Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue described the stakes of the Florida governor’s election on Tuesday as being “cotton-pickin’ important” at a campaign event on Saturday for Republican Ron DeSantis.
DeSantis is running against Democratic Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who is African-American.
“Public policy matters. Leadership matters. And that is why this election is so cotton-pickin’ important to the state of Florida,” Perdue, a former governor of Georgia, told supporters in Lakeland. “I hope you all don’t mess it up.”
When asked on Sunday what his response was to Perdue’s comment, Gillum laughed and told CNN, “He should go back to Georgia. We’ll take care of Florida.”
“Listen, we’re trying our very best to end this race on a high note,” Gillum continued. “As I have said throughout the campaign, we’re working to give voters something that they can vote for and not just against.”
DeSantis’ campaign did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment on Perdue’s statement. In an email to Politico, which first reported the comments, a DeSantis spokesman said, “We were happy to have (Perdue) in Polk County campaigning with us,” but referred any questions to the secretary’s office.
Earlier this year, David Bossie, President Donald Trump’s former deputy campaign manager, came under fire when he used the phrase “cotton pickin’” during an appearance on Fox News with an African-American guest.
Fox News host Ed Henry called the phrase “obviously offensive” and Bossie was reportedly suspended from the network over the comments.
In a statement, a Fox News spokesperson said “David Bossie’s comments today were deeply offensive and wholly inappropriate. His remarks do not reflect the sentiments of Fox News and we do not in any way condone them.”
In a post written shortly after the Bossie incident, former Virginia Democratic Sen. Jim Webb wrote a response in part to Joel Payne, the strategist to whom Bossie made the remark. Webb wrote about the origins of the phrase “cotton picker,” and defended it as a long-used phrase in the South that had no racist connotation.
DeSantis has faced criticism for his own past remarks, from the day after he won the August primary, when he went on Fox News to warn voters not to “monkey this up” by electing Gillum in November. DeSantis denied his choice of words was racially motivated.
The comments from Perdue on Saturday were flagged by the liberal research group American Bridge and could further roil a contest that has frequently been visited by concerns over DeSantis’ language and past affiliations, including one with a donor who called former President Barack Obama the n-word and another to anti-Muslim conservative political activist David Horowitz. DeSantis in August also left a racist Facebook group that listed him as an administrator, saying at the time he had been added to it without his knowledge.
“The congressman let us know exactly where he was going to take this race the day after he won the nomination,” Gillum said during their first debate, hosted by CNN, on October 21. “The ‘monkey up’ comment said it all and he’s only continued in the course of his campaign to draw all the attention he can to the color of my skin.”
During their second meeting, DeSantis, when confronted with those unsavory connections claimed ignorance and lashed out at the moderator, asking, “How the hell am I supposed to know every single statement someone makes?” before framing his refusal to apologize as defiance toward a hostile press.
“I am not going to bow down,” he said, “to the altar of media correctness.”
Gillum, who had been watching on quietly, coldly dismissed DeSantis’ explanation.
“My grandmother used to say, ‘A hit dog will holler,’ and it hollered through this room,” he said, adding a moment later: “Now, I’m not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist, I’m simply saying the racists believe he’s a racist.”
Earlier in the campaign, Gillum was targeted by racist robo-calls by a white supremacist group based in Idaho, which this week launched an attack on Stacey Abrams, who is also African-American and running for governor in Georgia.
Both DeSantis and Georgia GOP gubernatorial nominee Brian Kemp immediately denounced the calls.
CNN’s Daniella Diaz and Kate Sullivan contributed to this report.