Democrats fight to take back Tallahassee

Gwen Graham, Andrew Gillum, Chris King, Philip Levine


PINELLAS PARK – The race for Florida’s next governor is on as the democratic gubernatorial candidates met in a debate June 9 at Pinellas Park High School.

Andrew Gillum, Gwen Graham, Philip Levine and Chris King talked about gun control, funding for schools and affordable housing, among other topics. Moderators included anchors Holly Gregory and Tammie Fields of Spectrum Bay News 9 and Adam Smith, political editor for the Tampa Bay Times.

Serving as mayor of Tallahassee since 2014, Gillum is a product of Florida A & M University and became the youngest person ever elected to the Tallahassee City Commission. His goals, among others, are to expand Medicare, raise teachers’ pay to $50,000 a year and raise taxes on the wealthiest organizations.

Entrepreneur and Orlando native Chris King is a Harvard graduate and has a law degree from the University of Florida. He co-founded the Elevation Financial Group in 2006 in Winter Park, Fla., as his career has focused on real estate finance. He seeks universal background checks on gun purchases; an assault weapons ban as well as a ban on high-capacity magazines.

Levine, a University of Michigan graduate who served as mayor of Miami Beach from 2013-2017, wants to address affordable housing, a higher minimum wage, health care expansion and increased funding for education as part of his campaign.

Former Congresswoman Gwen Graham is the daughter of former Gov. Bob Graham and received her law degree from American University. She became an administrator in the Leon County School District before running for Congress in 2014 in north Florida. Graham’s platform includes fighting climate change, protecting abortion rights and banning assault weapons.

Candidates fielded questions from the moderators and audience members, while some questions came from social media. Candidate Jeff Green declined to participate in the evening’s debate.

On the issue of keeping children safe from gun violence and school shootings, Levine promised to ban assault rifles and put a better background check system in place.

“We will make sure that those with mental health issues will not be able to buy guns in Florida,” he said, adding that he will seek to create an Education Security Administration. “You know how you go to the airport and you have a T.S.A.? We’re going to have an E.S. A. in the state of Florida and we are going to make our schools safe in this state.”

Concerning King’s ambitious proposition of enforcing a six percent sales tax on bullets and the difficulty he might have in getting it passed through Republican majority-led legislation, King said there were “probably a lot of people across the state of Florida that could never have imagined that we would’ve passed the school safety bill that we passed this year—one of the first attempts to combat gun violence we’ve seen in decades in Florida.”

The bullet tax would create a revenue source to invest in the types of ideas and technologies that are about keeping schoolchildren safe, he explained.

“We have to elect a Democratic governor who’s going to transform politics,” King said. “That’s what makes me different. I’m willing to propose these bold ideas, and I’m willing to change the arguments in Tallahassee to make them happen.”

Graham noted that what students across Florida and the country want is action, not just words.

“I have found a public safety statute that allows the governor—whoever she may be—to sign an executive order for public safety reasons banning the sale of military-style assault weapons,” Graham said.

On the questions of the ballot initiative that would restore voting rights to ex-felons — even ones that committed violent crimes — Gillum said these ex-offenders, once they have done their time, should have the “dignity that comes with the right to vote.”

“As mayor of the city of Tallahassee, I banned the box,” he went on. “We don’t ask about criminal background history when you apply for a job in my city unless answering ‘yes’ to having had one as a disqualifier for the job. If it is not, we’re going to measure you on your merit…in this country, we say you cannot be charged twice for the same crime. But it seems that you can be punished perpetually for a mistake. That’s wrong.”

Levine said we a are a nation and a state of second chances, as people come from all over the world to come to America.

“I believe if someone has paid their debt to society,” Levine said, “that they should be given the opportunity to become a productive member or society and that means being able to vote.”

That being said, Levine clarified, there may be certain crimes like murder and rape where the offenders may not be able to get certain rights restored.

Though Florida is at its lowest unemployment rate in years — all under the Republican leadership of Gov. Rick Scott, King still believes a change is needed.

“One out of every two of those jobs that Gov. Scott talks about pays less than $15 an hour,” he said. “Of the most populated states in America, we are last in wages, incomes and per capita GDP (gross domestic product). We have an affordable housing crisis that Gov. Scott doesn’t talk about.”

King added that Scott — and one-party state government — has done a great job of representing the wealthy and well connected.

“We want to represent everybody else,” he said.

Addressing the increasing movement toward charter and private schools in the state and helping failing schools succeed again, Gillum noted that many charter schools are not performing any better than the schools they are set up to replace.

“What we’ve got to do is end this ‘for-profit regime’ that the Republicans have entered into the public education system,” he said, adding that we should re-examine the ‘high-stakes’ K-12 tests that “don’t tell us what these kids know, but how well they take a test.”

Gillum, clearly against the for-profit charters, is also for paying teachers what they are worth and allowing them to “unleash” their talent in doing what they’re hired to do: teach.

Having worked in the school system for several years, Graham said education is her “number one priority” and strives to end “the high stakes standardized culture” but bringing back the joy of learning with art and music.

Gillum fielded a question about his controversial Costa Rican vacation with lobbyists during which he stayed at a $1,400-a-night resort with which he paid for in cash and city business may not have been discussed at all. Under FBI investigation for corruption as a consequence, Gillum is indeed vulnerable to attack.

“I have been elected for 15 years by doing right not by doing wrong,” he declared. “I realize that there are some people who would like to criminalize every relationship that I have, but what I have said is to judge me by my actions, judge me by my deeds, judge me by my service, my ethics, my reputation and I’ll take that all very, very seriously.”

He pointed out that the FBI has found no evidence to connect him with any wrongdoing.

King responded by sticking up for Gillum, whom he knows well, by offering that he is a “good and noble public servant.”

Graham is for the beneficial effects of medical marijuana and Levine agreed, stating that it was approved two years ago by the people of Florida but they still can’t get it.

“The reason is, let me tell you the reason, is because the Kremlin — oh, I mean Tallahassee —doesn’t want to listen to the people of Florida,” King quipped. “They did it with Forever Florida; they did it with the minimum living wage, now they’re doing it with medical marijuana.”

King is also for the legalization of medical marijuana as was Gillum, who said it should be taxed, with those revenues going toward the educational system.

He also noted that among white and black marijuana smokers, black smokers are far more likely to be arrested, criminalized, prosecuted and jailed for its use.

“We’ve got to disrupt this criminal justice pipeline,” Gillum said. “We begin by legalizing it, and we take those proceeds and we invest it in paying teachers and other support staff what they are deserving of, to educate our kids and do the more important work that exists on earth.”

Addressing the critical issue of preventing police brutality and shootings of people of color, King said though he has respect for law enforcement, individuals must be held accountable.

“When there are mistakes that are made,” he said, “when harassment in community is demonstrated, we need a governor who can raise the red flag, a governor that can say, ‘This is not fair!’ and a governor that can make sure that these incidents are looked at transparently, and people are held accountable.”

Concerning institutionalized racism as a threat to our democracy, Gillum said we need to look no further than the tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin and the absurdity of the “Stand Your Ground” laws, adding we have to “return some balance to this conversation.”

“The truth is, whether it be police brutality, and I recognize that these are individuals that have very difficult jobs they have to do, I salute them for doing that, but when there are bad actors and bad players, we have got to weed them out of the system,” he said.

Graham is for more community policing, where the police officers become members of the communities and know the men and women that they’re tasked with serving.

Levine said a few months before he became mayor, an African-American man was shot by police over a hundred times in his car during Memorial Day weekend.

“I said, ‘If I become mayor I’ll reform the police department,’” Levine said. “And that’s what I did. I put in a new chief, a deputy chief, an African-American woman, the highest ranking in the history of our city. We changed captains; we changed majors, we put cameras on our police before Ferguson.

So it’s important for people to say, ‘Have you done it before?’ I did it as a mayor of Miami Beach, and I can tell you when you do it, you do not get the police endorsement.”

King said there is institutionalized racism in Florida and it is shown in the policies and the laws in this state.

“I think the power of a governor is standing up sometimes when there are unpopular causes because certain communities are treated differently than others,” he said. “Take Confederate monuments. I believe I was one of the strongest voices that stood up and said they all must come down. Take the death penalty. I am the only one on this stage that opposes it outright and one of the biggest reasons is it’s because disproportionately it’s been used against communities of color.”

When a moderator pointed out that Levine contributed to the campaign of Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, a fact that drew some boos from the audience, Levine said that he has at this point personally contributed “upwards of $1 million to Democrats” before launching into a list of his accomplishments.

The other candidates, however, weren’t about to let him gloss over it, pointing out that Rubio was undeserving of any support whatsoever.

King noted that though Levine talks about his great record, the former Miami Beach mayor also has a record of attacking journalists if he didn’t like what they were writing, silencing scientists if he didn’t like their findings and even belittling constituents in public.

Levine responded eventually by saying, “Boy, it’s sure fun to be the frontrunner!”

Louder boos and jeers from the audience.

The race is certainly underway, and it’s just picking up.

To reach Frank Drouzas, email

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