AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The Florida gubernatorial election has started out with issues of race at the center. The morning after the primary last week, Republican nominee Ron DeSantis told voters not to monkey up the state by electing his Democratic opponent Andrew Gillum, who's African-American. DeSantis denied his comment was racist. Later in the week, racist robocalls impersonating Gillum went out to some Florida voters. NPR's Emily Sullivan has more.
EMILY SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum is the first African-American to win a major party's nomination for Florida governor. The 39-year-old progressive defeated centrist Democrats in an upset in last week's primary.
NPR obtained a recording of a robocall targeting Florida voters in the race for governor. A narrator claiming to be the candidate speaks in an exaggerated dialect straight out of Jim Crow with background sound evoking the jungle. The brief excerpt you're about to hear is overtly racist.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Well, hello there. I is Andrew Gillum, and I be the mayor of Tallahassee.
SULLIVAN: Again, that overtly racist clip is an impersonation. The call ends noting it was paid for by The Road to Power, a neo-Nazi, white supremacist podcast operated by an Idaho man. The Road to Power also sent robocalls to Iowa last week, using the death of Mollie Tibbetts to try to spread a racist, white supremacist message. Tibbetts, a University of Iowa student, disappeared on a run in July. Her body was discovered over a month later. The suspect in her killing is a Mexican immigrant who entered the U.S. illegally.
The Iowa robocall, in part, suggested that if Tibbetts were alive today, she'd advocate for the killing of all Mexican immigrants. Her father, Rob Tibbetts, wrote an op-ed in an Iowa newspaper on Saturday decrying the political furor around his daughter's death. He said, quote, "do not appropriate Mollie's soul in advancing views she believed were profoundly racist." More than a billion robocalls head to landlines and cellphones every month. An executive in the robocall industry tells NPR it costs just around 1 to 5 cents per call placed.
Besides targeting Gillum and using Tibbetts' death to spread racist rhetoric, the neo-Nazi podcast has also been linked to robocall campaigns in Charlottesville, Va., Oregon and California. FCC regulations say robocalls must clearly state the identity of the entity behind the call at the beginning of every message, which The Road to Power failed to do. The Republican nominee, Rob DeSantis, and Gillum both condemn the call. The Democrat said on CNN...
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STATE OF THE UNION")
ANDREW GILLUM: What I don't want this race to turn into is a race of name-calling. I want to make sure that we don't racialize and, frankly, weaponize race as a part of this process.
SULLIVAN: Gillum says he'll continue to focus on his campaign. Emily Sullivan, NPR News.
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