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In Florida And Georgia, Heated Campaigns For Governor Boil Over In Controversies

Voters cast ballots at C.T. Martin Natatorium and Recreation Center in Atlanta on Oct. 18 during Georgia's early voting period.
Jessica McGowan
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Voters cast ballots at C.T. Martin Natatorium and Recreation Center in Atlanta on Oct. 18 during Georgia's early voting period.

The Florida and Georgia races for governor — two of the most closely watched in the country — have been roiled in the past 24 hours by more scrutiny over alleged voter suppression, racist ads and newly ignited controversies over the Confederate flag and allegations of corruption involving the hit musical Hamilton.

Democrats have chances to capture power in both states, which would be historic in itself — in Georgia, former state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams would be the first black woman ever to win a governor's race in history, while in Florida, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum would be the state's first African-American governor.

Race has been an undertone of the campaigns in both states. In Georgia, there has been controversy over the decision by GOP nominee Brian Kemp, who oversees elections as secretary of state, to purge thousands of voters from the state's voter rolls and put many other new registrations on hold.

Kemp has defended his decision, saying he was just following the law and that many of those removed hadn't voted in several previous elections, but Abrams and Democrats have argued there is a racial component to the decision because the removals and suspended voter applications disproportionately affected minority voters.

In a recording obtained Tuesday by Rolling Stone, Kemp was overheard telling supporters at a private campaign event that Abrams' voter turnout operation and sheer number of absentee ballot requests "continues to concern us, especially if everybody uses and exercises their right to vote — which they absolutely can — and mail those ballots in, we gotta have heavy turnout to offset that."

As the magazine points out, it's not unusual for a candidate to worry about an opponent's turnout operation, but given the scrutiny Kemp has already faced over decisions he has made about voter rolls and not recusing himself from such decisions, the comments could carry extra weight.

The New York Times details how Abrams has also been on the defensive over a 1992 protest she participated in at the Georgia State Capitol to burn the state flag, which at the time included part of the Confederate battle flag.

In a statement, the Abrams campaign said that her actions were part of a "permitted, peaceful protest against the Confederate emblem in the flag" as "Georgia was at a crossroads, struggling with how to overcome racially divisive issues, including symbols of the Confederacy, the sharpest of which was the inclusion of the Confederate emblem in the Georgia state flag." The emblem was eventually fully removed from the state flag in 2003.

Amid a growing national debate over lingering artifacts of the Confederacy and its ties to white supremacy, Abrams has also called for the removal of a Confederate carving at Stone Mountain. Kemp, however, has said the monument should be protected from "the radical left."

In neighboring Florida, race has been part of the bitter contest between Gillum and former GOP Rep. Ron DeSantis from the outset. The day after the primary, DeSantis had to apologize after saying that Florida voters shouldn't "monkey this up" by electing his black opponent. DeSantis' campaign said he had simply been talking about Gillum's policies, but many saw it as a racist dog whistle.

Now, two weeks from Election Day, NBC News obtained a new robocall targeting Gillum that refers to him as a "negro" and a "monkey."

"Well hello there. I is the negro Andrew Gillum and I'll be askin' you to make me governor of this here state of Florida. My state opponent, who done call me monkey, is doin' a lot of hollerin' about how 'spensive my plans for health care be," the voice says, as a chimpanzee noise is played during the word "monkey."

Gillum's spokesman said that the "disgusting, abhorrent robocalls represent a continuation of the ugliest, most divisive campaign in Florida's history." DeSantis' campaign said it had "absolutely nothing to do with [the robocall] and joins those in condemning it."

DeSantis has attacked Gillum over an FBI corruption investigation into Tallahassee's city government. Gillum has maintained he is innocent in the probe, but the Tampa Bay Times reported Tuesday that undercover FBI agents had paid for a trip by Gillum in 2016 to New York City, where he also received coveted tickets to the blockbuster Broadway musical Hamilton from them.

"The records include photos, a video and dozens of text messages between Gillum, former lobbyist Adam Corey and an undercover FBI agent," the Florida paper reports. Gillum replied to a text from Corey, saying it was "awesome news" that Mike Miller — an undercover federal agent posing as a developer looking into city corruption — had scored the tickets for them.

Gillum continues to say, however, that he picked up the tickets from his brother, Marcus.

"These records vindicate and add more evidence that at every turn I was paying my own way or was with my family, for all trips, including picking up tickets from my brother, Marcus, who was with a group of his own friends," Gillum said in a statement.

DeSantis pressed Gillum over the trip and alleged gifts he accepted during their debate on Sunday night. He has accused Gillum of being "embroiled in a lot of corruption scandals."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.
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