Now that Andrew Gillum is the Democratic nominee for governor of Florida, coverage of the FBI corruption probe in Tallahassee has blown open nationwide.
A story that’s been covered relentlessly by the Tallahassee Democrat but has received almost zero original statewide coverage and even less national coverage is now getting ink everywhere from the New York Times to Breitbart. Many of those stories refer back to original reporting by the Democrat.
At the same time, Gillum has rocketed to national media stardom, appearing everywhere from Morning Joe on MSNBC to FOX News’s Shepard Smith Reporting.
Going a step further, the Washington Post has been sniffing around, talking to people close to the investigation and requested public records from the City of Tallahassee that formed the basis of several Democrat stories.
One of those people was Stephen Andrews, a long-time defense attorney who at one time represented one of the people under FBI scrutiny and had another client who appeared before the federal grand jury examining the evidence.
“My client was not asked any questions in front of the grand jury about Andrew Gillum,” Andrews said he told a Washington Post reporter. I took a client before the grand jury and they didn’t ask one question about the mayor. Not in prep before we went in and not during the briefing. The mayor’s name never came up.
It should be expected that national media would jump all over the governor’s race, with two candidates who espouse such divergent views, said Ted Bridis, the Rob Hiassen lecturer in investigative reporting at the University of Florida.
It’s an important litmus test on the Blue Wave or the Trump referendum given Florida’s significance as a battleground state in the last several presidential elections with 29 electoral votes up for grabs.
“It’s of increasing national significance, and was the lead story in the New York Times this morning,” said Bridis. “The GOP is wondering if they’ll survive 2018 intact and retain the House and Senate and prevent flipping other governor offices.”
Investigative reporters and opposition researchers for each political party will be investing their financial resources and staff people to dig into both candidates’ background, said Bridis, who before he took the position at UF was editor of the Associated Press investigative team in Washington D.C.
“This FBI investigation is absolutely salient for the political press and the GOP to see if there is any corruption or accountability aspect or malfeasance,” he said. “It’s going to become nationally significant.”
Tallahasseeans can expect to see stories already covered in the local media getting re-examined and taking on new prominence, he said, similar to when the AP sent a fleet of reporters to Alaska after Sarah Palin was tapped to be John McCain’s running mate for the 2008 presidential election.
The team uncovered a lot of good stories that most Alaskans already knew about, including Troopergate, but had taken on new significance given her national platform.
Reporters also have the potential to dig up new and damaging information that has yet to be uncovered. Bridis was the reporter who uncovered Hillary Clinton’s email server, which dogged her throughout the 2016 presidential election and still is brought up by conservatives to this day in connection to the ongoing FBI investigation into potential interference in the election.
“You will probably see the release of derogatory information early and often, to see if it gets any traction,” he said. “If a candidate can explain it and provide context and then opposition will move to the next scandal.”
His team also uncovered plenty of information on Trump’s business dealings and his wife’s immigration status, but voters overlooked all that and voted for him anyway.
“It feels unseemly, but it is our role in a democracy to vet these candidates,” he said. “It is part of the crucible of electing representatives. We want to expose all we can in them regarding characteristics, good and bad, everything is going to be scrutinized.”
Even though he has not been named in any subpoenas or accused of any wrongdoing, Gillum has been tied to the FBI investigation because of his relationship to Adam Corey, a former lobbyist and restaurateur whose name and corporations have popped up on three subpoenas.
Also under the microscope are his trips to New York City and Costa Rica with Corey, as well as his handling of recovery efforts following Hurricane Hermine.
“The higher up the food chain the larger the magnifying glass, which could be good or bad,” said Steve Vancore, a political consultant and pollster.
The media attention on Tallahassee will be reminiscent of the 2000 presidential election, he said, when the recount was going on.
“Media trucks were all over the place and Tallahassee was the center of attention of the world,” Vancore said. “Because he’s the mayor of Tallahassee people are going to know what is Tallahassee all about.”
Public relations consultant Ron Sachs warned that this is likely to be the ugliest governor’s race in state history and Tallahasseeans may not like what they see in print about their hometown.
“The largest lens ever will be held up to our community, whether it is fair or not,” Sachs said. “And it will be up to voters to decide what’s relevant.”
This is the Super Bowl of American Politics, Sachs said, and people can expect every offensive and defensive play in the book, including cheap shots, fouls, and penalties.
“People who love our community are going to feel uncomfortable about how the facts and truth of our community are going to be twisted,” he said.
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