Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis squared off against Democrat and former U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist tonight in the first and only debate. The stakes were high, with just two weeks left before Election Day.
The debate aired at 7 p.m. on West Palm Beach’s WPEC-Channel 12 from the Sunrise Theatre in Fort Pierce.
Liz Quirantes of CBS12 News was the debate moderator.
Quirantes notes that both Crist and DeSantis have said that Nikolas Cruz should have gotten the death penalty for murdering 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018. She asks if they would change the law that removes the requirement for a unanimous jury in capital cases.
Crist does not answer. “This is one thing we actually agreed on,” he says. “It’s a tough thing sometimes. But whatever it takes to make sure that we can enforce those laws that say there are consequences to your actions.”
DeSantis says he “will ask the Florida Legislature to amend that statute so that one juror doesn’t have veto power over appropriate punishment.”
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In closing comments, Crist begins.
“I want to bring this state back together and not have a divider as governor. I want women to have the right to choose and make their own decisions about your body. I want to make Florida more affordable again. When I was governor, I lowered your property insurance. When I was governor, I lowered your property taxes. When I was governor, I made sure that we have affordable economy even in a recession.
“He’s raised all these things. He’s also raised your taxes. He won’t even tell you that he’ll serve four years if you reelect him. I mean come on, you deserve better than that. Florida deserves better than that.”
DeSantis highlights his record on education, improvements to the Everglades and lifting lockdown restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have accomplished an awful lot over these four years. We have the largest budget surplus in history. We have a 2.5% unemployment, second-lowest on record and we just delivered the biggest tax relief in the history of the state. We’ve expanded school choice. We’ve protected parents rights, and we’ve done the largest increase in teacher pay in Florida history. And even though it had years of neglect, we made historic restoration for our Everglades and improvements to our water quality because water is the foundation of not just our economy but our way of life.
“And then when a once-in-a-century pandemic hit, I led based on facts, not based on fear. I was always more concerned about protecting your job than I was about saving my own,” he says as Crist supporters boo.
Quirantes moves on to illegal immigration, and asks DeSantis why he moved immigrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, and if he thought it was a good use of taxpayer money. To Crist, she asks if he believes Florida should be a so-called “sanctuary state.”
Crist calls it a “political stunt” and says he does believe the U.S. has an immigration problem and that he supports comprehensive immigration reform
“You’re willing to use people like that, in this case they were Hispanics, Venezuelan in particular, and have them as props for your political gain? That’s not how you change policy,” Crist says. “You were inhumane in how you treated these people.”
DeSantis doesn’t address the taxpayer cost.
“We’ve had millions and millions of people pour in and cross illegally, we’ve had record numbers of fentanyl come in, and now see it ravaging our communities like never before,” DeSantis says. “It’s only when [migrants] they go to D.C., New York or, of course, Martha’s Vineyard that all of a sudden they [pay attention]. ... You know why? Because we have elites in this country that want to impose policies on you but they don’t want to suffer the same consequences that you have to in your communities.”
“It’s sad that it comes to this but what we did put this issue front and center,” DeSantis adds.
Crist brings up DeSantis’ time in Congress and says that if he wanted to secure the border, he would’ve supported immigration reform. He then suggests that DeSantis wanted to have an immigration problem to rile up his base for “political scoring,” and that he has not committed to staying for four years if he is reelected.
Quirantes then asks what each candidate would do to protect Floridians from overdoses.
DeSantis says he has supported efforts to get tougher on fentanyl trafficking. “We’re going to treat you like the murderer that you are,” DeSantis says.
Quirantes raises the topic of gender transition for minors.
DeSantis answers that “when they say gender-affirming care, they mean giving puberty blockers to teenage girls and teenage boys. They mean doing double mastectomies on young girls. They mean chemically castrating young boys, that is wrong.
“We are not going to allow that to happen in the State of Florida. A lot of kids go through a lot of different things,” he says, and suggests that no one should be allowed to do it because “a number of people” are adults and regret it.
“It’s inappropriate to be doing that,’’ he says. “Basically that’s genital mutilation.”
Crist responds that the decision should be left to families and their doctors.
“This reminds me (of) your position on a woman’s right to choose. You think you know better than any physician or any doctor or any woman in a position to make decisions about their own personal health. You want to be the judge,” he says.
DeSantis countered: “We’re talking about 13- and 14- and 15-year-old kids, but they are not in a position to know whether they can undergo a radical procedure that physically alters their body. If you’re a 15-year-old, you can’t go get a tattoo in the state of Florida yet we’re saying you can get a double mastectomy. Of course not. It is inappropriate to do this for minors. And in Florida. We are not going to allow that to happen here.”
Before Crist responds, DeSantis addresses him directly and says: “You do support it for minors, you should be honest with the people about that.”
“He talks about it like it’s fun. It’s not,” Crist says. “These are difficult issues and they deserve mature leadership and you deserve to have a governor who understands that a woman has the right to choose, that you need to have somebody who understands and respects that decision.”
Quirantes moves on to a topic DeSantis has frequently alluded to as he has risen as a national GOP leader: the COVID-19 pandemic response. She asks Crist if he is “satisfied” with his approach to mandate masks.
“You can keep things open, but you’ve gotta do it with an eye toward what health care providers tell you,” Crist says, saying DeSantis was “arrogant” in his response.
“I made sure you could earn a living, I made sure you could operate your businesses and I worked like heck to make sure we had all our kids in school in person five days a week,” DeSantis says.
“And we had one of the highest death rates in America,” Crist counters.
Quirantes asks DeSantis “in your opinion, after what week of pregnancy, should abortion be banned?”
DeSantis doesn’t answer the question. He says the mother of Supreme Court Justice Renatha Francis, whom he appointed as the first Jamaican American to the state’s highest court, was urged to abort her child but chose not to.
“I understand not everyone’s going to be born in perfect circumstances, but I would like to see everybody have a shot. I’m proud of the 15 weeks that we did,” he says, referring to the law he signed, which provides no exceptions for rape or incest.
DeSantis says that Crist supports abortion “even though the baby is fully formed, has a heartbeat, can feel pain and can suck their thumb. He also supports that selective abortions, which is used to discriminate against little girls. He supports dismemberment abortions, where they literally will tear the baby limb from limb and he supports taxpayer funding — all the way up until the moment of birth and that is wrong.”
“Congressman, you’re sick,” he concludes.
“Ron, that’s just not the truth and you know it. He wouldn’t answer your question, do you want to ban abortion, he never got to it,” Crist says. “I wouldn’t ban abortion.”
DeSantis quickly attacks Crist in his rebuttal and says he is a “chameleon,” an attack Crist faced during the Democratic primary from his opponent Nikki Fried.
DeSantis has refused to publicly say whether he would support further abortion restrictions, even though top Republican legislative leaders have indicated they intend to pursue legislation that bans all abortion in Florida. After the Dobbs decision, the governor praised the Supreme Court ruling and promised that Florida “will work to expand pro-life protections,” but he has not offered specifics.
Crist has pledged to sign an executive order on his first day in office to protect abortion rights in Florida, a move that would likely draw a legal challenge. He has also vowed to veto any legislation that attempts to further limit reproductive choice in Florida. When Crist was a Republican governor, he vetoed legislation that would have forced pregnant women to get an ultrasound before getting an abortion.
Sticking to the question of education, Quirantes asks about “critical race theory” and how race and slavery should be taught in schools.
“I don’t want to teach kids to hate our country, I don’t want to teach kids to hate each other,” DeSantis says.
Crist responds that “we shouldn’t have a white-washed approach to educating children.”
“Our schools are doing a decent job and they’re not teaching hate,” Crist says. “We need a governor who cares about education.”
On a question about teacher shortages, Crist says the governor has done little to make teachers want to stay and teach.
DeSantis goes back to his efforts on parental rights, and that he has not forced children to get the COVID-19 vaccine. “That is a parent’s decision,” he says.
In introducing a question on education, Quirantes says the pandemic revealed “what was being taught in classrooms” to parents “like never before.” She addresses DeSantis directly and asks why he has made the “Parental Rights in Education” law — dubbed by critics as the “don’t say gay” law — a cornerstone of his campaign.
And to Crist, Quirantes asks if he thinks that children from kindergarten to third grade should be taught about sexual orientation.
In his response, Crist talks about how Florida teachers are underpaid and are being pushed out of the state
“49,000 teachers and staff have left Florida because of the way he is treated in public schools and our state,” he said.
DeSantis counters that his education bills were not part of him “waging a culture war.”
“I’m simply defending parents and students. It’s inappropriate to have that in elementary school, it’s inappropriate to tell a six-year-old that they were born in the wrong body,” DeSantis said.”It’s inappropriate to tell an eight-year-old that they may have been born a girl but maybe they’re really a boy, that’s wrong. We need to do the basics.”
“Here you go again, Ron,” Crist said. “You love dividing our state.”
DeSantis turned the answer to his daughters, both under five, whom he calls “good athletes.”
“Girls and women athletes have the right to compete fairly,” he said. “I think that’s divisive. I think it’s divisive to rip opportunities away from our girls in the state of Florida.”
“You want to talk about divisive? The day after Charlie Crist won his primary he said, ‘Anyone that supports the governor, you have hate in your heart and I don’t want your vote,’” DeSantis said.
During a question on inflation, DeSantis begins by saying Crist has backed Biden “100% of the time” and touts his administration’s efforts to make some baby items tax-free and to reduce toll fees across the state.
Crist presses DeSantis on his ambitions: “Talking about Joe Biden, I understand you think you’re gonna be running against him. I can see how you might get confused. … You’re running for governor and I have a question for you. You’re running for governor, why don’t you look in the eyes of the people of the State of Florida and say to them if you’re reelected you will serve a full four-year term as governor?”
“Yes or no Ron?”
DeSantis looks at the moderator and asks if it is his turn. She says it is. “I just want to make it very, very clear. The only worn-out old donkey I’m looking to put out to pasture is Charlie Crist,” DeSantis says.
Crist responds: “Well, Ron, we know you love to bully people. I can take it, but you shouldn’t do it when children are standing behind you at a press conference that they’re wearing masks. That’s your nature, and that’s too bad.”
As the crowd gets rowdier, cheering and clapping, Quirantes reminds the audience to stop disrupting the debate and let it move forward. She then introduces a question on the environment, pointing at the recovery scenario in Southwest Florida after Hurricane Ian.
Crist, who gets the first chance to respond, says Hurricane Ian was a “nightmare” and says what needs to change is “how we treat a storm before it makes landfall.” He takes a jab at DeSantis’ planning ahead of Hurricane Ian, saying the state should’ve had more time to respond faster in the barrier islands where the storm made landfall.
“That’s not a good record and that’s not good leadership. Florida deserves better,” Crist said.
DeSantis shoots back that Florida had linemen and emergency rescuers ready to respond. He also says Crist is trying to “politicize” the emergency.
“You know what he [Crist] was doing during this? He was hiding out in Puerto Rico,” DeSantis said. “His campaign was soliciting campaign contributions from storm victims. That is unacceptable and that’s not what a leader would do.”
“I stand behind every single one of our local counties,” he adds.
The second question is about addressing Florida’s insurance crisis.
“It’s not about lining the pockets of billboard lawyers, it’s about having a competitive market where people have a shot to make ends meet,” DeSantis said.
Crist counters that DeSantis has taken “the eye off the ball” in Florida, saying the state has become the most expensive state to live in. “More than California, more than New York,” he said.
“Property insurance has doubled in the state of Florida. Doubled, Ron,” Crist said.
DeSantis: “His plan would end up capsizing the state of Florida if we get a real storm.”
Here’s some context on property insurance:
According to the Insurance Information Institute, the average premium for a Florida property insurance policy on a home with $300,000 worth of coverage went from $1,960 in 2018, when DeSantis took office, to $4,231 today, an increase of 116%.
The problem has been caused by a contracting marketplace as a dozen property insurers have left the state, and those that are still writing have dropped policies and raised rates.
Liz Quirantes of CBS12 News is the debate moderator. Speaking to a raucous crowd, her first question is about housing.
Q: It’s been said that people vote with their feet and their feet are bringing people to the Sunshine State by the thousands. That has put unprecedented pressure on housing. It’s driving rents through the roof and forcing individuals and families out of their homes.
Crist’s strategy is to keep the focus on abortion. He mentioned it right away.
“You’re going to see a stark contrast in this debate in this election. It’s a stark contrast between somebody who believes that a woman’s right to choose … [and someone who would] sign a bill that would restrict that right. Even in cases of rape or incest.”
On housing, Crist said: “Housing is an incredible issue as well. We have a housing crisis in our state. If you’re buying a home, good luck renting an apartment. And it’s because Gov. DeSantis has taken his eye off the ball. He’s focused on running for president in 2024. And as a result, we have lost things in our state budget.
“Specifically a housing trust fund that has hundreds of millions of dollars that he along with the Legislature have cut, I would restore it. I would make sure that we’re doing everything we can to be sure that housing is affordable again. And along with that goes so many other things — the price of gas, the price of utilities, these things are through the roof.”
DeSantis’ strategy is to introduce the issue of lockdowns and tie Crist to Biden. “Crist has voted with Joe Biden 100% of the time.”
“The fact of the matter is, over the last two years we’ve now had record inflation all across this country and — 40-year highs. He supports Biden’s energy policies, which has made gas and utilities [rise]. That is wrong. And I would also say this, you mentioned once that people are flocking to Florida, that would not have happened if Charlie Crist had his way. He wrote me a letter in July of 2020 saying you need to shut down the state of Florida. He said you need to force people to shelter in their own homes that would have destroyed the state of Florida.”
“Ron, that’s rich. You’re the only governor in the history of Florida that has ever shut down our schools. The only governor in the history of Florida that shut down our businesses. I never did that as governor. You’re the one who’s the shutdown guy. And not somebody who’s at the helm that understands it’s important to listen to science to do what’s right to utilize common sense. Don’t just shut down at the outset, and then when it’s politically convenient for you, we want to open back up.”
Crist is notorious for requiring that a fan be present every time he gives a lengthy speech. In 2014, former Gov. Rick Scott walked off the stage because he objected to Crist having a fan at the podium. Looks like DeSantis is allowing him to have the fan this time. The announcer says the fan is there “by special request for Congressman Crist.”
Right before the debate started, Crist’s campaign said they “filled his allotted half of the Fort Pierce Sunrise Theater with nearly 150 Florida women” to protest the Florida law that bans abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, with no exceptions for cases of rape or incest.
“Today — backed by the support of the nearly 150 women at tonight’s debate and the millions more watching at home in Florida and across the country — Charlie Crist will make Ron DeSantis finally answer for his vile, disgusting abortion ban,” said Samantha Ramirez, spokeswoman for Crist’s campaign.
The crowds are already gathering outside the Sunrise Theater in beautiful downtown Fort Pierce.
According to Sarasota Herald reporter Zac Anderson, there are now competing chants as Crist supporters in pink t-shirts carry signs reading “For Choice, for Charlie” and shout: “This is what democracy looks like” and “No Charlie, no choice.”
Across the street, DeSantis supporters are carrying large DeSantis signs and U.S. flags, chanting “Four more years.” Reporter Anthony Man of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reports one woman is shouting: “Baby killers are in the house.”
Police are walking between the loud supporters.
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