Florida’s Democratic candidates for governor fielded questions ranging from Florida’s water woes and the political influence of the sugar industry to public education funding and school safety during Wednesday night’s debate at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers. This fourth debate was the first to include all five democratic frontrunners.
Former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham took the debate stage along with Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, Orlando businessman Chris King, former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, and for the first time, Palm Beach County billionaire and real estate tycoon Jeff Greene.
WINK News anchors Chris Cifatte and Lois Thome kicked off the hour-long debate were questions about the current algae bloom crisis linked to water releases from Lake Okeechobee to Florida’s east and west coasts. Candidates were largely in agreement about the importance of supporting construction of a reservoir south of the lake and addressing the sources of nutrient pollution.
Andrew Gillum took the issue further, exploring how solutions to the Lake Okeechobee water releases will impact agricultural communities around the lake.
“We’ve got to deal with the 50,000 citizens who are surrounding that industry, many of them communities of color, who are not being talked to about the kind of job industry that we’re going to usher into their area once we transform the agricultural use around it,” said Gillum.
“We’ve got to make sure that we give those people a new deal around how it is that they’re going to live their lives out once we transform sugar and make them a better corporate citizen in this state.”
The only real point of contention in the debate came when Chris King pushed back against Gwen Graham stating that she would not take campaign contributions from big sugar.
“I have to disagree with one thing you just said, because it wasn’t true,” said King.
“You have taken money from the sugar industry. You took thousands and thousands of dollars from the sugar industry and that’s just a policy difference I have with you.”
Graham responded, saying that in April she gave those sugar industry contributions to Indian Riverkeeper, an organization that advocates for the environmental health of the Indian River Lagoon.
When asked how they would fund a new Florida law calling for increased security in schools, King proposed a new tax on firearms and ammunition.
“What some people call a ‘bullet tax,’ but what I call the Every Kid Fund for Violence Prevention, which would take tax sales revenues from guns and from ammunition and add a new safety fee,” said King. “And create an ongoing revenue source to invest in the best school safety programs, the best infrastructure, the best technology, the best ideas on the planet to protect the future of our children.”
Philip Levine spelled out his own plan. “Number One: We’re going to have a combined earnings reporting system, where no longer can companies in Florida take their earnings and actually divert it to zero income states like Delaware,” said Levine.
“That will bring us hundreds of millions of dollars. Number Two: We’re going to stop giving away corporate incentives because you can’t bribe your way into becoming a 21st century economy. Number Three: We’re going to stop with corporate tax loopholes because we are a low tax state and we should stay a low tax state. We’re going to make sure that we take that money from charter schools and put it in our public schools.”
As she has done in previous debates, Graham reiterated her plan to address access to assault style weapons.
“I have already developed an executive order that allows the governor, whoever she is, to sign an executive order banning the sale of military-style assault weapons. It’s one of the first things I’m going to do,” said Graham.
“And you know what? I’ve heard I’m going to be sued by the NRA. They already spent $300,000 against me in 2014 to try to beat me when I ran for congress. I beat them. I will beat them again. And if they sue me, I say, ‘bring it on.’”
Like Graham and Gillum, Jeff Greene did not precisely address the issue of where funding for the mandated increased security in schools should come from, and instead discussed his ideas for improving the academic performance of Florida students.
“Only 56 percent of Florida third graders are at a third grade reading level. So we need to spend money on a lot more than school safety,” said Greene.
“We need to do what New Jersey did when they took their schools from 36th in the country to 2nd in the country. We are 40th in the country right now according to U.S. News and World Report. So how are we going to pay for...Let me tell you something they did. Two years of mandatory pre-K for every three and four year old gets real pre-K. Not the voluntary pre-K that’s a few hours a day of babysitting, but real pre-K.”
On August 2, Florida’s Democratic gubernatorial candidates will face off in one final debate in Miami ahead of the August 28 primary. The winner will face the Republican nominee – a race between U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis and Florida Agriculture Secretary Adam Putnam – in the November general election.