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Florida gubernatorial nominee and former Yale baseball captain U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis ’01, R-Fla. faced backlash this week for warning residents not to “monkey this up” by supporting black Democratic nominee Andrew Gillum in the upcoming election — phrasing some interpreted as racist.

“[DeSantis] doesn’t need to apologize to me, he needs to apologize to Florida voters,” Gillum said in an interview with MSNBC. “Because if he thinks that those kind of shenanigans are going to be persuasive enough in this midterm election to turn this their way, I think he’s badly mistaken.”

Appearing on Fox News, DeSantis said that what he said “has zero to do with race … It has everything to do with whether we want Florida to go in a good direction.” DeSantis’ spokesperson Stephen Lawson told Reuters that the comment was intended only with reference to his Democratic opponent’s policies. “To characterize it as anything else is absurd,” Lawson told Reuters.

The term “monkey” has a history of being used as a racial slur against people of African descent. In common usage, “to monkey with” can also mean “to make a mistake.”

DeSantis launched his political career in 2012 when he was elected to represent Florida’s 6th district in the House of Representatives. He announced his intention to seek the Republican nomination for governor in January. On Aug. 28, DeSantis captured nearly 57 percent of the vote in an 8-way Republican primary.

“I think DeSantis’ comment clearly can be understood as being problematic … whether he intended it with racist implications or not is difficult to tell, but, obviously, it is a poor choice of words,” said Jordan Farenhem ’21, who is from Pembroke Pines, Florida. Farenhem said that what was most revealing about DeSantis was that many people were not surprised by such allegations of racism and could believe them.

“[This] indicates a clear distrust coming from communities of color, a sign that regardless of this one instance, DeSantis clearly has a problematic record,” Farenhem said.

As a congressman, DeSantis has maintained a thoroughly conservative record, opposing abortion rights, gun control measures and the Affordable Care Act. On his campaign website, DeSantis describes himself as the “#1 conservative in FL.”

At Yale, DeSantis was an esteemed outfielder for the Bulldogs. As a first year, he earned the team’s Rookie of the Year honors. Four years later, DeSantis, leading the team as captain and as one of its most talented players, was described by one then-first year in a 2001 interview with the News as “a true leader on and off the field.” In 2014, he received the Yale Baseball Man of the Year award, recognizing his contributions on Yale Field and since his playing days.

“He is truly a man of the people,” Yale Baseball Coach John Stuper said at the dinner where DeSantis received the award, according to a press release from Yale Athletics. “I’m so proud to call him a former player of mine, but I’m even prouder to call him my friend.”

Stuper could not be reached for comment.

After leaving New Haven, DeSantis attended Harvard Law School and served in the Navy. As a member of the Judge Advocate General Corps, the Navy’s military legal office, he was assigned to work for Joint Task Force Guantanamo. He also worked as the legal advisor to the commander of the Navy SEALs in Iraq, receiving medals for his service in that capacity.

Citizens across the country have watched the race for Florida’s top office, as DeSantis squares off against Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee. President Donald Trump has publically backed DeSantis to fill Rick Scott’s position in the fall.

“Not only did Congressman Ron DeSantis easily win the Republican Primary, but his opponent in November is his biggest dream….a failed Socialist Mayor named Andrew Gillum who has allowed crime & many other problems to flourish in his city. This is not what Florida wants or needs!” Trump wrote on his personal Twitter account on Thursday.

Yale students have also been keeping an eye on the gubernatorial contest. President of the Yale College Democrats Jordan Cozby ’20 said that the group is very excited about the prospect of flipping the state’s top elected office in favor of the Democrats. He characterized Gillum as a strong candidate who can connect to a wide variety of voters.

“From our perspective it is really abhorrent that any person, particularly an elected official and aspiring statewide office holder, would use that terminology,” Cozby told the News. “And in many ways, it illustrates the uphill battle that a lot of people face in trying to get into office.”

The 2018 Florida gubernatorial election will be held on Nov. 6.

Keshav Raghavan | keshav.raghavan@yale.edu

Isabel Bysiewicz | isabel.bysiewicz@yale.edu