In a production filled with political theater, a Democratic candidate for governor and a legislative leader who’s toying with a run for the same office took the stage Tuesday night in a debate over immigration and “sanctuary cities.”
Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Republican who hasn’t announced whether he’s in the gubernatorial race, came out slugging during the 45-minute debate, aired live on both men’s Facebook pages.
Gillum, who is black, accused Corcoran of race-baiting and trying to turn Florida into a “show-me-your-papers” police state, while Corcoran defended his anti-sanctuary position by saying it is intended to keep dangerous criminals from roaming the streets and preying on innocent victims.
The much-hyped affair between the two politicians came after Corcoran’s political committee, Watchdog PAC, released an inflammatory, campaign-style video ad targeting “sanctuary cities,” playing up the Land O’ Lakes Republican’s conservative creds as he ponders whether to wade into a primary contest against Fox News favorite Congressman Ron DeSantis and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.
It also came after Corcoran rushed a bill through the House last month to ban sanctuary cities.
Corcoran repeatedly defended the bill and his video Tuesday evening, saying the House measure merely requires local law enforcement officials to hold “illegal immigrants” for 48 hours after notifying federal officials.
“Is it OK for an illegal immigrant who’s engaged in criminal behavior to be allowed out to roam free?” Corcoran asked. “That’s just crazy liberal logic. Nobody believes that.”
But Gillum said local law enforcement officials are divided on the issue, and many believe the anti-sanctuary policy could be a barrier to witnesses or victims cooperating with criminal investigations.
“If you commit a crime in our communities you ought to be held accountable to the extent of the law,” he said. “What the speaker is arguing is not judicial findings. … What it does is basically turn us into a police state.”
The two politicians disagreed even on the language used in the debate, moderated by Capitol Press Corps President Troy Kinsey of Bay News 9/News 13 and Associated Press reporter Gary Fineout.
Corcoran, a lawyer, chastised Gillum for using “undocumented immigrants.”
“There’s nothing undocumented about them. They are illegal. Our statute calls them illegal aliens,” Corcoran said. “It would be no different than if I steal your car … and they say we’re going to call you the undocumented owner of that vehicle.”
Later, Corcoran took umbrage when Gillum referred to the speaker as an “immigrant” who was born in Canada.
“To say I’m an immigrant is you playing politics and using pejoratives in the worst possible way," Corcoran lashed out.
The 30-second video by Corcoran’s committee is titled “Preventable” and opens by alluding to the high-profile 2015 killing of Kathryn Steinle along Pier 14 in the Embarcadero district of San Francisco. The video depicts a bearded man in a hoodie pointing and firing a handgun directly at a woman walking the sidewalk of a suburban community.
A voice-over by Corcoran states: “A young woman, gunned down by an illegal immigrant who should’ve been deported but was protected by a sanctuary city.”
The video then fades to Corcoran, who is in his final House term and has said he’s waiting until after the Legislative session to make an announcement regarding his political future, who makes Steinle’s story personal.
When he heard of Steinle’s death, “I thought about my own daughter Kate,” Corcoran, a father of six, says in the video.
“Incredibly, some Tallahassee politicians want to make Florida a sanctuary state,” Corcoran, shown with his arm draped around Kate’s shoulders, says. “On my watch, Florida will never be a sanctuary state.”
Gillum on Tuesday took offense at the depiction of the killer in Corcoran’s video, highlighting the significance of the dark-skinned, hoodie-wearing villain.
As Fineout pointed out, a jury found Jose Ines Garcia Zanate not guilty of second-degree murder charges in Steinle’s death. Garcia Zanate said he found the gun on the pier and that it accidentally went off. Authorities confirmed the bullet ricocheted off the ground before striking Steinle.
“The truth is, this ad is a gross misrepresentation of what took place,” Gillum said.
The use of the gray hoodie was particularly offensive, Gillum said, “as if that point would be lost on any of us in the same state where Trayvon Martin was killed, for wearing a hoodie.”
After the debate, Corcoran told reporters his teenage son’s garb was the inspiration for the hoodie.
Gillum asked Corcoran, who referred to the mayor as “Gillum,” to apologize for the video and take it down.
“All I’m saying is that we’ve seen this before and we’ve got to stand up against it,” Gillum said, speaking of the “Jim Crow era,” the “Japanese interment,” and the age of “McCarthyism.”
“In this state, we can be a nation of laws and also a nation of compassion,” Gillum said.
As “the father of three brown kids,” Gillum said he didn’t want the state to adopt policies where “anybody’s kids” can be “easily profiled.”
“We’re bigger than that. We’re better than that,” Gillum said.
But Corcoran showed no contrition, and instead doubled down in defending the bill that passed the House.
“Mayor, you’re wrong. Those were situations where you had bad laws applied to innocent people. What this bill does is take good lies and apply it to criminals, bad people. They’re just not even close,” he said. “It empowers law enforcement to cooperate with the federal authorities and hold criminal illegal immigrants, criminal illegal immigrants, for 48 hours.
Pushed by Corcoran, the Republican-dominated House voted 71-35 on Jan. 12 in favor of a measure (HB 9), which would require local governments and universities to comply with federal immigration laws and would impose stiff penalties on those that declare themselves sanctuaries.
During his closing remarks, Corcoran repeated a common theme, calling his position “a common-sense, right-minded policy.”
“If you remember one single thing from this debate, here’s what I would ask you to remember,” Corcoran said, knocking three times on the podium. “Nobody, nobody in this state should ever have a law enforcement officer knock on their door and tell them their son or their daughter has been killed by an illegal immigrant who had sanctuary status in the city, a completely and utterly needless and unnecessary death. … I will fight and continue to fight in this legislative session, or in any capacity I can, to ensure that no parent has to have that knock on the door. Whatever it is, I have to do to do that, I will do it.”