Florida's Republican nominee for governor, Ron DeSantis, is criticizing his Democratic opponent, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, for not disavowing a group formed to protest the fatal shooting of unarmed black teenagerin 2012, and is pointing to the group to portray Gillum as anti-police, anti-Israel and anti-American.
Former U.S. Rep. DeSantis is focusing on a Dream Defenders pledge that Gillum signed promising not to take campaign donations from private prisons or the National Rifle Association. The pledge also expresses the intent to shift resources away from "prisons, detention centers, guns and police" and toward programs that support the safety and basic needs of the people.
"Andrew Gillum signed a pledge with a radical group, the Dream Defenders, to sign up for a radical manifesto that attacked our police officers, that said they have no place in justice," DeSantis said less than five minutes into a debate last week. "He signed a manifesto that said the U.S. was the biggest bully in the history of the planet."
Dream Defenders was formed to bring attention to what it sees as inequality in the justice system — protesting George Zimmerman's shooting of Trayvon Martin and staging a 31-day sit-in at the state Capitol after Zimmerman was acquitted of a murder charge. The group has a clear left-wing agenda but is not so extreme that Democrats have distanced themselves. Dream Deferred co-hosted a debate with four Democratic candidates for governor in June, and Gillum and the other three candidates signed its pledge.
In an interview with Brietbart News after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, DeSantis called on Gillum to disavow the group. "He will not disavow them because this is who he is," DeSantis told Brietbart. "I mean when they are saying he is part of the movement they are not lying. He is one of them."
DeSantis and other Republicans are using the group's positions on the justice system as well as its critique of Israel to criticize Gillum, who maintains he shouldn't be judged by everything the group says.
Gillum is hoping to become Florida's first black governor and has questioned DeSantis' association with people seen as racially divisive.
Just before DeSantis' comments on Dream Defenders, Gillum reminded debate watchers that DeSantis said voters shouldn'tby electing Gillum; that a neo-Nazi group made robocalls featuring jungle music and monkey screeches that mocked Gillum; and that President Donald Trump, who endorsed DeSantis, didn't take a strong stance against white supremacists after the last year.
"You want to talk about division? It doesn't get more divisive than the Dream Defenders," DeSantis shot back.
The candidate pledge signed by Gillum says: "I will fight for a Florida that divests from prisons, detention centers, guns and police and invest in the basic needs and safety of our people, especially its children."
The Dream Defenders, in its Freedom Papers, goes even further to say: "Police and prisons have no place in the 'justice system.' Police and prisons aren't just racist, but they work to enforce the separation of rich and poor."
Although made up largely of African-Americans, Dream Defenders' membership also includes other minorities and whites. Since the Capitol protest, the group has sought to become politically influential and has been engaging politicians.
Founding member Nailah Summers said the state's money is better spent preventing crime by providing better jobs and improving schools than by focusing efforts on locking up young people, minorities and the poor. She called DeSantis' focus on the group "ridiculous."
"They're trying to smear this group of young Floridians, who I think clearly are trying to make Florida a better place," she said. "They're also trying to pretend that Dream Defenders and Gillum are BFFs. Andrew Gillum is a politician. We're left of him."
She added that she isn't entirely surprised that DeSantis is trying to make their supporters afraid of a group that's standing up for black Floridians.
"He's got a very old playbook — pointing out young people of color and making them seem radical," Summers said.
Speaking at a Jewish temple after the debate, Gillum downplayed the relationship with Dream Defenders. The group has referred to Israel as a "colonial entity" built on "stolen Palestinian land."
"They want to say 'Gillum is an anti-Semite, because a group organized to fight back against police brutality wherever it exists decided to support him. So we are going to take every position by that group and put it on Andrew's back and make him carry it,'" Gillum said. "'Forget his relationships prior to this point so that if we can stoke anger and stoke enough division.'"