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Democrats play nice during Monday night gubernatorial debate, but slam GOP

Instead of attacking each other, the four Democrats -- Andrew Gillum, Gwen Graham, Chris King and Philip Levine -- aim their fire at Republicans.
Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, left, speaks as, from left, Orlando businessman Chris King, Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham listen during a gubernatorial debate ahead of the Democratic primary for governor on Monday, June 11, 2018, in Miramar. Fla. Brynn Anderson AP/Pool
Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, left, speaks as, from left, Orlando businessman Chris King, Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham listen during a gubernatorial debate ahead of the Democratic primary for governor on Monday, June 11, 2018, in Miramar. Fla. Brynn Anderson AP/Pool
Published Jun. 12, 2018|Updated Jun. 12, 2018

Two nights after engaging in a battle royale, the Democrats running to become Florida's next governor reached a detente as they met again in Miramar Monday night.

Rather than bomb each other over their voting records and character, Andrew Gillum, Gwen Graham, Chris King and Philip Levine redirected their venom at the Republican party. Due at least in part to the rules set by the debate organizers, they gave a packed house two wonky hours of policy positions and arguments about why Democratic voters have to reject the party that's controlled Tallahassee for two decades.

"It's time we have a governor again in Tallahassee that cares for Floridians," said Graham, a former North Florida congresswoman. She said the election "is about the soul of this state, that for the last 20 years has been crushed by Republican rule in Tallahassee."

The four Democrats derided Gov. Rick Scott as a "denier of science," ripped the Legislature for raiding $2 billion from an affordable housing fund since 2001, and blasted President Donald Trump for the country's response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. In a debate held on the eve of the second anniversary of the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, they continued to call on Republican candidate Adam Putnam to resign after his office failed for months to review the results of federal background checks on concealed carry permit applications.

"In the private sector if you've done something as incompetent as Adam Putnam has done … you'd be fired," said Levine, who built several successful cruise line media companies before spending four years as Miami Beach mayor. "What he did is a travesty."

(Putnam responded with a statement Monday night, saying that "the Democrats have nothing to offer but tired ideas that have failed in states like California and New York.")

Each candidate flashed their platform, and shared some nuances from the field during the event, held at the Miramar Cultural Center and moderated by PBS NewsHour's Yamiche Alcindor and WLRN Public Media's Luis Hernandez. But they kept the sniping to a minimum, which the candidates later said was due to a rule against cross-talk.

Gillum, who began the night by reliving his childhood growing up poor in Richmond Heights the son of a bus driver and construction worker, continuously echoed back to a platform directed at raising the state's poor out of poverty. He noted that he's the only candidate pushing a Medicare-for-all platform, which he wants to place on the 2020 ballot, and proposed paying for teachers' college educations in state universities if they commit to four years of work in Florida.

Gillum also appeared to take a softer stance on sugar corporations as the other candidates eagerly made Big Sugar a foil, pointing out that tends of thousands of families rely on the industry for work.

"I don't want to put sugar out of business," he said in a post-debate interview while stressing that he isn't taking contributions from Big Sugar. "I want them to be a better business."

King, on the other hand, continued to cast Big Sugar as the enemy of the state, blaming sugar companies for interfering with a voter amendment to buy back Everglades land to restore the flow of freshwater from Lake Okeechobee south into Florida Bay. He touted that his company, Elevation Financial Group, pays a $15 minimum wage to its workers without being forced by state law, and afterward told reporters that his policy-heavy campaign has forced all the candidates to adopt serious, progressive platforms.

"Most of the debate tonight was on a whole group of issues I've been leading on," he said. "I've been talking about sugar for a year and all the candidates are coming around to the influence sugar plays."

Graham was perhaps the most forceful of the candidates Monday in steering the conversation back to Donald Trump and Rick Scott. She blamed the deaths of a dozen people in a Hollywood Hills assisted living facility after Hurricane Irma on "deregulation run amok," promised to use Florida Lottery money to finally boost education spending rather than supplementing it, and said Florida should start sweeping its concealed-carry trust fund rather than its housing fund to pad its budget.

"When I hear Rick Scott say 'jobs jobs jobs,' I hear 'yes, you're going to have to work three jobs just to get by,'" she said.

But when Graham mentioned she conducted one of her "work days" at a Puerto Rican-owned grocery store following a question about the thousands fleeing the island to Florida after Hurricane Maria, Levine came over top with his story about chartering a private flight of supplies to the islands just days after the storm. He continued to tout his record as Miami Beach mayor and said he'd push for inclusionary housing as governor.

Levine, who spent part of his childhood in Hollywood, also told stories about scooping ice cream at a Baskin-Robbins on Sheridan Street. And though the law he pushed to raise the minimum wage in Miami Beach has been held up in court by a lawsuit, Levine said he's confident the city will eventually put the law into motion.

"I believe we're going to win at the Florida Supreme Court," he said.

Jeff Greene, a Palm Beach real estate tycoon, did not participate in Monday's debate. A spokeswoman said Greene, who opened a campaign account on June 1, was told that he filed too late to participate.

The debate was organized by SEIU Florida State Council, Dream Defenders Action Fund, Florida Immigration Coalition (FLIC) Votes, New Florida Majority, Organize Florida, Florida Planned Parenthood PAC, and Color of Change PAC. It was the first for either party in South Florida.


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