Far from the storm-ravaged Panhandle, the DeSantis and Gillum campaigns re-engage

Lies. Socialism. Hypocrisy. Anti-Semitism: It’s all on the table in the southern reaches of the state as the campaign for governor enters its final weeks.
Gillum (left) and DeSantis (right).
Gillum (left) and DeSantis (right).
Published Oct. 15, 2018

In Miami, about as far removed as you can get from the unofficial no-politicking zone in the hurricane-ravaged Panhandle without leaving Florida, the campaigns of Ron DeSantis and Andrew Gillum are back in the trenches.

Lies. Socialism. Hypocrisy. Anti-Semitism: It's all on the table in the southern reaches of the state as the campaign for governor enters its final weeks.

Following a stump hiatus called as the state weathered Hurricane Michael, DeSantis has begun to reapply pressure to Gillum during campaign stops in South Florida. Late last week, Broward sheriff's deputies endorsed the former Republican congressman in Plantation while blasting Gillum for accepting support from a social justice group that believes police have no place in society. On Sunday, DeSantis returned to his criticisms of Gillum as anti-Israel at a Broward County synagogue. And on Monday, it was back to talk of socialism with Hispanic voters.

Appearing in West Miami with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, DeSantis and running mate Jeanette Nuñez once again described Gillum as far-left and "corrupt."

A crowd of about 250 supporters mostly spoke Spanish and greeted DeSantis with signs that read "Cubanos" and "Colombianos por DeSantis Nuñez." Using County Commissioner Rebeca Sosa as a translator, DeSantis rolled out his standard South Florida stump speech and identified himself as a leader fighting for freedom across Latin America. He denounced socialism in Nicaragua and Venezuela, and touted his work to bring an indictment to Cuban dictator Raul Castro for his crimes.

"Socialism won't work here in Florida," he said.

Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, was off the campaign trail and in his city Monday, where he says he'll remain through Wednesday in order to help with storm recovery and attend a gathering of the city commission. Gillum canceled a Tuesday CNN debate over the weekend, further reducing face-to-face conflict between the two candidates and leaving the sparring to press releases and media quotes.

But unwilling to let DeSantis' claims stand, Democratic surrogates launched a counter-attack at West Miami City Hall on Monday, where they tacked "hypocrisy" onto pre-existing charges that DeSantis is lying about Gillum's record. Citing a report by Diario Las Americas, supporters like Liz Alarcón, organizer of Venezuelans for Gillum, noted that DeSantis' political committee accepted $75,000 in August from Sunshine Gasoline Distributors, which carries Citgo gasoline – produced by a company owned by the Venezuelan government of Nicolás Maduro.

"They come to Miami, lie and exploit the suffering of people who have fled socialist dictatorships," Gillum spokeswoman Johanna Cervone tweeted in Spanish. "But yes, they happily accept dirty money from Venezuela. A total hypocrisy."

Asked if Sunshine Gasoline Distributors donated to his campaign, DeSantis said, "It may have," and added "but that's an American company." Asked if he plans to acquiesce to Democratic demands that he return the donations, DeSantis didn't answer.

It's hard to say if that Democratic counter-punch – offered up after weeks of condemnation from Hispanics surrogates in Miami pushing back on the socialism characterization – will stick. Just this year, former Republican state Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla tried to use Sunshine owner Max Alvarez and his Citgo links as a boogeyman in a special election for county commission. Diaz de la Portilla failed to make the second round in that campaign, but the subject of his attacks – the Cuban-American wife of the county commissioner who had last held the seat – was later upset by a long-shot, non-Hispanic candidate.

Nelson Diaz, who represents Alvarez in Tallahassee and serves as the chairman of the Miami-Dade Republican Party, called the assertion of hypocrisy over Venezuela "absurd." He says Alvarez moved to sever his ties with Citgo after Hugo Chavez became president, and no longer owns or operates any Citgo stations. Sunshine Gasoline Distributors lists Citgo on its website as a brand carried by the company, but Diaz says Alvarez does little business with the company.

Alvarez is also a long-time Republican donor, and appeared with President Donald Trump in Hialeah this year for a "small business" roundtable broadcast around the country.

"The Democrats have caught onto something just to counter the Socialism thing," said Diaz. "The reason Max contributes so much to Republicans is because he is so against socialism and the values that Democrats now espouse. In the Congress, no one has been more anti-socialist or anti-Maduro than Ron DeSantis."

The crossfire in West Miami Monday is sure to spread north again, as the campaigns try to resume regular operations during the final three weeks of the campaign. Chris King, Gillum's running mate, was in Tampa Monday criticizing DeSantis' health care record.

Gillum said he'll be back on the trail Thursday. And both candidates are enlisting the party's heavy hitters, with Hillary Clinton coming to South Florida this month and Rubio talking up DeSantis Monday – and talking down Gillum.