A young, red-haired woman walks through a suburban neighborhood, smiling and texting, until "an illegal immigrant" in a hoodie turns around to shoot her, as the camera pans straight down the barrel.
No, this isn’t a horror movie — it’s a new campaign ad released Monday morning by Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran.
“This could have happened to any family, anywhere,” Corcoran says in the voice-over. “Incredibly, some Tallahassee politicians want to make Florida a sanctuary state.”
The explosive ad minimizes any remaining doubt about Corcoran’s potential run for governor, something he has said he will decide after session is over in March. It also debuted on the day Ron DeSantis, the favorite for President Donald Trump and Fox News, announced a bid for governor that will shift the race for the Republican nomination to the far right, where immigration will be a red meat issue for primary voters.
Corcoran’s political action committee, Watchdog PAC, has already spent $95,560 to run the 30-second spot more than 700 times on Fox News channels this week in cities in north and central Florida, including Jacksonville, Pensacola, Orlando, Tampa and St. Petersburg, according to media tracker NCC Media. James Blair, chairman of the PAC, said that was only the first round but declined to comment further on the campaign’s ad strategy.
While intended to shore up support among the GOP’s conservative base, the ad alarmed immigration experts who said it stokes racial fears.
“It’s very interesting the actors they put in that ad, the victim is a white woman, the perpetrator is a male with dark hair, a mustache or facial hair so one could argue they’re trying to create this image of the Latino man that’s suspect,” said Elizabeth Aranda, a professor of sociology specializing in immigration at the University of South Florida. “They’re using that same stereotypical imagery in this ad, placed in a suburb, trying to send a message that everyone’s at risk here when the data doesn’t support it.”
Numerous studies have found that immigrants commit fewer crimes than U.S.-born citizens. A 2013 research study published by a University of Massachusetts-Boston professor found that crime rates are lower among first-generation immigrants than they are among the rest of the American population.
Additionally, the magazine Governing compared immigration data to crime stats and concluded communities with higher shares of undocumented immigrants were more likely to have lower violent crime rates.
Corcoran has made a crackdown on illegal immigration a centerpiece issue of the 2018 legislative session by pushing HB 9 through the House in its opening week. The bill would prohibit any kind of “sanctuary city” policies that restrict local law enforcement from enforcing federal immigration laws, and would punish officials for voting in favor of sanctuary policies with hefty fines or removal from office.
There is no legal definition of a “sanctuary city” but it generally refers to a city where the local jail does not call U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents about detainees they suspect to be undocumented and hold them until ICE arrives.
The bill will face tougher opposition in the Senate but could become a major bargaining chip as Senate President Joe Negron tries to bargain for more higher education funding, among other things.
Monday’s ad provides Corcoran the narrative to justify the legislation.
In the ad, Corcoran evokes the story of Kate Steinle, a 32-year-old woman who was allegedly shot in the back and killed by an undocumented immigrant in San Francisco in July 2015. The immigrant, Jose Ines Garcia Zarate of Mexico, had been deported and reentered the U.S. multiple times. Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump seized on the story as an example of what happens in sanctuary cities like San Francisco.
In the case, Garcia Zarate’s defense argued that he had accidentally shot the gun and Steinle had been killed by a ricochet. The facts are disputed but he was acquitted of homicide and was sentenced this month to the time he has already served awaiting trial.
On Monday, Corcoran said that he believed this was a responsible ad.
“What it says is that the No. 1 role of government is to protect its people and its citizens,” he said.
Corcoran has said previously that Florida has two “sanctuary cities:” St. Petersburg and Tallahassee. Both Democratic mayors of those cities, Rick Kriseman and Andrew Gillum, dispute that claim.
Gillum, who is running for the Democratic nomination for governor, was quick to pounce on Corcoran’s ad. Through a spokesman, he characterized the ad as “race-bating” and said that Corcoran “ought to be ashamed of himself.”
But in a display of the polar opposite dynamics in today’s GOP, neither DeSantis nor Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam, another candidate for governor, spoke out against the ad’s message.
William Berry, a political science professor at Florida State University, said the ad shows Corcoran is playing his typical “hardball.”
“He knows his constituents and this is probably an appealing ad for them,” he said. “I think this is an issue that’s big for him politically, certainly in the case that there’s a Republican gubernatorial primary, he’s … moving things to the right in terms of discussion.”
Contact Emily L. Mahoney at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @mahoneysthename