By Anthony Man
Republican gubernatorial nominee Ron DeSantis said Florida voters should not "monkey this up" by embracing the agenda offered by Democratic gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum.
Gillum would be the state's first black governor. References to African-Americans as monkeys have a long history as a racist slur.
Democrats quickly criticized DeSantis.
U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, a Democrat who represents most of Palm Beach County, said it was worse than a coded message. "That was more than the dog whistle. That was absolutely a racist disgusting statement," she said in a telephone news conference.
On Wednesday afternoon, in a Fox News interview, Gillum didn't directly answer a question about whether he thought the comment was racist or a figment of speech. "In the handbook of (President) Donald Trump they no longer do whistle calls, they're now using full bullhorns and what I've got to say about that is that we've got to make sure that we stay focused, I think, on the issues that confront everyday people. I'm not going to get down in the gutter with DeSantis and Trump," he said.
Stephen Lawson, communications director for the DeSantis campaign, said the comment had nothing to do with race.
"Ron DeSantis was obviously talking about Florida not making the wrong decision to embrace the socialist policies that Andrew Gillum espouses. To characterize it as anything else is absurd," Lawson said by email. "Florida's economy has been on the move for the last eight years and the last thing we need is a far-left Democrat trying to stop our success."
DeSantis made his comments in a Wednesday morning interview on Fox, the cable channel preferred by Republicans.
Here is what DeSantis said about Gillum:
"Florida elections are always competitive, and this is a guy who although he's much too liberal for Florida, I think he's got huge problems with how he's governed Tallahassee, he is an articulate spokesman for these far-left views, and he's a charismatic candidate.
"I watched those Democrat debates and none of that is my cup of tea but he performed better than the other people there so we've got to work hard so that we continue Florida going in a good direction. Let's build off the success we've had with Governor Scott.
"The last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda with huge tax increases and bankrupting the state. That is not going to work. That's not going to be good for Florida."
U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Democrat who represents parts of south Broward and Miami-Dade counties, said the comment was telling coming from someone _ DeSantis _ who is close to President Donald Trump. (The president endorsed and strongly supported DeSantis' candidacy.)
"They always find a way to add some sort of insult to African-Americans and make it racist. Monkeying this up is clearly communicating that. Someone else might see it a different way. As an African-American woman, that's the way I see it."
After DeSantis' monkey comment erupted online, Fox News anchor Sandra Smith raised it on the cable channel. Smith, the anchor who conducted the original interview with DeSantis, read the campaign spokesman's statement _ and announced he was scheduled for an afternoon appearance on the channel.
"During the interview, he made what some are calling an inappropriate comment about his Democratic opponent, Andrew Gillum. DeSantis has since clarified his comment in a statement," Smith said. "We do not condone this language."
The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a political action committee, decried the "use of Trump-like racist comments" as "despicable" _ and also said it was sending out a fundraising email to 1 million supporters nationwide in an attempt to raise money off the comment.
The NAACP Florida State conference and the Florida Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said DeSantis should apologize. In an interview in MSNBC, Gillum avoided answering a question about whether he thought DeSantis should apologize.
The use of "monkey" and "apes" to describe black people are "by far the best-known racist references to African-Americans in our national folklore," the NAACP Florida State Conference said in a statement. "It's only equal in racial semantics to the 'N-word.' "
Discussion of the racist connotations erupted earlier this year when the comedian Roseanne Barr posted a tweet about Valerie Jarrett, who was a top adviser to former President Barack Obama.
Barr wrote about Jarrett, who is black, that if "muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby = vj." Barr's ABC sitcom was canceled as a result.
During the Barr controversy, former Florida state Rep. Susan Goldstein, R-Weston, who had served as a county campaign chairwoman for U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio's presidential campaign, came under criticism after she likened Obama to the cartoon monkey Curious George.
Asked directly about the monkey phrase during his time on Fox News, Gillum said "that part wasn't lost on me."
"It's very clear that Mr. DeSantis is taking a page directly from the campaign manual of Donald Trump," Gillum said. "But I think he's got another thing coming to him if he thinks that in today's day and age Florida voters are going to respond to that level of derision and division. They're sick of it."
(c)2018 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)