By Rebekah Jones
In the closest election in Florida’s 178 year history, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum lost to Tea Party congressman and cofounder of the House Freedom Caucus Ron DeSantis by 32,463 votes in 2018.
The 0.4% margin triggered an automatic recount, which quickly became the subject of intense scrutiny.
The design of the ballot was blamed for the discrepancy between votes cast for Senate and Governor. Delayed deliveries of mail-in ballots in mostly Democratic areas resulted in more than 8,000 votes being tossed out.
The real controversy revealed itself years later, only visible with hindsight: The plan to disrupt the 2020 election was hatched and tested in Florida in 2018.
Questions about the integrity of the election started in south Florida not long after, when then-President Donald Trump said he interrupted recount proceedings to “stop the election from being stolen” from DeSantis.
Rick Scott blamed voter fraud and Trump quickly echoed those unsubstantiated claims. As did Marco Rubio. In a now-deleted post on the National Republican Senate Committee website, the NRSC said “If you thought Democrats couldn’t become more unhinged, think again. They are now trying to steal an election for Bill Nelson.”
Years later, multiple convictions for a ghost-candidate scheme involving Florida Republicans exposed a startling reality many Democrats still refuse to acknowledge: elections can and have been interfered with in the United States.
But in 2018, pressure to challenge the election results among Democrats went mostly unanswered. Rumors of ethics probes into Gillum’s time as Mayor scared off those who should have been Gillum’s loudest defenders.
What happened with all that controversy about Gillum’s legal woes?
A jury acquitted Andrew Gillum of lying to the FBI last week, and deadlocked on other charges stemming from five years of persecution following the 2018 gubernatorial election. On May 15, 2023, the state moved to dismiss the charges the jury deadlocked on.
He’s a free man, but the last five years have been time served in a different kind of prison.
The flimsy case against Gillum wasn’t what destroyed his life, though.
A photo – still circulating online – of Gillum naked, passed out and on the floor of a South Beach hotel was initially “leaked” by Jacob Engels, a member of the American terrorist organization “Proud Boys” and a close ally of Roger Stone.
Proud Boys founder Enrique Tarrio gave the photo to Trump associate Candace Owens, a British tabloid that has become a favorite among the GOP for planting fabricated stories, and the rest of the far-right media apparatus.
The photo was used to start false accusations that Gillum was a drug-addict sleeping with a male prostitute. Troll accounts on Twitter still push the lie that Gillum was a user of crack, meth and other illegal drugs, even though there was never any evidence to support such claims.
Gillum went public with his struggles with alcohol after the 2018 election, but at no point stated he ever did illegal drugs.
The story gets even darker when you consider what former Trump associate and DeSantis supporter Lev Parnas said about the photo and the entire scene at that hotel.
Parnas claims Andrew Gillum was set up, drugged, and the photos leaked as part of his job for DeSantis to “destroy” Gillum.
DeSantis’ notorious rage toward those who stand up to him, whether scientists or Disney, is unmatched in American politics today.
Parnas initially reached out to me in 2020, but I did not respond. I reached out to him to discuss what he knows about the Gillum story, and he reiterated his previous claims of a set up.
Given what DeSantis has done in the past to his critics, the circumstances described by Parnas do not seem unreasonable.
Democrats abandoned Gillum, who became depressed and even suicidal, when they should have defended him for being the victim of a heinous crime.
Under previous leadership, the Florida Democrat Party failed its candidates and the state by running scared from controversy, even artificial controversy, when they should have stood by their candidates.
The entire state – and country – have paid for that cowardice. Thankfully, under Nikki Fried, the Democratic Party of Florida is stronger than ever and NOT backing down.