Two debates, two days apart — between the same candidates — may have left many viewers wondering what happened.
On Saturday night, four feisty Democrats vying to replace Gov. Rick Scott tore into each other’s records, hammering on a range of issues that included the minimum wage, coal-fired power plants, and Syrian refugees.
But 48 hours later, the boxing gloves were on the shelf and the kid gloves were back on.
Former Congresswoman Gwen Graham, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and Orlando-area entrepreneur Chris King barely even grazed one another at the third of four planned debates before the Aug. 28 primary election, showing little separation on nearly every issue important to base Democrats.
While it may have made for boring viewing for political insiders, Florida Atlantic University political science professor Kevin Wagner said the lack of fireworks between the Democrats isn’t a surprise.
“There are so many undecided at this point that I don’t think anyone wants to alienate potential voters,” Wagner said in a recent interview. “The energy in the Democratic Party is the progressive base, and that’s typically not an audience that likes to hear negative campaigning.”
The Dems are taking a departure from the Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em Robots-style attacks lobbed by U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam on the GOP side of the race.
DeSantis shredded Putnam following a report of a yearlong lapse in background screenings for concealed-weapons licenses that resulted in revocation of 291 of the licenses. The two men are in a heated Republican primary for governor.
“Republican primary voters are more supportive of candidates that are principled and stand their ground rather than ‘compromise’ candidates,” Wagner said. “At the end of the day, the argument goes that the one who’s going to compromise is the weak one.”
GUN SNAFU KEEPS PUTNAM IN THE CROSSHAIRS
A week after the Tampa Bay Times reported that a former employee of Putnam’s department failed for a year to conduct screenings of applicants for concealed-weapons licenses, the lapse continued to dog the agriculture commissioner.
Putnam, the front-runner in the GOP primary, maintains that he ordered an inspector-general investigation into the issue, fired the employee who neglected to do her job and initiated new procedures to prevent a similar problem from occurring again.
He spent 20 minutes fielding reporters’ questions on Saturday and again faced the television cameras and notepads following a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday.
Although his department issued concealed-weapons licenses to 291 applicants who should have been disqualified, Putnam reiterated the breakdown has been corrected and there was no threat to Floridians.
“Public safety was not at risk,” Putnam told reporters after the Cabinet meeting. “Two-hundred and ninety-one people who should not have gotten a license to carry a concealed weapon did so, but they were revoked as a result of the processes that we put in place.”
Democrats have targeted Putnam on the issue, calling for him to resign and drop his gubernatorial bid.
Putnam — who’s facing off against DeSantis, a darling of the far-right and President Donald Trump — took to social media to blast Dems’ demands as well as press coverage of the issue, calling it “fake news.”
“The liberal media is pushing a fake narrative and not presenting the facts that disagree with their agenda. Thank you @FoxEbenBrown for letting me set the record straight,” Putnam tweeted, referring to a Fox News radio host on whose show he appeared.
But DeSantis, hardly a member of the liberal media, also hit Putnam on the issue.
“Adam has spent years campaigning for governor, basically, in this position and the report was very concerning because it seemed like he wasn’t minding the store when we needed him to be there,” DeSantis said.
The issue began in February 2016 when a Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services employee stopped logging into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System to see if applicants seeking state licenses to carry concealed weapons or firearms should be “flagged” for issues like drug abuse, involuntary mental confinements, dishonorable military discharges or undocumented immigrant status.
The problem wasn’t discovered until March 2017 when an investigation began that revealed 365 applications merited further review, leading the department to revoke the 291 licenses. The employee who failed to carry out the background reviews was fired.
Putnam said there is no indication that any of the disqualified people who received concealed-weapons licenses were involved in criminal activity while they had the permits.
“Any time that anyone who has a concealed weapon license is arrested we are made aware of that. That reporting occurs on a daily, weekly and monthly basis, depending on the arresting agency,” Putnam said.
Although information is slower coming from arrests made outside of Florida, Putnam said there were “no flags” on the people who should not have been licensed. “We have not received information on any of the 291,” he said.
Levine and other critics have accused Putnam of throwing the former worker under the bus regarding the background checks, and the former mayor of Miami Beach also blamed the agriculture commissioner for the citrus industry’s collapse.
But Mother Nature certainly played the major role in the latest round of devastating news: Florida’s embattled citrus industry experienced its worst growing season since World War II as the hurricane-battered harvest is now essentially complete.
The latest forecast numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed no change in the past month for orange production, which is off 34.7 percent from the prior growing season. Meanwhile, grapefruit production has fallen another 1.8 percent from a May forecast, coming in at half of what was picked in the prior growing season and at its lowest level in nearly a century.
Putnam called the season, which included devastation from Hurricane Irma and continued battles with deadly citrus greening disease, “horrible.”
“It’s important to remember that the industry is still recovering from Hurricane Irma’s unprecedented damage last year,” Putnam said in a statement.
Irma, which tore through the Sunshine State in September, also wreaked havoc to the tune of nearly $10 billion in insured losses, according to the latest estimates from the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation.
The insurance loss estimates hit $9.7 billion, up by more than $1 billion since April, and the number of claims has reached nearly 1 million, an increase of more than 54,000 from the last update in April.
Officials said they expected claims to be made for more than a year after the storm, as property owners are able to get complete assessments of the damages.
But the latest figures also contained some bright news.
Erin VanSickle, deputy chief of staff at the Office of Insurance Regulation, said that, as far as the agency knows, no insurer has indicated difficulty with paying claims.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a Republican running for governor in a heated primary against U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, continued to defend his agency’s handling of a yearlong lapse in background checks on applications for concealed-weapons licenses.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “It was the dumbest thing in the world. It happens to anybody with a computer. She emailed IT (information technology) and said my password isn’t working. And they emailed her back with instructions on how to fix the problem.” — Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, explaining how a lapse in the background checks occurred.
Republished with permission of The News Service of Florida.