LARGO — Republican David Jolly accused Democratic opponent Alex Sink of bigotry on Thursday for comments she made during a Congressional District 13 candidate debate that this week made national headlines.
Sink had said she favored a Senate immigration reform bill because, among other things, Pinellas County’s tourism industry has a demand for housekeepers and landscapers, many of whom tend to be immigrants. Republicans, including Jolly, were quick to paint her as a bigot.
“I think Alex Sink’s comments reflect a bigotry that should disqualify her from representing the people of this community, and should disqualify her from serving in the United States Congress,” Jolly said, speaking at a news conference at which he received an endorsement from Republican state Sen. Jack Latvala.
“She offended immigrants throughout this community. She offended nonimmigrant workers. She offended business owners. She offended every American that believes in the equality of opportunity regardless of one’s race, creed or color. I think it was a disgusting comment,” Jolly said.
The Sink campaign said her GOP critics deliberately have taken her words out of context.
“This selectively chosen clip misrepresents Alex’s full statement, which emphasized her commitment to giving hard-working people a chance to achieve the American Dream,” Sink campaign spokeswoman Ashley Walker said in a written statement. “Alex is the only candidate in the race who favors bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform.”
Sink was relaying a conversation she had with officials from the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce while explaining her views on immigration reform.
“Immigration reform is important in our country,” she had said. “It’s one of the main agenda items of the beaches’ chamber of commerce, for obvious reasons, because we have a lot of employers over on the beaches that rely upon workers, and especially in this high-growth environment, where are you going to get people to work to clean our hotel rooms or do our landscaping? And we don’t need to put those employers in a position of hiring undocumented and illegal workers.”
Shortly after, she spent more time discussing an immigrant boy who was brought here by his parents without legal permission. He became his high school class valedictorian and eventually earned a law degree, but can’t practice because of his status.
“That’s not right,” she said. “We need to bring these people out the shadows so that they’re paying into Social Security, paying into Medicare, paying federal income taxes, so that they’re not security issues. But they have to earn their way.”
Sink’s critics ignored the latter part of her quote, calling her comments on immigrant laborers “a gaffe,” and some even went so far to call her a racist.
“One’s skill set and job qualifications are not based on one’s race,” Jolly said. “Alex indicated she just might believe it. I don’t.”
Although Jolly was accepting Latvala’s endorsement at the news conference, he declined to say whether he supported Latvala’s legislative proposal that would, among other things, grant in-state tuition to students brought to Florida as children without legal permission.
Latvala said he decided to be more vocal about his support for Jolly after reading a newspaper headline that said “Latvala for Sink.” His ex-wife, Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala, also a Republican, has endorsed Sink, and he didn’t want voters mixing up their Latvalas.
“I decided that it was about time that I got involved and try to at least straighten out, in my constituents’ minds, exactly who I support,” he said.
Jack Latvala strongly supported Jolly’s primary opponent, State Rep. Kathleen Peters, and was openly critical of Jolly.
“In my mind I picked the one that I knew best,” he said.
He cited a “rugged” schedule as the main reason for not showing his support sooner, and said he’s more visibly campaigning for Jolly as a means of reaching voters in the district’s northernmost parts, which he said was “soft” in terms of voter engagement in the special election.
The congressional district runs from Dunedin south along the Pinellas County peninsula, excluding downtown and parts of south St. Petersburg.
The campaigns, as well as outside groups, are spending millions on attack ads. The Sink campaign announced Thursday that it raised $1.3 million over the last fundraising period, bring her total to $2.5 million.
The special election for the seat is March 11, though roughly 200,000 voters have requested mail ballots. More than 86,000 returned them as of Wednesday. Early voting starts Saturday and runs through March 9.