Liberal Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, fresh off his upset victory in Florida’s gubernatorial primary, is being showered with praise from big Democratic socialists like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – all eager for an epic ideological clash in the race against Trump-backed GOP Rep. Ron DeSantis.
But back home in Florida, Gillum is grappling with a controversy that could distract from this political war of ideas: the ongoing FBI investigation into possible corruption in Tallahassee, the city he has led since 2014.
Gillum has denied wrongdoing and said the FBI has told him he is not a focus of the investigation.
But Republicans, in the aftermath of Gillum’s primary win, are doing everything they can to draw attention to Gillum’s link to the probe and make sure it casts a shadow over his campaign.
“He is embroiled in a lot of corruption scandals,” Gillum’s Republican opponent DeSantis, who won the GOP nomination for governor Tuesday, said on Fox News. “This guy can't even run the city of Tallahassee. There is no way Florida voters can entrust him with our entire state.”
“With Andrew Gillum, Florida Democrats have selected a radical far-left politician who remains at the center of an FBI anti-corruption investigation,” the Republican Governors Association said Tuesday.
The candidate downplayed the investigation during television appearances.
“I don’t expect any trouble my way….I welcome their investigation to get to the bottom of any corruption that might exist,” Gillum said on Fox News' "Shepard Smith Reporting."
Gillum told CNN he "pushed that issue past us in this primary."
"We’re going to remain focused on the issues that confront everyday Floridians,” he said.
According to local news outlets – which have extensively covered the case – the FBI has been investigating potential corruption related to land deals in the city. Last year, the FBI issued subpoenas for documents from the city of Tallahassee related to developers.
Gillum in 2016 also interacted with an undercover FBI agent who was posing as a businessman interested in investing in Tallahassee, according to those reports. He was introduced to that agent by lobbyist Adam Corey, a longtime friend who has since been subpoenaed as part the probe.
According to the Tampa Bay Times, Gillum scheduled a meeting with the undercover FBI agent while on a Costa Rica vacation with Corey in 2016.
A spokesman for the FBI Jacksonville Division declined to comment.
Before Tuesday, former Rep. Gwen Graham, the daughter of former Florida Governor and Sen. Bob Graham, led in pre-election polls.
But Gillum had been generating excitement among the base all year, prompting a Tampa Bay Times report in February to note how "remarkable" this was considering some in the party establishment had written him off amid the corruption probe.
In the end, Gillum finished at the top of the crowded field of Democrats, winning 3 percentage points more of the vote than Graham.
In the Republican primary, President Trump threw his support months ago behind DeSantis, who defeated state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam in the Republican gubernatorial primary. In a tweet Wednesday, Trump accused Gillum of allowing “crime” and “many other problems” to flourish in Tallahassee:
"Not only did Congressman Ron DeSantis easily win the Republican Primary, but his opponent in November is his biggest dream....a failed Socialist Mayor named Andrew Gillum who has allowed crime & many other problems to flourish in his city. This is not what Florida wants or needs!"
But on the first day of the general election race, DeSantis had problems of his own -- and was forced to clarify comments he made earlier Wednesday in which he warned voters not to “monkey this up” by voting for his Democratic opponent.
The remark drew instant fire from Democrats, who accused him of using “racist dog whistles,” considering Gillum would be the state's first black governor.
But DeSantis’ campaign dismissed claims that his remarks had a racial dimension as “absurd.”
“Ron DeSantis was obviously talking about Florida not making the wrong decision to embrace the socialist policies that Andrew Gillum espouses,” spokesman Stephen Lawson said in a statement. “To characterize it as anything else is absurd.”
Fox News’ Adam Shaw contributed to this report.