, received one of the robocalls this morning in the voice mail of her cell phone. Kant-Rauch, a Democrat who happens to have a biracial daughter, became emotional after hearing it, she said.

“Campaign on the merits,” she said, “not on the color of his skin.”

The DeSantis campaign called the white supremacist attacks on his black opponent “appalling and disgusting.” But that wasn’t the end of it. In late October, another racist robocall — which begins with a Gillum imposter saying “I is the negro Andrew Gillum” — reportedly started reaching Florida voters.

Further complicating matters for DeSantis — who has happily embraced a president who called black countries “shitholes” and ducked responsibility for the deaths of American citizens in Puerto Rico — is that he seems to have a habit of associating with racists himself.

Days after winning his primary, DeSantis made what were perceived as racially coded remarks, warning voters not to “monkey up” the election. But even if you found that interpretation of DeSantis’s comments ungenerous, other reports showed less ambiguity.

According to the Washington Post, DeSantis attended conferences hosted by a man with white nationalist beliefs, and the Miami Herald discovered that DeSantis had listed an ex-state lawmaker who was once caught on tape using the n-word as a co-chair for one of the GOP candidate’s upcoming fundraisers. DeSantis’s campaign later said the former official was removed from the event after vetting.

This fall, DeSantis was forced to put some distance between himself and his beloved president after Trump bizarrely and falsely claimed the death toll in Puerto Rico attributed to Hurricane Maria had been artificially inflated by Democrats to attack him.

DeSantis, running for governor in a state where 135,000 Puerto Ricans moved after Maria, said in a statement that he “doesn’t believe any loss of life has been inflated.”

But the racial overtones in a campaign between a historic black Democratic nominee and a Trump-loving Republican have become unavoidable. Florida, where elections can swing by a point or two, is 17 percent black and 26 percent Hispanic.

There’s an FBI inquiry hanging over the Gillum campaign

Gillum’s energy and his embrace of a progressive policy platform have been winds at the candidate’s back. Polling has shown him holding a consistent advantage over DeSantis in a hypothetical November match-up.

There is one sizable asterisk for Gillum’s candidacy, though: an FBI investigation into corruption in the city where he has spent the past four years as mayor.

The alleged corruption is a labyrinthine scheme that involves the Tallahassee community development agency and some people close to Gillum. The mayor himself has not been publicly implicated, but the probe uncovered unusual stories, like Gillum taking trips to Costa Rica with his lobbyist friends and the mayor possibly attending a Broadway show of Hamilton with his brother and an undercover FBI officer.

It’s a rather sensational tale, which has kept the investigation in the news, especially once Gillum won the gubernatorial nomination. From the Tampa Bay Times:

The story of the FBI investigation long preceded Gillum’s decision in early 2017 to run for governor. According to the Tallahassee Democrat, agents came to town as early as 2015, acting as businessmen looking at investments in the city. Under the pseudonyms Mike Sweets, Mike Miller and Brian Butler, they interacted for months with local officials and their partners, including longtime Gillum friend and lobbyist Adam Corey.

According to documents requested by the investigation and made public by the city, the part of the sprawling probe that’s likely most relevant to Gillum has focused on Corey, a college friend who also briefly served as volunteer treasurer of Gillum’s mayoral run in 2014, and development deals involving the city’s community redevelopment agency.

Adam Corey, a lobbyist and Gillum’s friend, allegedly sought to exploit his position to secure multi-million redevelopment contracts and otherwise work on behalf of the undercover FBI agents, who were posing as developers. Two particular issues have attracted special scrutiny: The city development agency’s votes on a $2.1 million restaurant project and to expand the agency’s jurisdiction at the secretive behest of the “developers.”

Gillum told the Tallahassee Democrat he felt “betrayed” by Corey’s actions and severed all ties with him. The mayor has said the FBI has assured him that he’s not the target of the inquiry, and he said he would agree to cooperate however possible.

Some eyebrow-raising details related to Gillum himself have emerged over the course of the investigation. For example, in 2016, the mayor and Corey appear to have taken a boat ride with undercover agents in New York City and appear to have also attended Hamilton and a New York Mets baseball game with them.

Gillum released receipts from the New York trip as a show of transparency; he said his brother had obtained the Hamilton tickets from Corey, though the latter denied this. In late October, Corey released texts that seemed to show Gillum knew that the Broadway tickets came from the FBI agent who was posing a business developer, seeming to contradict the Gillum campaign’s earlier statements, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

The Democratic gubernatorial candidate also went on vacation in Costa Rica with Corey and other lobbyists in a trip that attracted press scrutiny.

Again, there is no actual accusation of wrongdoing against Gillum. But former FBI agents have told local reporters that the inquiry is likely to drag out beyond the November election.

Why Florida’s 2018 elections are so important

Trump won Florida by 100,000 votes in 2016. The state remains divided on the president: Morning Consult reported in September that 49 percent of Floridians approved of Trump and 47 percent disapproved. (He’s faring a little better in the Sunshine State than in the Midwestern swing states.) Democratic and Republican operatives in Florida believe November’s statewide races will be determined by just a few points.

A lot of campaign time and money is going to be spent in Florida. Besides the race between DeSantis and Gillum, the Senate race between Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Republican Gov. Rick Scott will likely be the most expensive in the country and could be decisive in the fight for control of Congress.

DeSantis’s shameless courting of Trump and the president’s affinity for the state where his Mar-a-Lago residence sits likely means some campaign stops are in Trump’s future.

Gillum has already received the support of Democrats with strong national profiles, like Sanders. And being a young, fresh face in a large state is always a sure way to get people speculating about your future political ambitions. He is campaigning on single-payer health care, increasing the minimum wage, and hiking Florida’s corporate tax rate.

With two charisma-free candidates in the Senate race, the gubernatorial contest could end up receiving more attention. Democrats in the state know Gillum will have to battle attacks about the FBI probe and the Tallahassee crime rate for the rest of the campaign. DeSantis, meanwhile, has already seen the dangers of having friends like Trump and white nationalists.

The Florida governor race will be one of 2018’s most closely watched, with items like redistricting and Medicaid expansion on the state agenda and as a test run before the 2020 elections. As usual, the state is keeping things interesting.

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