On Wednesday, Andrew Gillum and Ron DeSantis took part in their second gubernatorial debate, facing off at Broward College in Davie, Florida. The latest contest was even more combative than their first one, which is saying something. “I’m not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist,” Gillum said at one point after having ticked through a list of DeSantis allies who have said and done racist things. “I’m simply saying that racists believe he is a racist.”
Democrats are likely viewing this showing as the second straight stellar performance from Gillum, a rising star in the party. Recent polls already suggested that the Tallahassee mayor was beginning to pull away from the former congressman from Florida’s 6th district before they met for the first time on Sunday. After running neck-and-neck for months, Gillum now leads by nearly 6 points in the RealClearPolitics running average, and FiveThirtyEight’s classic model forecasts his odds of victory at about 4 in 5.
But after a nasty general election, one of the biggest remaining question marks concerns a trip to the theater that Gillum took two years ago with a lobbyist-friend and an undercover FBI agent posing as a local developer. DeSantis has repeatedly cited the outing to Hamilton (of course) to suggest Gillum is a corrupt politician on the take; Gillum has defended himself by claiming that at the time of the show, he believed his brother was the one who paid for his ticket. (State law bars elected officials from receiving gifts worth $100-plus from lobbyists and vendors, but it makes an exception for gifts from family members.)
When DeSantis raised the issue at Sunday’s debate, Gillum was defiant. “I’m a hardworking person,” he shot back. “I know that may not fit your description of what you think people like me do, but I worked hard for everything that I’ve gotten in my life.” On Wednesday, however, Gillum expressed some regret for not asking more questions about where the ticket came from before accepting it, while also shrugging the whole thing off as unimportant to the state of Florida. “I should’ve asked more questions to make sure that everything that transpired was above board,” he said, before later adding: “We got 99 issues, and Hamilton ain’t one of them.”
Why the change in posture? On Tuesday, a trove of text message and emails to and from the lobbyist in question, Adam Corey, were made public, and they raised some legitimate questions about Gillum’s defense concerning the August 2016 outing in New York City, which was organized by Corey and an undercover FBI agent who went by the name Mike Miller.
Here is a timeline of the relevant texts involving Miller, Corey, and Gillum in the lead up to the show.
Miller to Corey on Aug. 9, 2016: “Looks like weather might not be great tomorrow. Maybe a show instead? Have you seen Hamilton?”
Corey to Miller that same day: “That would be epic!!!!”
Corey to Gillum on Aug. 10, 2016: “Hey Brother. Just checking in with you. Mike miller and the crew have tickets for us for Hamilton tonight at 8 p.m..”
Gillum to Corey that same day: “Awesome news about Hamilton.”
Compare that to what the Washington Post reported this summer. In August, Gillum told the paper that he didn’t think to ask the cost when his brother handed him the ticket in New York. The paper reported that:
Gillum said he learned only later that the ticket he used had been given to his brother by Corey, in exchange for a ticket to a Jay-Z show. That detail surfaced, Gillum said, when a lawyer he hired for the state ethics inquiry interviewed his brother Marcus.
“I’m sketchy on the details, all I know is I got handed my ticket from Marcus,” Gillum told the paper then. Or as he put it to MSNBC on Tuesday night: “I always knew that if we were able to connect in New York, we would go and see Hamilton. When I got to the theater, my brother handed me the ticket. The idea that I accepted a gift never came to me.”
Gillum stood by the ticket-exchange story on Wednesday, with a slight tweak: “I was informed by my brother at the time that he gave Adam Corey tickets to a Jay-Z and Beyoncé concert of which I understand they took later. And I understood that to have solved whatever the issue was with regards to the expenses associated with it.”
The key question related to those texts, then, is which of the two groups Gillum assumed Corey was placing Gillum’s brother in: “the crew” or “us.” If it was the former, then Gillum’s version of events largely holds; if it’s the latter that would suggest Gillum knew from the beginning that his ticket came from Miller or someone else who shouldn’t have been paying for the mayor.
You can read more on the FBI’s Tallahassee probe here, but the short version: Miller was one of three undercover FBI agents who showed up in Tallahassee in 2015 posing as out-of-town developers interested in pursuing opportunities in the state capital. The agents then spent the next year hobnobbing with local business leaders and cozying up to local officials before disappearing in early 2017. Gillum says he’s spoken to the FBI and they’ve assured him he’s not the focus of their investigation, but that’s impossible to confirm since the agency does not discuss ongoing investigations.