When Florida’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum chose a former primary opponent as his running mate Thursday, he did more than add another sharply progressive voice to the ticket in November’s election.
He went with Chris King, who had backed him in the clutch when prompted to talk about a sprawling FBI investigation into city hall corruption in Tallahassee, where Mr. Gillum is mayor.
Rather than jump at the chance to score off a political opponent, Mr. King defended Mr. Gillum against the charges during a debate among Democratic candidates last June.
Rep. Ron DeSantis, the Republican nominee in the governor’s race, is showing no such restraint.
He’s moved early to inform Floridians about the ongoing Tallahassee probe, an investigation several Sunshine State political professionals say isn’t widely known among voters, especially those farther south.
The Tallahassee investigation came to light in June 2017, not long after Mr. Gillum declared his candidacy for governor. Undercover FBI agents, posing as businessmen, had tried to get city contracts, some involving the Community Redevelopment Agency.
There have been no indictments or arrests, and Mr. Gillum’s name has not been mentioned in court documents.
But subpoenas appear to show one of the targets is Adam Corey, a local businessman who ran Mr. Gillum’s mayoral campaign finances. Mr. Corey also benefited from a Gillum vote as city commissioner that boosted a politico-favored local restaurant in which Mr. Corey had a stake. The two men and undercover agents were also together on 2016 trips to New York City and Costa Rica.
Mr. Gillum has since cut ties with Mr. Corey, according to the mayor’s camp, and, after meeting with a state ethics investigator, Mr. Gillum’s campaign last week released records associated with those trips, for which he has always insisted neither Mr. Corey nor the undercover agents paid his way.
The New York trip included a Mets game, a boat trip around Manhattan, and tickets to the Broadway smash “Hamilton,” all arranged by the FBI, according to myriad reports.
The records also include a $400 withdrawal, which Mr. Gillum says was used to pay his portion of the Costa Rican villa the group rented.
“Mayor Gillum and his wife paid cash for their portions of the group lodging (similar to how someone might pay someone back if a reservation was booked on Airbnb), and paid by credit card for other outings,” the campaign said.
In acknowledging the investigation, the Gillum campaign moved to flip the script and argue it was being transparent — and contrasted that with Mr. DeSantis, a frequent critic of special counsel Robert Mueller’s lengthy investigation of the Trump campaign.
“The FBI has a job to do — and whether it’s Washington D.C. or Florida, Congressman DeSantis and President Trump should allow the agency to do its work,” Mr. Gillum said in a statement. “Here in Florida, we’ve done everything we can to aid the agency, while Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump have done the exact opposite — demonizing the FBI and making the case that collusion is not a crime. It has to end.”
Neither the Gillum nor the DeSantis campaign responded to requests for comment.
But Republicans insist many questions remain unanswered in the wake of Mr. Gillum’s disclosures, including who paid for the trips’ airfare. They disputed the idea, put out by the Gillum camp, that Marcus Gillum, the mayor’s brother, provided the “Hamilton” ticket.
Mr. Corey’s lawyer also said his client has not received any money for the Costa Rica lodgings.
“There’s no way Gillum was accepting tickets to Broadway shows, baseball games and boating excursions without knowing these gifts were going to be highly scrutinized, especially now that the FBI is involved,” said Florida Republican Party spokeswoman Taryn Fenske. “Floridians are still waiting for all the receipts, and answers. The message is clear — Andrew Gillum thinks he is above the law.”
Some Florida political analysts, while intrigued by Mr. Gillum’s gambit to change the FBI narrative, question whether the Tallahassee investigation is of prime concern to voters.
“It’s hours away from most of the population and most people don’t care about it,” said Florida State University political scientist Carol Weissert. “I’ve been waiting for the DeSantis campaign to use words like ‘crook’ and ‘FBI,’ and try to define Andrew that way, as he’s not well known to lots of voters. I’m sure that’s what they’re trying to do here.”
What the contrasting narratives underscore is how much the gubernatorial contest is a referendum on Mr. Trump, according to Rick Wilson, a prominent Republican consultant in Florida and vociferous Never Trumper.
“It’s an interesting tweak to the argument,” he said of Mr. Gillum’s tactic. “It shows this race is only about the political bases: the DeSantis campaign is not really addressing moderate Democrats, and the Gillum campaign isn’t speaking to Republicans. It shows the election will be all about Trumpism, with DeSantis being part of Trump and Gillum the anti-Trump.”