Campaign Crossfire Hurricane

It is Wednesday, Oct. 10. HurricaneMichael is expected to make landfall soon. Former Representative Ron DeSantis is speaking at a shopping center in Jacksonville. He stands on the back of a U-Haul truck that has been used to collect supplies for hurricane victims. He is wearing the standard buttoned-down blue shirt that all candidates have to wear under the circumstances. No ties. No jackets. A hurricane is on the way. DeSantis looks to the crowd and says, “I’m sorry we couldn’t have more of a rah-rah campaign rally.”

DeSantis is seeking to assume the role of governor that is soon to be vacated by fellow Republican Rick Scott. His Democratic opponent is Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum. The race is neck-and-neck. With Hurricane Michael barreling down on the Florida Panhandle, both candidates want to be the one to claim they thwarted disaster while simultaneously sidestepping potential vulnerabilities. To do that, they have to campaign without appearing to be campaigning.

For DeSantis, this has been no easy feat. He resigned from his position as the U.S. Rep for Florida’s Sixth District to focus on his campaign, so he has no real job to go to. This is why, instead of having a “rah-rah campaign rally,” he’s standing on the back of a rented truck and talking about keeping the people of Northwest Florida “in our thoughts and prayers.”

Gillum has had the distinct advantage of being both a candidate and a governing official. He has suspended campaigning but has also made coveted appearances on CNN and the Weather Channel. During these public outings, his tone and demeanor bear a slight resemblance to current Governor Rick Scott. Yes, he also wears a blue shirt. But it’s not buttoned-down style. Gillum goes with the pullover. During his interview with CNN on Oct. 9, Gillum used a line straight out of the Scott hurricane political playbook when he said, “We can put houses back together, but we cannot replace a life.”

In Orlando, on Oct. 8, President Donald Trump tried to boost DeSantis’ profile by criticizing Gillum. In an interview with WFTV-TV, Trump said Gillum was the mayor of a city overwhelmed by “tremendous corruption” and “tremendous crime.” But with Hurricane Michael on the way, this kind of Trumpian attack was easily deflected. Gillum responded to Trump on Twitter, writing, “Hey @realDonaldTrump – don’t come to my state and talk trash about my city while we are preparing for a Category 3 hurricane. We need a partner right now, not a partisan.”

So what does DeSantis do? He runs attack ads alleging his opponent was responsible for a wide-ranging lack of power in Tallahassee when Hurricane Hermine hit Florida in 2016.

Funded by the Republican Party of Florida, the ad features a woman named Kathryn saying, “After the hurricane, we had no electricity for over a week. Utility companies lined up trucks to restore power. But, as mayor, Andrew Gillum refused help from workers. The trucks just sat while
people suffered.”

The ad criticizes Gillum for his handling of Hurricane Hermine’s destruction by suggesting that Gillum refused help from outside utility company Florida Power & Light. The ad has since been rebuked by critics who say that, one, Gillum was not a part of that decision and two, the decision to decline FPL’s assistance was a strategic one. A report issued by Leon County authorities identifies 198 workers from nine utilities who participated in restoring Tallahassee’s power. Rob McGarrah, the city’s general manager of utilities, later explained the decision to reject FPL assistance at a meeting, saying, “It starts to get to the point where more bodies don’t necessarily equate to … more productivity.”

The day before he arrived in Jacksonville, DeSantis was in Tampa. There, he was asked about the appropriateness of his attack ads. His response: “You run your campaign the way you run your campaign. It is what it is.”

Since Hurricane Hermine, Tallahassee has adopted mutual-aid agreements with private utilities. Gillum repeatedly assured citizens everything was being done to prepare for Hurricane Michael.

“Politics is not going anywhere,” said Gillum in his appearance on the Weather Channel. “But in this moment, I’m calling persons to a higher ground and asking them to be responsible for their words and try to pitch in and be helpful and not criticize our community and citizens.”