Gwen Graham’s record front and center at first Democratic gubernatorial debate

“Gwen and the men” appeared on stage Wednesday in Tampa for the hour-long debate that was mostly polite with some minor gaffes.
The four Democratic nominees for governor met Wednesday in the first gubernatorial debate in Tampa. From left to right: Chris King, Gwen Graham, Philip Levine and Andrew Gillum. [WTVT-Ch. 13]
The four Democratic nominees for governor met Wednesday in the first gubernatorial debate in Tampa. From left to right: Chris King, Gwen Graham, Philip Levine and Andrew Gillum. [WTVT-Ch. 13]
Published April 18, 2018|Updated April 19, 2018

For stretches of Wednesday's Democratic gubernatorial primary debate in Tampa, it was Gwen vs. the men.

Four Democratic candidates presented their visions for Florida on education, health care, the environment, the economy and guns. But one candidate's record got more attention than any other.

Former Congresswoman Gwen Graham drew fire from all three of her primary opponents. Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum knocked her for a Congressional vote she cast in 2015 for a bill that would have temporarily halted Syrian refugees from entering the country.

Former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine drew a stark contrast to Graham's response to a question about publicly funded sports stadiums. And Orlando-area businessman Chris King criticized Graham for accepting donations from Florida's powerful sugar industry while in Congress.

"I seem to be the one. It's OK," Graham said after King's jab. "Gwen and the men."

The line drew laughs from some of the candidates, but it served as a reminder that no candidate has caught fire yet. Poll after poll shows that the majority of likely primary voters are undecided. And Graham, once thought to be the frontrunner, has repeatedly drawn flak from the field for her conservative congressional votes.

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The hour-long debate, the first one in Florida's 2018 gubernatorial race, never veered into unpleasant territory. There were a few noteworthy gaffes, but each of the four candidates focused almost exclusively on policy.

Levine, who has appeared at the top of some recent polls, had some of the catchier lines of the debate, but he was hardly precise, and at times inaccurate, in answering questions from WTVT-Ch. 13's moderator, Craig Patrick. When Patrick asked Levine how much money Florida spent on K-12 education this past year, Levine responded, "It's in the billions." (The state spent $21.6 billion.) When asked who the outgoing Florida House minority leader is, Levine said, "Kionne McGhee." (It's Janet Cruz.)

Graham held her own in the face of criticism from her opponents, but she struggled to explain some of her past positions. After Gillum criticized her for a vote on Syrian refugees, Graham offered a puzzling explanation for the vote.

"That vote was not a vote to deny access to the United States," Graham said. "It was a vote that would only have certified the process that was in place."

But the bill would have mandated FBI checks for all Syrian refugees — in effect putting a temporary freeze on new Syrian refugees. ("In light of new threats, we must strengthen our vetting process," Graham said at the time.)

Lesser-known candidates King and Gillum got ample opportunity to introduce themselves to the state.

King, a political newcomer, was particularly knowledgeable about a wide variety of issues. When he wasn't hitting Graham over contributions from Big Sugar, he was floating liberal policies like free community college.

"I am the candidate that is the outsider with new ideas and fresh vision," King said.

For his part, Gillum, arguably the most polished speaker of any candidate, re-upped his bold proposal to raise the corporate tax rate in Florida to pay for a variety of state programs. The son of a bus driver and a construction worker, Gillum spoke passionately about wanting to make the state's economy work for more Floridians.

At times, it seemed difficult to finds areas of disagreement between the candidates. All four bashed Republicans over the state's medical marijuana debacle, failure to expand Medicaid and gun laws.

But some differences did stand out. Levine supported an increase of the homestead property tax exemption, which the other candidates said took valuable tax dollars from local communities. Graham said she supported taxpayer-funded efforts to keep local sports teams from moving. No other candidate agreed.

Will those differences stand out enough for one candidate to capture the imagination of Florida voters? With months to go until the Aug. 28 primary, only Levine has a significant television advertising presence.

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