Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., a gubernatorial nominee who recently was accused of using racially tinged language, spoke four times at conferences organized by a conservative activist who has said that blacks owe their freedom to white people and that the country's “only serious race war” is against whites.
DeSantis, elected to represent north-central Florida in 2012, appeared at the David Horowitz Freedom Center conferences in Palm Beach, Florida, or Charleston, South Carolina, in 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017, said Michael Finch, president of the organization. At the group's annual Restoration Weekend conferences, hundreds of people gather to hear right-wing provocateurs such as Steve Bannon, Milo Yiannopoulos and Sebastian Gorka sound off on multiculturalism, radical Islam, free speech on college campuses and other issues.
“I just want to say what an honor it's been to be here to speak,” DeSantis said in a 27-minute speech at the 2015 event in Charleston, a video shows. “David has done such great work and I've been an admirer. I've been to these conferences in the past but I've been a big admirer of an organization that shoots straight, tells the American people the truth and is standing up for the right thing.”
The Florida gubernatorial campaign is one of the marquee races of 2018, pitting DeSantis, a Trump acolyte and lawyer in the Navy Reserve, against Andrew Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, who would become the state's first black governor. President Donald Trump has endorsed DeSantis, and Gillum is backed by progressive leader Bernie Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont. In less than two weeks since the primary, race has become a central issue in the nation's largest battleground state.
The Freedom Center covered DeSantis' expenses for the 2017 conference at a luxury resort in Palm Beach, according to disclosure forms he filed as a member of Congress.
Fellow speakers included a former Google engineer who was fired after arguing that “biological causes” in part explain why there are relatively few women working in tech and leadership; a critic of multiculturalism who has written that “Europe is committing suicide” by welcoming large numbers of refugees and immigrants; and a British media personality who urged the audience to avoid becoming like the United Kingdom, where “discrimination against whites is institutionalized and systemic.”
Requests to the campaign and the congressional office to interview DeSantis were declined. A spokeswoman for the congressman, Elizabeth Fusick, provided a statement that described DeSantis as “a leader in standing up for truth and American strength.”
“He appreciates those who support his efforts and is happy to be judged on his record,” Fusick said. “He does not, though, buy into this 'six degrees of Kevin Bacon' notion that he is responsible for the views and speeches of others.”
DeSantis' four appearances at the annual events – only one of which, the 2017 speech, has been previously reported – are coming to light at a time when his positions on matters of race are under scrutiny. In three of the four speeches reviewed by the Washington Post, DeSantis delivered sharp-edged conservative criticism of Democratic policies without explicitly touching on race.
On the strength of Trump's endorsement, DeSantis surged from behind to win last month's Republican primary – then stepped into controversy as he was introducing himself to a national audience.
In an Aug. 29 interview on Fox News, he described his opponent, Gillum, as “articulate.'' He added that Gillum's policies would hurt Florida, saying, “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.”
Gillum and other Democrats lambasted the comments as coded racism, and later that day a Fox News co-anchor said on air, “We do not condone this language.”
DeSantis later told Fox's Sean Hannity that his criticism of Gillum is based on issues, not race.
“It has zero to do with race, Sean,” he said. “It has everything to do with whether we want Florida to continue to go in a good direction.”
Gillum is increasingly facing questions about his relationship with lobbyists after subpoenas served on Tallahassee city hall last year revealed an FBI investigation into public corruption. Gillum, who was not named in the subpoenas, said he was told by the FBI that he was not a “focus” of the investigation.