PINELLAS PARK, Fla. — Philip Levine is increasingly perceived as the front-runner in the Democratic primary for governor, but a packed auditorium of party faithful during the race’s second debate Saturday night reacted brutally when he anointed himself the new leader: “boooo.”
When Levine publicly declared his front runner status, he got peppered with tough questions from the other gubernatorial candidates during the debate, which was held at Pinellas Park High School and hosted by the progressive group Indivisible Fl-13.
A candidate viewed as in the lead often takes the most heat in political debates, a dynamic that prompted Levine’s comment. He has used his personal wealth to pour more than $10 million into TV ads and recent polling has him in the lead, which has upended the long-running perception that former Tallahassee Congresswoman Gwen Graham is ahead.
“One thing I can say is that it is sure fun to be the front runner,” said Levine, who quickly tried to tried to transition as the auditorium filled with boos.
The comment came as one of his opponents, Chris King, a Winter Park businessman, was ticking off a series of what he deems as shortcomings in Levine’s record, notably the fact that he gave money to Republican Sen. Marco Rubio in his first race in 2010, an issue that again drew the ire from an audience that was vocal throughout the hour-long debate.
“I, at this point, have given up to $1 million to Democrats,” Levine responded.
He then tried to get back to his accomplishments as mayor, which prompted the crowd to yell “answer the questions.” He said he would not make the contribution to Rubio.
Jeers and cheers punctuated much of the night, which is not a traditional vibe at large political debates. The candidates stood on stage bludgeoning each other with the sort of attacks that have defined the race’s early tone. That blood lust served as incentive for candidates to take the gloves off and give the crowd of activists what they wanted.
Graham initially sat out the frequent attacks, saying the other candidates were creating a “negative tone,” but by the end of the event she got more aggressive, hitting Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum for a 2005 vote to help approve a $1.5 billion coal-fired power plant.
Gillum, then a member of the Tallahassee city commission, responded by noting that Tallahassee now has a new 120-acre solar farm. “That’s not something a progressive mayor would do,” she said.
Continuing the night’s attack theme, Gillum‘s response include the fact that Graham, who represented a conservative north Florida district, did not always vote with President Barack Obama, a popular attack for her opponents as the entire field tries to jockey for progressive voters.
Graham’s turn in the barrel was over a 2015 vote for legislation that would have extended the waiting time it takes for Syrian refuges to enter the United States. The bill was opposed by the Obama administration.
King slammed Graham on the same issue in the first debate, a move that prompted a “half-true” ruling for his claim that her vote was in support of legislation that would deny Syrian refugees fleeing a war-torn country entrance into the country.
Graham again stressed the bill did not block entrance, but creates a “certification” process, a new layer that would have slowed the process. It has prompted criticism from progressives who view Graham’s record in Congress as too conservative.
“That’s just not true,” Graham shot back at King.
“Mr. King you were not there,” Graham said.
“She was there, but it did not matter,” King responded, a comment that got loud applause from the audience.
Underscoring the eagerness for everyone to take a swing, Gillum got so eager to jump in during that exchange, a moderator had to say “we will get to you.”
When not taking swings at their opponents, each candidate tried to tick off talking points tied to their record.
Graham, fresh off an important endorsement form the Florida Education Association, stressed her past as an attorney with Leon County schools and as a “PTA mom;” Levine talked about resolutions that passed as mayor that pushed to ban assault weapons and pushes to combat sea-level rise; Gillum again said he “fought the NRA and won,” a reference to the fact Tallahassee on after being sued by a gun group looking to toss a city gun regulation; and King, the only candidate who has never been a politician, talked about his background in housing, including for senior citizens.
For the most part, though, the four candidates were in attack mode, trying to set a negative narrative for their opponents in front of the auditorium full of energetic party activists.
That dynamic was captured in Graham’s closing statement. She opened saying that any of the Democratic candidates would be better for the state than GOP control, but quickly flipped the switch, looking at the other candidates and noting “I’m the only one who has been in a contested race.”