With recent polling putting the contest within the margin of error, Florida’s razor-thin gubernatorial race, pitting two Evangelical Protestant Democrats against two Catholic Republicans, may hinge on the state’s Jews.
Most years Florida’s estimated 470,000 Jewish voters—3.4 percent of the voting population—are reliably Democratic and progressive. However, this year Jewish voters are being targeted through text messages, emails and letters and articles in Jewish periodicals.
Under attack is Andrew Gillum, Democratic gubernatorial nominee and Tallahassee mayor. Gillum, who is African American, is a staunch Israel supporter (he’s visited the country three times) and a categorical opponent of BDS. Yet GOP operatives have attacked him in a classic, connect-the-dots, guilt-by-association campaign: chiefly for his support for Dream Defenders, a Black Lives Matter offshoot, which has taken a number of anti-Israel positions, and for his relations with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
But the attacks are mainly centered around Chris King, Andrew Gillum’s running mate for lieutenant governor and a successful affordable housing developer. A lifelong Evangelical and lifelong progressive Democrat, King is as much a “Bernie boy” as a “Jesus boy” and ticks every box on Sanders’ left-wing, domestic agenda. This includes support for reproductive rights and Planned Parenthood; gun control, including repeal of Florida’s infamous “Stand Your Ground” law; economic equality, including a bump in the minimum wage; LGBT equality; and categorical death-penalty opposition.
King has been accused by Republicans of being an anti-Semite because of a remark he made as a a Harvard freshman in 1999. King lost a close student election after the Harvard Crimson accused him of running a covert campaign to advance an Evangelical Christian agenda. King vehemently denied the charge as an unfounded smear. He told a reporter for a Newhouse News Service that the editorial made him feel as though “I was nailed to the cross.” He said this was particularly hurtful, since “most of the editorial staff that was so hard on me, the vast majority were Jewish,” themselves historic victims of religious libels.
Since then, King has taken full responsibility for the remarks, repeatedly apologizing for them. In a Miami podcast, he said, “The comment that I made there I’ve said was wrong. It hurt feelings. And I was sorry about making that comment 20 years ago. It was certainly not reflective then or now of my belief in diversity.” He noted that his maternal grandfather, an army doctor, helped treat World War II concentration camp victims, an experience that greatly affected his family in succeeding generations. King’s mother helped establish a local Holocaust Memorial Education Center.
The Harvard quote initially surfaced during the Democratic gubernatorial primary, just after King—then a candidate—scored several stinging points on another candidate, former Miami Beach Mayor Phil Levine, who is Jewish. In the days following, a top Levine staffer shopped the quote to half a dozen of the state’s political reporters and bloggers.
Republicans then revived the charges against King in columns, speeches and even unsolicited text messages to people with Jewish-sounding names.
Perhaps the most cynical voice was that of Florida Representative Randy Fine, the only Jewish Republican in the state legislature. Citing as his chief credentials the fact that he graduated from Harvard two years before Chris King arrived, and that his grandparents fled Russia and landed at Ellis Island, Fine wrote in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel: “King is an anti-Semite, plain and simple.”
Later, at remarks at Temple Kol Ami Emanu-El in Plantation, Florida, Fine charged—without substantiation—that if Gillum were elected governor, he would veto $2 million in budgeted state funds for security at Jewish day schools. (This outraged Jewish Democratic lawmaker Jared Moskowitz, the legislation’s co-sponsor. “This is 100 percent trash, and Waste Management can come pick this up on garbage day,” he tweeted.)
The Republican campaign to split the Jewish vote—about 70 percent of the state’s Jews are registered Democrats—has outraged Jewish community leaders, rabbis and politicians who have known Gillum and King for decades. Meetings were held in homes around the state to discuss how to respond.
The very public dispute has spilled over from the state’s Jewish press to the secular media, and to The New York Times. While South Florida has most of the Jewish votes, politically pivotal Central Florida also has its share. Leaders there defended the Democratic ticket. “As the rabbis of two major Jewish communities in Florida, we object to any campaign using the politics of fear to influence our people,” wrote Jack Romberg, spiritual leader of Temple Israel in Tallahassee and Steven Engel of the Congregation of Reform Judaism in Orlando in a joint, widely circulated column, first published in the Orlando Sentinel. Romberg accompanied Gillum on one of his three Israel trips, visits “which taught him the difficulties Israel faces and deepened his appreciation for having strong economic ties between Israel and Florida.”
“The accusations of Gillum being anti-Israel and anti-Semitic are based on his endorsement by the Dream Defenders,” Romberg wrote. “Their endorsement of Gillum has nothing to do with Israel, and everything to do with his concern for racial and bigotry issues in our country.”
Engel wrote in a similar vein, “I know Chris King. He and I also have many mutual friends who we are both very close to. It is antithetical to everything I have heard Chris say and do, in public and private, to think that he is anti-Semitic…The incident that is being used to smear Chris was simply a young adult misspeaking. He has taken responsibility for his words and apologized in a repentant way. This was ignorance and not anti-Semitism…To not admit the difference and use it to smear someone is dishonest…Jewish Floridians should not fall for this, because our history exemplifies the many times people have branded us and hurt us, without knowing us.”
Democratic U.S. Congressman Ted Deutch concurred, expressing “disgust” for “election season…smear campaigns.” Ben Friedman, director of community relations at the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando, was furious in an Orlando Sentinel column: “The repugnant people behind this tactic…think that Jews are dumb, single-issue voters who can be swayed by a baseless allegation in a text message. That’s anti-Semitic…This gutter-level politics has no place in Florida—or anywhere.”
While in Congress, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, former U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, was a strong Israel supporter. He recently pledged that, “As soon as I take the oath of office…we’ll have the most pro-Israel governor in the country.” (His running mate for lieutenant governor is Jeanette Nunez, a Cuban American member of the Florida legislature.)
Yet DeSantis, who owes his nomination to Donald Trump’s support, has been connected with numerous white supremacists, nationalists and at least one declared anti-Semitic group during the campaign, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Members of that group, Proud Boys, attended a recent DeSantis rally in St. Petersburg. Some of these individuals and groups have voiced their support for DeSantis, a graduate of Yale and Harvard Law School, who has spoken at meetings where they were also on the roster.
As Rabbis Romberg and Engel wrote in their column, if they followed the guilt-by-association logic of Republicans attacking Gillum and King, “we could accuse DeSantis of being a white nationalist, possibly a racist and maybe even anti-Semitic. Why? Because DeSantis is a former co-manager of a Facebook page that contained racist remarks. In addition, there are white nationalists supporting his candidacy.”
Ira Sheskin, director of the Jewish Demography Project at the University of Miami, told the Miami Herald that the Republican assault’s impact on Jewish voters may be limited. Despite the bitter controversy, American Jewish voters, especially millennials, tell pollsters Israel is far down on their issues list. And the anti-Semitism charges, regardless of how bogus, might only have some impact, Sheskin told Politico, “among those age 80 and over who, because of life experiences, tend to see anti-Semitism more frequently.” The greater likelihood, Gillum and King supporters hope, is that Republican attacks will ignite Florida’s Jewish voters to vote Democratic.
Mark I. Pinsky is an Orlando-based journalist and author of A Jew Among the Evangelicals: A Guide for the Perplexed, which includes a chapter on Chris King. In 1999, Pinsky covered the Harvard controversy for the Orlando Sentinel.