Flanked by four armed security guards dressed in black suits, an uninvited and little-known independent candidate for Florida's U.S. Senate seat unsuccessfully attempted to enter Monday night's debate between Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Patrick Murphy.
Bruce Nathan, a 55-year-old Palm City physical therapist who is running as a no-party-affiliation candidate, tried to force his way into the private event at the University of Central Florida before it began at 7 p.m., clashing with university police officers in the process.
Only Murphy and Rubio were invited to participate in the live, televised debate because they were the only two candidates who met the threshold in recent polls to qualify — much to the ire of Nathan and the four other independent and third-party candidates on the ballot.
Nathan and his private security detail were ultimately kicked off UCF property after being detained for several minutes when they were resistant to leave and when officers realized Nathan's guards were armed. (State law prohibits firearms on university campuses except under very specific circumstances.)
"I went in there looking like I did and acting as I was because I felt there was a need for me to be there," Nathan told the Herald/Times Tuesday.
Nathan said he didn't know his security detail was armed at the time but argued "everything was legal" because he said his guards had a "special license that they carry, same as deputies" that "allows them to carry any firearms with them anywhere in the state of Florida."
UCF police spokeswoman Courtney Gilmartin on Monday night said Nathan's "security was armed, which is a violation of Florida state statute that prevents guns on college campuses unless they are securely locked inside a vehicle." She initially didn't identify Nathan by name, calling him only a "third-party candidate."
However, in a follow-up statement Tuesday evening, Gilmartin said the officers on scene "misinterpreted" the state law. She said UCF police spoke with Florida's Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services — which regulates state gun licenses — and learned the security guards' licenses meant they "were within their rights to be armed."
"Despite the misinterpretation of the statute, police acted appropriately and lawfully, successfully deescalating a heated incident and allowing the debate to move forward with no further issue," Gilmartin said. No one was hurt, and the debate went on uninterrupted.
Gilmartin also initially said Monday "four men" were involved, but an incident report released Tuesday evening by UCF police listed five men: Nathan and four private security guards. It described the incident as "armed trespass" and said the guards were "armed with handguns and several magazines of ammunition." One wore a bulletproof vest.
"The individuals were detained, searched and questioned, and it was determined that they intended to cause no harm and posed no danger to the University of Central Florida campus," the report stated. "All the individuals were issued trespass warnings for the duration of the event and left campus with no further issue."
Nathan's campaign broadcast the entirety of the incident on Facebook Live. ("I didn't know what I was going to come up against so I wanted to have video with me," Nathan said.) The video had about 5,800 views as of Tuesday evening.
The 18-minute video shows Nathan dressed in a military uniform and carrying an American flag. Nathan said he was in the U.S. Army Reserves from 2001 to 2010.
According to the video:
As Nathan and his entourage arrived at UCF's Fairwinds Alumni Center — the debate venue — he found the doors locked because the live debate was poised to start. He told a woman inside that he was "one of the candidates" and should be allowed in.
When a man who identified himself as a member of the camera crew was let in to the building, a UCF police officer told Nathan and his guards, "Sorry, guys, private event." But Nathan then tried to push his way in through the open door, proclaiming again how he was a U.S. Senate candidate.
The officer shoved him backward and Nathan's security detail attempted to intervene, yelling at the officer: "You don't have to push him." In a brief shouting match, the officer told them to leave and threatened to arrest them ("last warning or you're going to jail!") and Nathan's guards yelled back that "he is the candidate!"
"You have no business being on a college campus armed, so leave now," another officer told Nathan's guards.
When Nathan and his guards were slow to depart, another officer stopped them and said, "at this point, leaving is off the table." The officer continued: "We want to identify you right now," because the guards were carrying firearms "in violation of the law."
"I guess I'm not going to get on the stage with Marco Rubio and Patrick Murphy, but it's not for lack of trying," Nathan said to his cameraman operating the live stream, while he and the guards were detained for several minutes. "It's a true shame that democracy has come to this: Pushed out by Republicans and Democrats and their police."
Nathan told the Times/Herald that he is a conservative who supports Donald Trump for president. He said he's running for U.S. Senate because of his six children, saying "I can't have them grow up in a country that's headed in such a wrong direction."
Earlier Monday, no-party-affiliation candidate Tony Khoury, a Miami businessman, had threatened to crash the debate, saying in a statement that he would "attempt to attend" the debate to make his point of why he and the other independent and third-party candidates ought to be included. Khoury was not with Nathan during the incident.
Contact Kristen M. Clark at [email protected] Follow @ByKristenMClark.