Hundreds of supporters — including a Chihuahua festooned in red, white and blue — gathered in the parking lot of a popular wing joint this weekend in the Democratic stronghold of Broward County to cheer on Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis in one of the country’s most closely watched races.
Andrew Pollack, whose daughter, Meadow, was among the 17 victims slain on Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, had already whipped the crowd into a near-frenzy by the time the 40-year-old former congressman took the stage Sunday afternoon.
“We got any patriotic, America-loving Republicans here?” Pollack shouted, as he tossed out “Keep Florida Great Vote DeSantis” caps. The blue hats were also emblazoned with “Wings Plus,” the name of the restaurant hosting the Sunday rally and a popular venue for GOP political events.
Accompanied by his wife, Casey, and two young children on stage, DeSantis quickly attacked his opponent, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, focusing on an FBI inquiry into Tallahassee government that has become a cornerstone of the Republican’s campaign.
As the smell of fried chicken wafted over a parking lot jammed with supporters, DeSantis decried Gillum as a “radical,” “corrupt” politician whose city is plagued with crime.
Gillum has steadfastly maintained that he is not the subject of the probe and that he has done nothing wrong, a position DeSantis mocked to the crowd’s delight. Crowd members chanted “Lock him up!” and echoed a refrain that President Donald Trump used in his 2016 campaign against Democrat Hillary Clinton.
When asked to respond, the Gillum campaign said the mayor has “been transparent and upfront” and is “being smeared by one of Rick Scott’s political hatchet men,” referring to Chris Kise, a Republican lawyer who represents lobbyist Adam Corey, a central figure in the investigation. Kise has released documents to the press about such things as Gillum receiving a ticket to the Broadway hit “Hamilton” from an undercover FBI agent.
But the DeSantis strategy of linking crime and corruption with the Tallahassee mayor has resonated with Judi Bougie, a 71-year-old Coral Springs Republican who was familiar with the attacks on Gillum even before Sunday’s rally.
Awaiting DeSantis’ arrival at the event, Bougie told The News Service of Florida she looks at “the pros and the cons” of each of the candidates.
“I don’t like what he’s not done for Tallahassee,” she said. “There’s a lot of crime up there.”
Bougie mentioned “the play tickets,” Gillum’s “pro-abortion” stance, and his plan to raise taxes as reasons she’s supporting DeSantis.
Gillum’s tax plan would increase the corporate income-tax rate, which he says would affect just 2 percent of the state’s largest businesses and would raise more than $1 billion. The Democrat wants to use the money to raise teachers’ salaries.
Gillum is “against a lot of the things that I am for,” Bougie said.
But at Marie’s Place, a Tamarac hair salon not far from the DeSantis rally, first-time voter Cristina De Paula said Gillum’s proposals have earned her endorsement.
De Paula, 18, attended high school not far from the Parkland campus where 14 students and three faculty members were killed in one of the country’s worst school shootings. De Paula said she frequently attended events at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High prior to graduating this year.
But it’s also Gillum’s demeanor and “his way of handling situations” that appeals to the Florida Atlantic University student.
“He’s been going to a lot of colleges,” said De Paula, who was born in Florida and whose mother, salon owner Maria, immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic more than two decades ago.
Gillum’s call for stricter gun laws in the wake of the school shooting — which De Paula said had “a very, very, very big impact” on her election decisions — helped cement her allegiance to the Democrat.
“On certain issues, we didn’t feel heard. … We expected something very different,” she said, referring to students’ futile attempt to force Florida lawmakers to ban assault-style weapons in the aftermath of the Parkland massacre.
“I’m not saying we have to ban guns. For me, I don’t understand why you have to have a full arsenal at home,” De Paula said.
Of Gillum, she said, “we’ve been able to make that connection with him and hopefully we’ll be able to really make our vote count.”
On Saturday, former teacher Elise Kohen stopped to chat before casting her first ballot as a Floridian.
Kohen, who retired to the Sunshine State from New Jersey, said she eagerly endorsed Gillum.
“I want to vote for the person that will best represent the issues I believe in,” Kohen, 67, said outside a public library in Tamarac.
Kohen said immigration and racism are the top two issues for her this election cycle. Trump has been castigated for anti-immigration stances and has called out the National Guard as a caravan of mostly Central Americans migrants winds its way toward the U.S.-Mexico border.
Gillum, who is black, and his supporters have repeatedly accused DeSantis of racism. The day after the Aug. 28 primary election, DeSantis drew widespread criticism for saying that Florida needs to build on the success created by Scott and not “monkey this up” by electing Gillum.
“This is a country of immigrants, and not one Republican will stand up against Trump,” Kohen said.
The environment and education are also important for the retiree.
Immigration — and DeSantis’ proximity to Trump — is also the major concern for Weston Wynton, who said he moved from Jamaica to South Florida 15 years ago.
“I don’t support Trump and his corrupted, small-minded way of looking at immigration,” Wynton, 55, said.
Gillum “is smart, intelligent and has an agenda that will benefit the people,” according to Wynton.
“That is why I voted for Andrew Gillum. Not because he is black,” he said.
While Gillum anecdotally appeared to have solidified support among Democrats in Broward, their enthusiasm for U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson — who’s in a heated battle against Scott — was tepid.
“I’m very conflicted,” Kohen said of Nelson. “I know he’s been here a long time. I don’t see him campaigning on things that he’s accomplished.”
But De Paula, a self-described “conservative Democrat,” wasn’t torn at all. Her face lit up when asked about the Senate race.
“I love Rick Scott,” she said, adding that she’s heard about the governor — who’s been in office since she was a 10-year-old — throughout her school days.
Back at the Wings Plus parking lot, Frank McCrory said he voted for Clinton two years ago because he was “kind of scared of Trump.”
But Gillum’s policies are even more frightening, according to the 64-year-old Miami Lakes retiree.
“I don’t think raising taxes on corporations or Medicare for all is a good thing,” McCrory said, adding that Gillum “seems like a nice guy, but obviously has some clouds over his head.”
–Dara Kam, News Service of Florida