As Andrew Gillum accepted the Democratic nomination for Florida governor late Tuesday in a packed banquet room at Hotel Duval, stories about the FBI’s public corruption investigation began spiking on Tallahassee.com.
Gillum has never been directly implicated in the probe, which started three years ago with the arrival of undercover FBI agents and burst into public view last summer when federal subpoenas dropped unceremoniously on City Hall.
But that’s not going to stop the Republican machine from tying him as closely as it can to the FBI story and the city's crime rate. Nor will it slow a coming onslaught of attack ads against Gillum, who managed to avoid them entirely during the primary campaign.
In a Wednesday morning tweet, President Donald Trump said Gillum’s nomination was GOP nominee Ron DeSantis’ “biggest dream.”
“A failed Socialist Mayor named Andrew Gillum who has allowed crime & so many other problems to flourish in his city,” Trump wrote. “This is not what Florida wants or needs!”
DeSantis himself took aim at Tallahassee’s mayor during a Wednesday morning appearance on FOX News. He faced immediate backlash, however, over his racially charged language, which even FOX said it didn’t condone.
“The last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda with huge tax increases and bankrupting the state,” DeSantis said. “That’s not going to work. That’s not going to be good for Florida.”
The Republican Governors Association wasted no time in claiming Gillum is the focus of the FBI’s investigation. Gillum last year said he spoke with the FBI and was cooperating with the bureau. He also said he was told by the FBI he was not the focus of the probe. The FBI, which typically keeps quiet about its investigations, has never publicly confirmed that.
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“With Andrew Gillum, Florida Democrats have selected a radical far-left politician who remains at the center of an FBI anti-corruption investigation,” said Jon Thompson, a spokesman for the RGA, in a news release. “On top of the cloud of corruption surrounding his campaign, Gillum supports radical far-left policies like single-payer health care and massive tax hikes that would kill jobs and decimate Florida’s economic progress. Andrew Gillum can’t be trusted to be honest or lead Florida forward and will be soundly rejected by voters this November.”
The tweets, press releases and TV remarks were a mere prelude to the war between Gillum, an unabashed left-wing progressive who has called for Trump’s impeachment, and DeSantis, who crushed one-time front-runner Adam Putnam in the GOP primary after winning Trump’s endorsement.
“The Enola Gay has left the tarmac,” said Steve Vancore, a Tallahassee political consultant and pollster. “They’re going to start dropping (bombs). You’re going to see everything from the highest crime rate to the FBI investigation. DeSantis is going to make it his business to define Mayor Gillum before he has a chance to define himself. That’s Campaign Operations 101.”
As political observers have pointed out, the Republicans, fairly or not, have plenty of ammunition to fire in Gillum’s direction: Beyond the crime rate and the FBI probe, the GOP can make hay out of the city’s Hurricane Hermine response and Gillum’s support of property tax increases, just for starters. It’s far from unimaginable that photos of Gillum on a boat in New York City with a Tallahassee lobbyist and an undercover FBI agent posing as a lobbyist will become fixtures in TV commercials.
Wednesday morning’s edition of Politico Florida’s Playbook by Marc Caputo and Matt Dixon put it bluntly: “So far, no indictments have been made and the investigation has appeared to focus more on City Commissioner Scott Maddox. But this story is about to explode across the state now that Gillum is the nominee.”
The question, Politico said, is not whether ads on the FBI probe will run but how many will air and how effective will they be.
Gillum and the FBI:
And there are other unknowns, including a state ethics investigation into Gillum's New York trip, which happened in 2016. The ethics probe hasn't reached a probable cause stage and all related documents are closed to public view, for now at least. Gillum has pledged to publicly release receipts from his trips. But so far he hasn't.
Gillum’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment. But Gillum warned of the possible pitfalls of attacking him earlier this month during an appearance between editorial page editors from South Florida newspapers.
“The Republicans will do everything that they can to obliterate me,” Gillum said. “The difference is when they come after me in the way that they will, it will have the exact opposite effect that they want, particularly for the voters who I very much need to turn out and vote. They will not take lightly to whatever charade the Republicans will try to run as it relates to me.”
Contact Jeff Burlew at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @JeffBurlew on Twitter.