MIAMI, Fla. (CN) – Fighting through rancor-filled heckles, former President Barack Obama made a final push for Florida’s Democratic candidates during a Friday speech that decried nationalist rabble-rousing and touted the Affordable Care Act.
Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum introduced Obama as our “forever president” Friday afternoon during a humid and at times bowstring-tense rally at Ice Palace Film Studios in Miami.
Obama did not mention President Donald Trump by name in his speech. But he lamented what he saw as the commander-in-chief’s attempts to “gin up” anger among the far-right base by generalizing a caravan of Central American migrants as hardened criminals.
“In the closing weeks of this election, we have seen repeated attempts to divide us with rhetoric designed to make us angry and make us fearful,” he said. “It’s designed to exploit our history of racial, ethnic and religious division.
“[It] pits us against one another, makes us believe that order will somehow be restored if it just weren’t for those folks who don’t look like we look, or don’t love like we love or pray like we do,” Obama told the crowd.
In moments when the crowd grew most quiet and seemingly most captivated during the speech, the hecklers, one of whom was armed with a whistle, made themselves known.
As one of the hecklers, a diminutive middle-aged man in a blue T-shirt, was about to be escorted out the door, a red-haired Democratic supporter lunged forward and screamed at him to bugger off.
Flanked by Gillum and longtime Senate incumbent Bill Nelson, Obama tried to smile through the tumult.
Both the Senate and gubernatorial races are polling tight, with RealClear Politics classifying the outcome as a toss-up. RealClear’s polling average shows Gillum and Nelson with slight leads over their Republican opponents.
Health insurance regulations, in particular the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, are taking center stage in the races.
Republican candidates in recent weeks have been trying to assure Florida that, despite their support for repealing the Affordable Care Act, they want to keep key elements of the law, namely those that prevent insurers from refusing to provide coverage to people with pre-existing conditions.
Governor Rick Scott, who’s looking to take Nelson’s seat, is running ads in which he recalls how his brother had a serious hip condition as a youth and had to be driven to a faraway charity hospital to get treatment.
“I support forcing insurance companies to cover preexisting conditions,” Scott said in a recent ad.
Gillum’s opponent Ron DeSantis repeatedly voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act while serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, but he has joined Scott in pledging support for maintaining preexisting condition protections.
DeSantis voted to supplant the ACA with the 2017 American Health Care Act, a bill that died in the Senate after being passed by the House. He resigned from his House seat in September to pursue the governorship.
Obama during his Friday speech called out Republican candidates for purportedly flip-flopping on healthcare.
“Right at election time, Republicans are saying they’re gonna protect your pre-existing conditions, when they’ve literally been doing the opposite,” the former president said.
The ACA “helps cover almost 1.6 million just here in Florida,” Obama said.
As the rally came to a close, a sweaty crowd filed out into the streets of downtown Miami, where bus drivers waited to transport people to early voting stations.
A man in a wheelchair, dressed in military fatigues and holding a DeSantis sign, yelled at African-American passersby that the Democrat Party doesn’t have their best interests in mind. He repeatedly shouted about how Republicans supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by a wider margin than Democrats.
When asked about more current events – and Trump’s perceived stoking of ethnic tension to turn out votes – the man said that he was more concerned about the president’s actions than his words. He said he believes Trump is not a racist at heart.
“Even though people say things that hurt people, it’s their right to speak a certain way. Our country is there to defend rights, not opinions,” he said.
Down the street, Democrat Millie Herrera, owner of a marketing and business consulting company, said she was dismayed by Trump’s controversial immigration rhetoric.
“Trump is doing this because he wants to appeal to people who are hateful, who don’t remember that their grandparents and great grandparents were immigrants,” said Herrera, whose resume lists a past position as the regional head of a Democratic Hispanic Caucus. “It’s unfortunate … the divisiveness he is inflicting on the United States. That’s not who we are.”
Herrera, who grew up in Cuba before moving to the U.S. at age 10, said that the fiery words coming from Trump stir up childhood memories of inflammatory speeches by the Castro regime.
“It upsets me terribly when Cuban Americans don’t recognize that, and follow blind partisanship. They are defending the same things that they fled,” she said.
Herrera said the Affordable Care Act helped her secure healthcare coverage that protected her from financial ruin when she suffered a heart attack in 2015. Before the act was passed, she said, insurers had been trying to charge her absurdly high premiums on account of a blood clot she suffered in the late 1990s.