Miami state Rep. James Bush III, who is in a contentious primary race, shot back against a fellow Democratic legislator on Tuesday over using words he said had racist undertones to describe his cozy relationship with Florida Republicans and Gov. Ron DeSantis.
During an eventful press conference at The Historic Hampton House in Brownsville, Bush deflected accusations that he has sided with Republicans during key votes. Among them are his votes in favor of the 15-week abortion ban that was passed this year and the Parental Rights in Education law, which was dubbed the “don’t say gay” bill by its critics.
Miami Sen. Jason Pizzo, who is supporting Bush’s primary opponent, called Bush “the governor’s little b----” when speaking to Politico Florida earlier this month for not “leveraging his relationship” with DeSantis to help his community.
“When I read that statement from Senator Pizzo, that really just took me back to the days of Jim Crow-ism, took me back to the civil rights time,” said Bush, who was flanked by a group of more than a dozen supporters, including members of local Black churches, community activists and former Broward County Commissioner Barbara Sharief.
Sharief is running in a hotly contested Democratic primary of her own in Broward County against minority leader Sen. Lauren Book. (Book is a close ally and friend of Pizzo.)
“For the senator to use, what we consider a derogatory statement, referred to me as a female dog, it’s obvious that the senator is confused,” Bush said. “So let me clear that up for him. I have never been a dog or female dog for anyone. I will never be a dog for you.”
Bush said he was receiving calls from “one of the brothers” in Tennessee, Jacksonville and Tallahassee to tell him “how disturbed and how angry they were” at Pizzo’s words.
“I came up in an era where we were always given the N-word and those adjectives and those pronouns that were not nice to African-American men. And so we stand today to say, and this is not about, like I said, destroying the senator. We want the senator to know that this is not his district,” Bush said.
Pizzo was elected without opposition in newly drawn District 37 to represent eastern Broward County and a portion of northeast Miami-Dade County.
Tense race for House District 109
The press conference, which was happening in the middle of a film shoot and was interrupted toward the end by a sudden medical emergency of an attendee, was happening just three minutes away from a competing press conference hosted by Ashley Gantt, Bush’s primary challenger in House District 109. Gantt has been endorsed by Florida Democratic leaders who have publicly rallied around her to defeat Bush. She has also been endorsed by some progressive political groups in the state, including Ruth’s List Florida.
Gantt said in a statement that, considering her election will be decided next Tuesday, she wanted to put the attention back on Bush’s voting record.
“As a Black woman, I was offended when he was the only one in his caucus to vote to restrict our rights to make personal decisions over our body,” Gantt said. “And most troubling, as someone who put myself through law school and know overreach quite well, when the incumbent stood by the governor as he announced the dismantling of two Black congressional seats in Florida, I was floored at the brazenness of denying marginalized communities representation to have our voices heard.
“Elections are about choices, and District 109 has a clear choice to make in this election on August 23rd,” Gantt said.
Asked about Pizzo’s chosen words and whether she thought they were offensive, Gantt said Pizzo and Bush are “two grown men that can handle whatever conversation.” She also pointed out that Bush has refused to speak with voters during several community forums that have been held in recent weeks.
“I want to keep focus on the fact that the current representative has made votes in direct opposition to me and many others in my community over and over again,” Gantt told the Herald. “People need to understand that. this primary is it; we’re not going to the general [election].”
Because there are no candidates who qualified to run for the District 109 seat other than Democrats Bush and Gantt, all voters in the district can cast their ballots in this race and the winner is elected.
Bush faces blowback from Democrats
Bush refused to answer questions about Pizzo’s broader point about his close relationship to the GOP, saying the conversation lacked “intellectual integrity.” While initially he said he would not talk about bills he has already voted for, he later defended his vote for the so-called “don’t say gay” law.
“Let me just go on the record. Representative Bush said, if you want to say gay a million times, I have given you permission and I will not interfere with you. But I will interfere if you’re asking me to give up my kindergarten to third grade to talk about gender identity and to talk about sex, because that is the sole responsibility of the parent,” Bush said. “And I don’t think that we should give our children to people who’ve shown us what they’re doing to the adults. Look what they’re doing to me!”
He added that the attacks on his record from members of his own party were just backlash to him being an “independent thinker,” and for “deviat[ing]” from the Democratic Party’s values.
“Once a Black man or Black woman becomes an independent thinker and differ in any of the bills or into the preparation that they bring before this body, the legislative body, then we are attacked by progressive Democrats who are out of control,” Bush said.
Pizzo did not say if he regretted his description of Bush.
“Bush’s voting record is antithetical to democratic values, and because he can’t defend it, he’ll default to any helpful adjective,” Pizzo said of Bush’s accusations.
Ripple effect in Broward primary
The Tuesday event also caught the attention of candidates in a separate Broward race. Book, the Democrats’ leader in the Senate, is running for election in Senate District 35 against Sharief, who attended Bush’s press conference and came to his defense. Book took to Twitter to say Sharief, was with a “DINO” or a Democrat In Name Only and has “chosen a side.”
Sharief, who has repeatedly said she believes Book did not do enough to carve out an exemption for rape, incest and human trafficking in the 15-week abortion ban, said she was not necessarily condoning Bush’s votes in the Legislature.
“I’m not here to support or defend his position on anything. What I don’t like is the nature in which politics have come to, which is so negative and I think there’s some racial undertones to a lot of what we’re experiencing,” Sharief said.
During the press conference, Sharief said her support for Bush ultimately came down to attacks that she believes are racist.
“To have someone impugn your integrity by saying that if you are successful in the Black community, that you must be a criminal is disrespectful on a level that we cannot tolerate,” Sharief said. “That’s why I’m not tolerating it.”