Gubernatorial debate skipped key questions about Florida’s worsening environmental problems

Gov. DeSantis avoided having to justify his support of polluters, developers, toll roads, and fossil fuels

October 27, 2022 7:00 am

In cold weather, manatees in Florida cluster together and seek warmer water. Credit: Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission

I watched the one and only Florida gubernatorial debate Monday night.

I admit that I yelled at the TV set.

No, I wasn’t mad at the two candidates, incumbent Gov. Ron DeSantis and challenger Charlie Crist.

They’re both politicians with years of experience, and so they both behaved exactly the way politicians do. If they didn’t like the question they got stuck with, they shoehorned in their talking points about unrelated issues or hurled insults at their opponent. Pretty standard stuff.

Liz Quirantes. Credit: WPEC

The people I had a problem with were the Sinclair TV network, its station WPEC-TV, and debate moderator Liz Quirantes.

During the hour-long debate, Quirantes asked about Florida’s affordable housing crisis and property insurance crisis, which are legitimate issues (even though DeSantis has largely ignored both until recently). She asked about abortion, also a legitimate point of contention. And she asked about immigration, something DeSantis’ Martha’s Vineyard flights put into the headlines (although it appears the stunt has backfired on him).

But she also wasted time. She asked about critical race theory (not taught in Florida schools) and whether the Parkland massacre shooter getting a life sentence should prompt a change in the state’s death penalty law. If you’re going to ask about Parkland, you should ask about gun control — but she didn’t.

What made me holler at the TV like some wacked-out Howard Beale disciple was that Quirantes didn’t ask a single question about Florida’s many environmental problems.

Not a word about climate change, water pollution, or toxic algae blooms.

Nothing about the record number of our manatees dying.

No mention of the multiple sewage spills that followed Hurricane Ian (or, really, any hard rainfall).

Nothing about the “Billionaire’s Boulevard” toll road that has North Florida residents up in arms.

No mention of Big Sugar or the phosphate miners. Nada about solar energy.

And not one word about our troubled springs and our rapidly disappearing water supply.

These are all really important issues for the future of our state. In fact, a water supply that’s tainted or dwindling means Florida won’t have a future.

Somehow, none of that was worth bringing up during the debate, carried live on the Sinclair TV network. Not a peep about it, even though Florida’s environment has gone into a nosedive in recent years.

“Florida is now in a state of perpetual environmental crisis,” Aliki Moncrief, executive director of Florida Conservation Voters, told me. “Climate change, blue-green algae, unchecked sprawl, electricity prices, and more are all issues that affect Floridians every single day. The lack of questions on these issues at the debate is an inexcusable missed opportunity from the moderator.”

Eve Samples. Source: Twitter profile

And Eve Samples of Friends of the Everglades told me, “There’s a fish kill in Biscayne Bay, flesh-eating bacteria is plaguing the waters of Southwest Florida after Hurricane Ian spiked pollution levels, and reckless development projects are regularly pitched for flood-prone green spaces across the state. These issues are top of mind for so many Floridians, and it’s baffling that the state’s only gubernatorial debate didn’t address them.”

Gee, I wonder which candidate benefited most from that lack of questioning.

‘Here to deliver your message’

I was far from the only voter who noticed the absence of questions about water quality, toxic algae blooms, or alternative energy sources and wondered if someone had done that on purpose.

“It was clear that the organizers of that debate decided to avoid any environmental questions,” said Susan Glickman, a longtime clean-energy activist. “Clearly, you could tell the influence of Sinclair.”

Sinclair used to be synonymous with dinosaurs.

The Sinclair Oil Co. adopted Dino the Dinosaur as its corporate mascot in 1931. One of Florida’s many fake dinosaurs is a dino-shaped gas station in Spring Hill that started as part of the Sinclair chain. Now it’s on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Sinclair Broadcast Corp., founded in the 1970s by Julian Sinclair Smith, is a different sort of animal. It’s a right-wing media company in the mold of Fox News and Newsmax.

Sinclair’s management doesn’t even bother to pretend to be objective. During the 2016 presidential campaign, the company’s chairman, David Smith (son of Julian), met with future Secret-Stealer-in-Chief Donald Trump to tell him, “’We are here to deliver your message.”

Sinclair’s delivery range is large. The Maryland-based company owns nearly 200 stations all over the country. In Florida, it owns a dozen from Pensacola to West Palm Beach.

Sinclair’s Mr. Smith (not to be confused with Brad Pitt’s character in the assassination comedy “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,”) had an interesting run-in with the law a while back — one that speaks volumes about how he runs the company.

In 1996, Baltimore police arrested him for hiring a professional to provide him with — oh, shall we say “erotic pleasure”? — while he was driving a company car, a Mercedes. Police said the woman referred to the Sinclair boss as her “regular date.”

Smith cut a plea deal. For his sentence, he was to deliver a confession on-air and do some community service. However, according to the Law and Crime website, Smith didn’t bother to read the televised confession. Instead, he had one of his TV anchors — a woman — do it for him.

As for the community service part of the sentence, he ordered his network’s news staff work up a series of reports on a community drug program. He, personally, did nothing.

Smith’s ironclad control over broadcast content explains something that happened in 2018. Dozens of Sinclair station anchors were required to read the identical script attacking other media companies for putting out fake news, in effect amplifying Trump’s own complaints about the entirely accurate coverage he was receiving.

The result, one story noted, was “dozens upon dozens of local news anchors looking like hostages in proof-of-life videos.”

One of the anchors who read that corporate-ordered propaganda: Quirantes, the debate moderator.

Is it any wonder, then, that the Sinclair station broadcasting the debate avoided a subject that the Man Who Would Be the Next Trump would have trouble answering?

I contacted the station and the moderator, asking them to explain why no environmental issues came up. Station spokeswoman Jessica Bellucci said that “the environment was one of the topics we planned to cover. Unfortunately, time constraints prevented us from reaching this category.”

In other words, it was the boring guest scheduled for the end of the talk show and then casually bumped: “Apologies to the environment, we ran out of time.”

I asked if Sinclair executives had exerted any control over the question selection or timing. She chose not to answer that.

Call the fire department!

News stories about the debate noted that the candidates “traded barbs.” That old cliché always makes me picture the candidates swapping Barbie dolls. Who will wind up with the Pink Splendor Barbie, and who will get stuck with Pooper Scooper Barbie?

Despite the moderator’s — oh, let’s be kind and say “neglect” — one of the candidates did bring up the environment a couple of times.

When the candidates were clashing about the high costs of everything in Florida these days, DeSantis said, “Why are fuel and natural gas prices up? The Biden-Crist energy policies.”

This is such a blatantly false statement that I expected a squad of firefighters to hustle onto the stage with a hose and spray the governor’s pants before the whole place burned down.

As Politifact pointed out, global economic forces such as the war on Ukraine are to blame for the rise in gas prices. It’s not the Biden administration’s efforts to steer the country away from climate-damaging fossil fuels.

Heck, the oil companies aren’t hurting from those policies. They’re booking record profits.

DeSantis usually blames President Biden for everything he doesn’t like. It’s almost a reflex, the same way my usually sweet, church-going grandma used to automatically blame “those dirty hippies” for all the things she disliked about the 1960s.

But in this case, DeSantis has another goal. He has repeatedly defended the fossil fuel industry as if it were something precious, like the last slice of Key lime pie — or a future contributor to a certain presidential campaign.

He’s spending millions on structures like pipes and pumps to combat rising sea levels that threaten waterfront property around the Florida coast. But he refuses to lift a finger on anything that involves cutting back on greenhouse gas emissions, because it might harm the oil industry.

Last year, when a reporter asked him about that, the governor talked about America’s need for “affordable energy” trumping all other considerations. And as for climate change?

“What I’ve found is, people when they start talking about things like global warming, they typically use that as a pretext to do a bunch of left-wing things that they would want to do anyways,” he snapped. “We are not doing any left-wing stuff.”

He never specified what he meant by “left-wing stuff.” Boy, that debate would have been the perfect opportunity to ask him. Alas, no one did.

Hardly any at all

In the debate’s closing moments, DeSantis tossed in one last reference to the environment. He mentioned something he claims as a success and others do not.

“We’ve accomplished an awful lot over these four years,” he told the TV audience. “We made historic restoration for our Everglades … because water is the foundation of not just our economy, but our way of life.”

Bear in mind that the politician bragging about all the progress his administration has made on Everglades restoration is the same politician who voted in favor of putting a new road through the Glades.

That road, the Kendall Parkway, is expected to save South Florida commuters six whole minutes! Isn’t that worth ripping up an American biological treasure?

It is, according to our governor, who apparently never met a highway he didn’t like — including the controversial Northern Turnpike Extension.

But what really got my attention was the last part of DeSantis’ brag, the one about water being the foundation of our lives. He’s talking the talk but not walking the walk.

Blue-green algae blooms. Credit: UF/IFAS, University of Florida

It reminded me of the halcyon days of 2018, the first time DeSantis ran for governor. Back then, he promised to do something to clean up the toxic algae blooms that were stinking up Florida’s waterways. He pledged to appoint a bunch of scientists to tell him how to control them.

That promise was one reason some folks voted for him.

When he squeaked out a victory after a mandatory recount, DeSantis made good on that promise. He appointed a group of scientists, and they studied the algae bloom problem and came up with a series of recommendations.

But that’s where it ended. Nothing came of those recommendations.

“Hey governor,” the moderator could have said, “how much of your hand-picked experts’ recommendations have you pushed the Legislature to adopt as law?” If he told the truth, DeSantis would have to admit, “Hardly any at all.”

Gil Smart, executive director of the Vote Water environmental campaign, said he’s not surprised that the moderator failed to bring that up, despite its obvious importance.

“Hot-button cultural issues have stolen the spotlight,” he told me. “People seem less interested in the issue of clean water, and candidates aren’t spending a lot of time talking about it.”

With that Biscayne Bay fishkill and signs there could be another red tide algae bloom beginning off the Southwest Florida coast, Smart said, “It’ll be front and center again soon enough.”

But that may be after this election is over.

A second shot at Bambi

I blame Crist to some extent for this failure. The man knows how to use a shoehorn but failed to use it to tout his own environmental record.

He repeatedly hammered DeSantis on abortion during his time talking about unrelated issues. And he produced the debate’s one really memorable moment by going off-topic to ask DeSantis if he intended to serve a full four-year term or quit after two years to run for president.

DeSantis’ response, described as “deer-in-the-headlights,” prompted one popular suggestion that he be forever nicknamed “Bambi.”

But just once, Crist should have said, “I’m glad you asked that, Liz, but first I want to know why Ron DeSantis is so in love with developers and gives them everything they ask for.”

Or he could have said, “I’d love to talk about that, but first I want to mention that I love manatees, and I was so sad to see that more than 1,000 of them died because Ron DeSantis broke his promise to clean up water pollution and stop toxic algae blooms.”

Or how about, “Hey, that’s a great question — it reminds me of my State of the State speech back in 2007 when I described climate change as ‘one of the most important issues that we will face this century.’ Funny how Ronnie here hasn’t done diddly about it.”

Buoyed by the acclaim over his performance Monday night, Crist is now seeking two more debates. That seems, pardon the pun, two little two late. I sincerely doubt Bambi wants a second chance to freeze up under the hot lights.

Listen, we the voters should insist that every political debate in Florida include questions right at the start about our environment, particularly our water quality and its widespread decline. Those issues are, as DeSantis himself said, “the foundation of not just our economy, but our way of life.”

I think we all should send a note about that to David Smith at Sinclair Broadcast Group, 10706 Beaver Dam Road, Hunt Valley, MD 21030. I bet if we send enough complaints, he might even have someone read one or two on the air.

Assuming he’s not busy taking another drive in his company car.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.