BY FRANK DROUZAS, Staff Writer
ST. PIERCE — Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and Democrat Rep. Charlie Crist squared off on Oct. 24 at the Sunrise Theatre in Ft. Pierce in the sole gubernatorial debate of 2022. Though they were several feet apart on the stage, it felt like they were standing toe to toe, trading jabs all night as a noisy crowd cheered and jeered them.
The atmosphere was so raucous during the debate, which featured questions from Florida voters, that moderator Liz Quiranties had to pause and ask that everyone stop their outbursts — which everyone ignored throughout the hour-long debate.
DeSantis and Crist fielded questions about the economy, housing, public safety and health, immigration and education, among other topics.
Even though the first question dealt with the rising cost of housing in the state, Crist wasted no time in letting everyone know that they would see “a stark contrast” in the debate and in the election and made it clear that he believes “in a woman’s right to choose.”
Since Roe v. Wade was repealed earlier this year, the pro-choice stance is one many Democratic candidates are leaning toward this election season.
Getting to the issue at hand, the congressman said, “We have a housing crisis in our state. Good luck buying a home, good luck renting an apartment, and it’s because Gov. DeSantis has taken his eye off the ball,” adding that the governor has been distracted by eyeing a run at the White House in 2024.
Crist said DeSantis and his legislature had cut a housing trust fund from the budget, and he would restore that fund and everything he could to make housing affordable again. DeSantis immediately responded that Biden has voted with President Joe Biden 100 percent of the time, and his “inflationary policies” drive up the cost of everything, including housing.
He went on to list other Biden policies that Crist has supported, including for gas and energy, seemingly proving Crist’s point that DeSantis thinks he’s running against the current president rather than Crist.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, which struck southwest Florida and took more than 100 lives, Crist took issue with DeSantis’s lack of leadership in the hours leading up to the storm and faulted the governor for not encouraging residents in Lee County to evacuate.
“He had access to all the modern technology you could have, all the modern radar available, and he still failed to have them evacuate,” Crist said. “That’s unbelievable.”
DeSantis said he is proud that he had an “unprecedented array of first responders” ready to go and was able to effectuate thousands of rescues and “get the power back on for millions of people in record time.”
“If you looked at that track, everyone was focusing on Tampa Bay the Monday night before the storm,” he said. “We woke up Tuesday morning, the models had shifted into Sarasota. All the folks in southwest Florida were activated, Lee County did issue evacuations.”
In response, Crist said DeSantis was at a football game the Friday before the storm hit; DeSantis shot back by saying that Crist was “hiding out” in Puerto Rico.
DeSantis called today’s high inflation the effects of the “Biden-Crist policies,” saying it is the worst it’s been in 40 years. To help combat it, the governor said he plans to reduce tolls for commuters in the state by 50 percent and make certain items, like baby cribs, diapers and pet food tax-free permanently.
“Ron, you talk about Joe Biden a lot; I understand you think you’re going to be running against him. I can see how you might get confused.” Crist said, to chuckles from the audience.
It was here that Crist threw down the card he’d been waiting to play all night — he bluntly asked the sitting governor if he would “look in the eyes of the people in 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?”
DeSantis, who had looked slightly uncomfortable all night, visibly bristled while he waited to get the cue from Quiranties to respond.
“I know that Charlie’s interested in talking about 2024 and Joe Biden, but I just want to make things very, very clear: the only worn-out old donkey I’m looking to put out to pasture is Charlie Crist,” he said.
Though technically, Crist bent to rules by asking his opponent a direct question, DeSantis chose to ignore it altogether and not reveal whether he is interested in running for president or not. Crist would press him again later in the debate, and DeSantis would again refuse to answer one way or the other.
Crist told DeSantis that he could take his name-calling and added that the governor likes to bully people — then chastised him for yelling at teenagers during a press conference at USF for wearing masks back in March.
This touched off another flashpoint of the debate: the governor’s handling of the pandemic. While Crist favored early lockdowns, mask-wearing and following the advice of scientists, DeSantis, after initially locking down the state, was all for opening all schools and businesses and getting back to normal as fast as possible. This led to a sharp increase in cases that made Florida the COVID epicenter of the world in July 2020.
“Ron, I wouldn’t pat yourself on the back too much about your response to COVID,” Crist said. “We’ve lost 82,000 of our fellow Floridians.”
DeSantis countered by saying if he had shut down the state during the summer as Crist wanted, it would have destroyed Florida, namely the hospitality and tourism industry, which would have gone “into disrepair.”
“It would’ve thrown millions of Floridians into turmoil,” the governor said.
The congressman clapped back that for being such a pro-business governor, DeSantis is quick to attack businesses like Disney for speaking out against his policies, or to threaten cruise ship companies if they enact vaccine mandates for their passengers.
Pivoting to education, Crist said we need to have a focus on education and “not make political war zones out of our schools,” adding that DeSantis loves to stoke culture wars with the power of his office, as with his Parental Rights in Education Bill and his Stop WOKE Act, which compels teachers and students to be cautious when speaking about race and gender.
“When you oppose the Parents Rights in Education bill, which prevents 6, 7, 8-year-olds from having sexuality, gender ideology injected in their curriculum, you are the one that’s raging the culture war,” DeSantis said.
Crist called DeSantis’ approach of not making white students feel guilty about slavery, segregation and racial oppression a “whitewashing” of history.
DeSantis defended his policies: “You have people that are teaching the United States was built on stolen land. That is inappropriate for our schools. It’s not true.”
The governor has proposed a ban on abortion in Florida after 15 weeks, with no exceptions for rape or incest, but Crist underscored that he adamantly supports a woman’s right to choose.
Crist called out DeSantis and the state legislature for making it harder to vote by mail, saying it’s “anti-democracy.” DeSantis recently made headlines for having his elections police force arrest 20 ex-offenders for trying to vote, even though they had been encouraged to do so by the state and issued voter ID cards.
The governor also made waves by rounding up migrants in Texas, busing them to Florida, then flying them to Marth’s Vineyard with promises of jobs and housing that never materialized — all at the expense of state taxpayers. Though Crist conceded there is an immigration problem at the border, he called DeSantis’ action a “horrible, political stunt,” adding that he used human beings as props for his political gain. He said comprehensive immigration reform is the way to effect change, not “inhumane” stunts.
“You say you’re for a secure border, but this is all happening under the Biden administration and the policies that Charlie Crist supports,” the governor said, adding that the border was secure in 2021 until the Biden administration reversed the policies in place and “opened the floodgates.”
After DeSantis claimed that his opponent is soft on crime and is for defunding the police, Crist shot back by saying that as a member of Congress, he voted for another $200,000 billion to go to law enforcement to fund the police.
They both agreed that Nikolas Cruz, the shooter who killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in 2018, should have received the death penalty.
Cruz received a sentence of life imprisonment because the jury did not unanimously vote for the death penalty. Crist and DeSantis said they would seek to amend the law to ensure that justice is served for such heinous acts.
During his closing statement, Crist underscored that he wants to bring Floridians together and be an uniter, not a divider. DeSantis touted his accomplishments, such as restoration to the Everglades and improvements to our water quality, the state’s budget surplus and an increase in teachers’ pay.
Early Voting is taking place now through Sunday, Nov. 6, at seven locations for the Nov. 8 General Election. Voters can check early voting wait times and locations online at VotePinellas.gov.