The political donors who contributed thousands of dollars to elect freshman Florida Rep. Anthony Sabatini are sticking by the Republican lawmaker, despite criticism over a photo of him wearing blackface more than a decade ago that Sabatini has called a “silly high school prank.”
Fresh Take Florida, a news service covering state government for the University of Florida, surveyed Sabatini’s largest campaign contributors and some vendors he had hired during his last election. Some declined to speak on the record, but others pledged to continue to support or work with Sabatini, whose district in Howey-in-the-Hills is northwest of Orlando. None indicated plans to stop working with him or writing checks.
“They’re young kids and they’re doing what kids do,” said Dan Robuck, president of Ro-Mac Lumber, which donated $1,000 to Sabatini’s campaign.
Clay County Commissioner Gavin Rollins, who also donated $1,000 to the campaign, said he was surprised by “the lengths that people will go to try to create a narrative when there is none,” and said the incident will not stop him donating to future Sabatini campaigns.
“I invested in someone who was going to make good policy, and he’s advocated for good policy to this day,” he said.
The Florida Farm Political Action Committee, which gave Sabatini $1,000 in September, said it would assess future campaign donations as it does with all candidates. “We made that contribution based on his race in 2018, so we’ll make an assessment moving forward later,” said Adam Bassford, the group’s director of state legislative affairs.
The photo of Sabatini in high school surfaced during the election last fall, after it was emailed to media outlets in Lake County. In it, a 16-year-old Sabatini is wearing glasses and a gold chain with his face painted black. The photo resurfaced after blackface photo scandals led to the resignation of Florida’s secretary of state and pressure for Virginia’s governor to resign.
Why we reported this story
Fresh Take Florida, a news service at the University of Florida, sought to evaluate whether a freshman state lawmaker, Rep. Anthony Sabatini, R-Howey-in-the-Hills, had suffered significant political damage over a photo that had resurfaced this month of him wearing blackface more than a decade ago. Similar scandals in recent weeks have led to the resignation of Florida’s secretary of state and pressure on Virginia’s Democratic governor to resign.
Other news organizations had previously published Sabatini’s explanation for the photo and cited calls by Democrats and advocacy groups urging Sabatini to resign. Fresh Take Florida spent additional reporting time contacting some of Sabatini’s most important political donors and campaign vendors and asked, “Do you plan to continue to support him?” Some declined to discuss their relationship, but others pledged to continue to support or work with Sabatini. The identities of Sabatini’s donors and vendors, their contact information and the amounts of money involved are all pieces of public information on file with the state government accessible online to anyone at no cost.
During the course of the reporting, Sabatini complained to an editor that a journalist contacting his donors demonstrated political bias. Some donors separately said they were uncomfortable being asked about their support for Sabatini.
It is common industry practice for journalists to contact a politician’s donors to discuss a candidate’s performance, votes or political strategies. Donors, especially, can provide important insights about whether a politician’s career has been damaged.
Sabatini said the photo wasn’t racist.
“Me and a friend of mine, when we were 16 years old, we dressed up as each other at school one day,” he said in an interview. “I used black paint to darken my skin. No one cared, we all laughed, the whole school thought it was funny. Went home, that was it.”
He said more than a decade later, news organizations were using the photo to stoke controversy. “Racial animus had nothing to do with it,” he said.
Sabatini’s friend in the photo, Brandon Evans, told the Orlando Sentinel there was no racist motivation.
“Every year at high school homecoming week, we had things like ‘80s days and celebrity days,” Evans said. “We said, ‘I’m going to be you and you’re going to be me.’ I don’t know how it got to be seen as racial. That’s all it was.”
It was unclear what effect, if any, the simmering political controversy will have on Sabatini’s effectiveness in Tallahassee. Some of the 21 bills and resolutions he introduced or cosponsored have been referred to committees or subcommittees, but their prospects for passage are uncertain early in the process. The legislative session formally begins March 5.
House Speaker Jose Oliva said Sabatini had “rightfully apologized” for his actions.
“All of us are not the people we were at 16,” Oliva said. “We grow, we learn, and we realize the world is much bigger than the walls of our high school.”
Florida’s Republican chairman, state Sen. Joe Gruters, urged Sabatini to “do less talking and more self reflection.”
Sabatini, 30, has complained the controversy has been disproportionate surrounding the photo, taken when he was a sophomore. His political strategy has included aggressively pushing back against news coverage of the blackface incident.
On Monday, as Fresh Take Florida surveyed Sabatini’s donors to ask whether they planned to continue to support him, Sabatini called an editor and said the inquiries demonstrated political bias.
He referred to one of the program’s journalists as “your little reporter,” promised to complain to the college dean and said he will investigate whether the university was unfairly targeting Republicans, who control Florida’s House and Senate and occupy the governor’s mansion. An hour earlier, Sabatini had tweeted, “They’re not journalists anymore – they are activists.”
Hours later Monday, Jacob Engels, a conservative journalist who is publisher of the Central Florida Post and a contributor to the conspiracy website Infowars, told the university he was investigating “how your journalism program has been weaponized, with extreme bias.” He said the reporting of Sabatini’s donors was “highly unethical behavior.” It was not clear whether the two had coordinated their inquiries.
Engels said in an email he had been told by sources he did not identify that the program had contacted Sabatini’s donors “with biased talking points in an effort to smear his reputation and promote a narrative, the exact opposite of investigative reporting or journalism of any kind.”
It is common industry practice for journalists to contact a politician’s donors to discuss a candidate’s performance, votes or political strategies. Fresh Take Florida surveyed about a dozen of Sabatini’s largest donors and campaign vendors by phone and asked whether they planned to continue to support him in future elections to evaluate whether the blackface photo had been politically damaging to him. The news service also interviewed Florida politicians in Tallahassee and reviewed the progress of Sabatini’s bills and resolutions.
Sabatini’s Democratic opponent, Cynthia Brown, urged Sabatini to resign and said on Facebook he was unfit to serve in office, no matter how long ago it was taken. The president of the local NAACP chapter, Martha Taylor, said the photo was racist and said blackface “has been unacceptable for decades.”
Sabatini’s district, in Lake County, is in a predominantly conservative and white area of central Florida. More than 83 percent of the county’s population of 346,017 is white, according to Census figures. Only about 11 percent is black. Sabatini won the 2018 race with 56 percent of the votes compared to Brown’s 44 percent.
Each of Lake County’s state House and Senate seats have gone to a Republican since 2002.
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.