Florida gubernatorial debate dominated by algae crisis as climate takes center-stage

Hurricane Michael and offshore drilling also emerged as contentious issues even as Ron DeSantis balked at acknowledging climate change.

Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, right, addresses his Florida Republican opponent Ron DeSantis during a CNN debate, Sunday, Oct. 21, 2018, in Tampa, Fla. CREDIT: Chris O'Meara-Pool/Getty Images
Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, right, addresses his Florida Republican opponent Ron DeSantis during a CNN debate, Sunday, Oct. 21, 2018, in Tampa, Fla. CREDIT: Chris O'Meara-Pool/Getty Images

Florida’s first gubernatorial debate was dominated by environmental and climate issues, with an emphasis on the state’s algae crisis, which has persisted throughout the midterm elections.

Democrat Andrew Gillum and Republican Ron DeSantis sparred over their fiercely competing visions for Florida Sunday night, in what marked their first meeting. Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, emphasized his progressive bonafides, touting health care and immigration reform, while DeSantis, who recently resigned from Congress to focus on his campaign, aggressively aligned himself with President Donald Trump.

On climate issues, however, the debate took on a different note: DeSantis repeatedly referenced environmental protection but refused to say whether he accepts the science behind climate change; Gillum, by contrast, emphasized the need to embrace science-based policies and touted a shift to clean energy.

For months, Florida has been plagued by a two-pronged toxic algae crisis, with both “red tide” — algae blooms that can turn water a rust color — and blue-green algae infiltrating the state’s waters. The algae has devastated tourism, killed thousands of fish and other marine animals, and sickened humans. Bipartisan consensus has emerged on the algae, with Republicans and Democrats alike speaking out and pledging to fix the problem, a trend most evident in the Senate race between Gov. Rick Scott (R) and incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D).


But Sunday proved the issue is a major gubernatorial focus as well. “I also think we need to protect our environment and clean our water, restore the Everglades, and fight red tide,” DeSantis said in his opening remarks. He went on to highlight his controversial endorsement from the Everglades Trust, whose three-person board of directors features two members closely linked to the GOP. 

That focus on environmental issues continued into the rest of the debate.

“What Florida voters need to know is that when they elect me governor they are going to have a governor who believes in science, which we haven’t had for quite some time in this state,” Gillum said, laying out his commitment to sustainability and countering climate change through a financial lens, touting a “green economy” in the state. The Democrat has been backed by a number of the state’s green groups, including the Sierra Club’s Florida chapter.

Linking DeSantis to polluting industries in Florida, Gillum argued that his rival has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding from companies “dumping high levels of nitrates into our groundwater.” While Florida’s algae crisis is exacerbated by a number of factors, scientists have repeatedly drawn a link between agricultural runoff and other man-driven pollutants, which have fed the algae and enabled it to grow far beyond its usual breeding grounds, in addition to warming waters. 


“For 20 years we’ve handed over the keys of environmental protection in this state to quite frankly, again, the biggest corporate polluters,” said Gillum. “We’re going to hold them accountable, because this is our air, our water, our beaches, our oceans, and there’s not a profit margin in this state big enough to take control of that.”

The conversation moved on to health care and other issues, before abruptly returning to algae, which reared its head during a heated exchange over racism.

Asked to explain racist language surrounding his campaign (including DeSantis’ own comment that Florida voters shouldn’t “monkey this up” by electing Gillum, resurfacing a racist stereotype), the Republican largely avoided answering, instead highlighting crime rates in Tallahassee and his support for the government of Israel. But Gillum used the opportunity to return to environmental issues.

The ‘monkey up’ comment said it all and he’s only continued in the course of his campaign to draw all the attention he can to the color of my skin, and the truth is, I’m Black, I’ve been Black all my life and so far as I know I’ll die Black at this point,” said Gillum. “The only color that the people in the state of Florida care about is the green blue algae flowing out of the state, and they deserve a government that will protect the environment after 20 years of environmental segregation.”

CNN moderator Jake Tapper also queried both candidates about their views on climate change in light of Hurricane Michael, which has left the Florida Panhandle reeling. Climate scientists say warming waters in the Gulf of Mexico have allowed hurricanes in the area to become more frequent and more deadly, enabling storms like Michael to arrive late in the year and wreak havoc.


Given the threats Florida faces from intense hurricanes and rising sea levels, don’t Florida voters [deserve to know] where you stand on this issue?” Tapper asked DeSantis, who has emphasized his commitment to environmentalism on the campaign trail while refusing to fully acknowledge climate change. 

The Republican continued to dodge the question Sunday night, praising the “resilient” residents of northwest Florida while accusing Gillum of pushing a “California-style energy policy” based on renewable energy sources, all without confirming whether or not he accepts the science behind climate change.

Hurricane Michael continued to surface throughout the debate, as Gillum highlighted Trump’s comments prior to the storm’s arrival. The president, who has backed DeSantis, lashed out at the city of Tallahassee as the Category 4 hurricane drew near, lamenting its “tremendous corruption” and “tremendous crime.” DeSantis, Gillum noted on Sunday, never refuted those comments.

The Republican argued instead that his close relationship with Trump would be a boon for Florida, bringing in money to deal with the state’s environmental crises. (The president has rejected established climate science repeatedly.) DeSantis also touted his role in convincing the Trump administration to grant Florida a controversial offshore drilling waiver, exempting the state from a federal push to open up national waters to oil and gas exploration and development.

Gillum and DeSantis will meet at least once more before the November 6 midterm elections, in a debate scheduled for Wednesday, with Sunday’s face-off a clear indication that environmental issues will remain a major election theme. DeSantis is also likely to continue his attacks on Gillum — recent polls found the Republican trailing his opponent by double digits.