OLDSMAR — Ron DeSantis is fed up with all the questions about racists or racial controversies associated with his campaign.
"If I have a crowd of 500 people, how the hell am I supposed to know who's in the crowd?" the Republican gubernatorial candidate snapped Monday during a news conference intended to highlight his support from small businesses.
On Saturday he held a rally in Sarasota that drew members of an extremist, right-wing group called the Proud Boys — the latest in a string of racial incidents indirectly or directly involving his campaign or people connected to his campaign. Among the controversies generating unwelcome publicity and distractions for the former congressman and Donald Trump acolyte:
• The day after winning the GOP nomination Fox News rebuked DeSantis for saying Andrew Gillum, Florida's first black nominee for governor, would "monkey this up" by embracing a socialist agenda.
• A major donor to DeSantis, Steven Alembik of Boca Raton, earlier this month called Barack Obama a "F—- MUSLIM N—-" on Twitter. The Republican activist has contributed more than $20,000 to DeSantis over the years, but the campaign said it would not return the $4,000 Alembik gave for this race because it already spent it.
• DeSantis recently drew national attention and criticism for having attended David Horowitz Freedom Center conferences for the last several years, events that also drew controversial alt right figures such as Milo Yiannopoulos and Sebastian Gorka. Horowitz, a conservative writer, has said "the real race war" in America is against white people and that African-Americans should be grateful to white people for freeing the slaves and ending the slave trade.
• Days after the primary, Florida voters received racist robo calls — "Well, hello there. I is Andrew Gillum" — paid for by a neo-Nazi group in Idaho.
• Volusia County GOP Chairman Tony Ledbetter, a vocal DeSantis supporter paid by the campaign, drew criticism this summer for Facebook posts that called liberal billionaire George Soros a Nazi, that likened students protesting to support more gun control to Jews being led to the gas chambers, and referred to Muslims as animals who should be removed from America.
DeSantis has disavowed all the racial comments and activity.
Campaigning in Oldsmar on Monday, he accused the media of manufacturing the controversy while ignoring Gillum's associations with what he called anti-Semitic groups.
"This is what the media does. It's an attempt to create a narrative," he said, likening the media questions to a TV reporter in a storm falsely acting as if he's nearly being blown over.
"You do not look to do that with Democrats. You do not look to find the most radical person in the Democrat audience," he said. "I'd like you to start doing that because I can tell you it's not very difficult. I can find anti-Semites around him."
He cited two groups, the Council on American–Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim civil rights group, and Dream Defenders, a human rights group that has supported a boycott of Israel to protest the treatment of Palestinians.
Conservatives, including David Horowitz, frequently attack CAIR as soft on Islamic-backed terrorism. In 2008, CAIR was among nearly 250 groups and individuals named by the federal government as an "unindicted co-conspirator or joint venturer" in a case involving funding for Islamic militant groups, but the district court and a federal appeals court later ruled that it had been a mistake to make the list public, according to the Washington Post.
After watching a video of DeSantis' comments in Oldsmar, Gillum said "I saw Mr. DeSantis come apart."
"The heat of this campaign appears to be getting to him," Gillum said, "as he's being repeatedly asked to explain why so many people with such hateful sentiments are coming to his support."
Candidates in tough races regularly have to defend or denounce the actions of supporters or prominent donors, but the prevalence of racist comments on social media or extremist groups has become especially common lately.
"Without assigning blame, we know there are extreme elements, there are white nationalists, and there are racists who find refugee in today's Republican Party," said Republican former U.S. Rep. David Jolly of Pinellas County, a critic of Trump.
"In many ways Ron DeSantis is a reflection of today's Republican Party," Jolly said of the regular racial controversies popping up around the candidate.
The extreme right Proud Boys are a self-described "western chauvinists." Twitter recently suspended the accounts of several Proud Boy chapters for violating Twitter's policy "prohibiting violent extremist groups.
DeSantis scoffed that a question about Proud Boys' presence at his Sarasota rally, noting that during the Republican primary members of the group distributed "anti-Semitic literature about me because I'm a supporter of Israel."
DeSantis visited an Oldsmar manufacturing company, Performance Feeders, where he touted his tax-tax, low-regulation agenda and criticize Gillum's call for higher corporate taxes to better fund education. He said he strongly opposed raising the minimum wage and when asked about traffic problems said he intends to reveal his transportation plans soon.
Miami Herald Staff Writer David Smiley contributed to this story. Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow @adamsmithtimes.