A fundraising panel whose mission is to elect Democrats to the Florida Senate depicted a Black Republican candidate on a shooting target, with bullets strewn underneath.
The depiction was on a mailer recently sent to voters in north Florida’s Senate District 3, where Republican Corey Simon, the former head of Volunteer Florida under Gov. Ron DeSantis, is challenging Democratic incumbent Loranne Ausley. Simon is Black; Ausley is white.
It was paid for by the Florida Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, led by Florida Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book of Plantation. The mailer is what’s known as a “3-pack” advertisement, an arrangement that also supports the reelection of Sen. Janet Cruz of Tampa and candidate Janelle Perez, who’s running for District 38 in Miami-Dade.
One side of the mailer shows school-age children also on shooting targets with bullet holes, and the tagline, “Don’t let extremists like Corey Simon turn our schools into shooting ranges.” The other side, which shows Simon on a target, says he “takes his orders from the most extreme wing of the gun lobby,” supporting assault weapons, “open carry on school grounds” and “opposing background checks.”
“We both understand the legacy of Jim Crow,” Tallahassee-based activist and writer Chuck Hobbs told City & State after reviewing the advertisement. “While I don't share Mr. Simon's politics, I respect him as a Black man who has done well in life, one who doesn't deserve to have this type of imagery featuring his likeness.”
David Pilgrim, founder of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia in Big Rapids, Michigan, has said the U.S. has a “long and sad history of using Blacks as targets." Just this summer, a Michigan police chief issued an apology to his community after photographs surfaced showing his officers using images of Black men for shooting practice, The Hill reported. Simon is a former college and pro football player for Florida State University and the Philadelphia Eagles, among other teams.
Ausley – who's spent a a total of 14 years in the Legislature since her first election in 2000 – did not respond to a request for comment. At a candidate forum sponsored by the Capital Tiger Bay Club in Tallahassee, she said her “campaign is not responsible for the mail piece. ... That was sent out by the Democratic Party. I have no control over what they send out.”
State law, however, says “any political advertisement not paid for by a candidate, including those paid for by a political party or affiliated party committee, other than an independent expenditure, offered on behalf of a candidate must be approved in advance by the candidate.”
Claire VanSusteren, spokesperson for the Florida Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which also goes by the name Senate Victory, said that those rules were followed, but appeared to undercut Ausley’s claim that she wasn’t involved. Van Susteren said in a statement that a disclaimer in the ad “had been previously reviewed and approved for use in the past by the Florida Division of Elections. … (The committee) has written approvals from respective candidates and the appropriate disclaimer has been deployed.”
Three-pack ads “allow statewide political parties to support three candidates in one piece of advertising, either on television or by mail,” Politico Florida explained in 2018. “Under Florida law, including three candidates allows the party to pay for advertising to support a candidate without the spending counting as a contribution to that candidate,” avoiding contribution limits.
Simon responded to a City & State editor’s tweet on the mailer last week, saying in part, “This is irresponsible and dangerous.” In response to the claim in the advertisement that Simon favors guns in schools, He “absolutely supports the Guardian Program and having school resource officers on campus to protect our children,” Simon campaign spokesperson Erin Isaac told City & State on Monday.
The Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program was approved by lawmakers in 2018 as part of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, the Florida Department of Education’s website explains. The program allows trained, armed volunteers in public schools.
“He is a defender of the Second Amendment and law-abiding citizens’ right to protect their families and their property. The question is, why isn’t Loranne? To suggest Corey would do anything but protect our children when he has spent his entire adult life doing just that is politics at its worst,” Isaac added, also criticizing the depiction of kids on targets, calling it a “gross attack.”
“We’d say she owes the recipients of this mailer an apology, but that’d be implying her campaign is about them, when it’s clearly about her desperately clinging to power,” she said.
Simon took part in Monday’s forum but declined an invitation to another forum sponsored by the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper and the League of Women Voters of Florida, taking out a full-page ad in the Sunday paper to explain why, calling the voting organization “overtly partisan” six times.
Also, Florida Politics reported Monday that Republican Party of Florida official Evan Power had filed a complaint against Senate Victory with the Florida Elections Commission. The complaint says Senate Victory did not “meet disclosure requirements with at least four mail ads and additional TV ads targeting Simon, effectively violating campaign finance law,” according to that report.
VanSusteren likened the complaint to political Whac-A-Mole, saying Simon “should stop deflecting and plainly say … if he agrees with the GOP disenfranchisement of Black voters in north Florida, with (the GOP’s) fight for full open carry on school grounds, or with Republicans taking away abortion rights for victims of rape, incest, and human trafficking. North Florida voters deserve to know.”
Isaac had advice for Ausley, Book, Cruz and Perez: “Think about the dangerous history of using images of black men for target practice in this country,” and added for Ausley, “You can’t just be an ally when it’s convenient, Loranne. It helps if you do the right thing, even when it doesn’t serve your needs.”