Not one to be bested by Virginia’s string of disturbingly racist (and allegedly sexually violent) scandals by public officials, Florida has hoisted itself back into the spotlight with a Republican state representative refusing to resign over a blackface photo of himself that surfaced during his campaign.
Rep. Anthony Sabatini of Florida’s 32nd House district has fielded calls to resign from Florida Democratic Chair Terry Rizzo and Democrat Cynthia Brown, whom he defeated for the Florida House seat in November, according to the Orlando Sentinel. But Sabatini is rejecting those demands, and party leader José Oliva also rejected Rizzo’s request to call for Sabatini’s resignation, according to the paper.
In response to the renewed controversy—it’s worth emphasizing again that the photo surfaced during his campaign and voters elected him anyway—Sabatini told the Sentinel on Tuesday that the Democrats will “do whatever it takes to influence [elections], including going into high school yearbook pictures of you.”
The state representative also said the photo of him in blackface, a gold necklace, sunglasses, a durag, and a baseball cap taken 14 years ago wasn’t racist, and that it was “decontextualized” from a celebrity theme day at Eustis High School in which he and his friend, Brandon Evans, who is black, decided to dress up as each other. Because in that context, blackface is definitely not racist. (Evans also told the paper he doesn’t think the photo was racist, and that he disagrees with calls for his friend to resign.)
“I’m 16 years old, one of my best friends of the time was black, and we thought at the time—looking back, it was immature—it would be funny to dress as each other,” Sabatini told the Sentinel. “He dressed in my clothes—a Ralph Lauren polo shirt, shorts, Converse—and I dressed in his clothing. … None of us thought 14 years later any of us would be a public figure and the photo would be decontextualized.”
The calls for Sabatini to resign come as Virginia’s top political leaders are in crisis after a photo surfaced from Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page of a person in blackface and another in KKK garb. Today, Attorney General Mark Herring also admitted to donning blackface for a party back in 1980. After calls began for Northam to resign, all eyes were on Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who was accused of sexual assault, with his accuser breaking her silence for the first time on Wednesday.
When Sabatini’s photo was first discovered months ago, after being anonymously emailed in Lake County, FL media during his campaign, he told the Sentinel: “It was OK to joke around like that. It’s changed, OK? There is definitely a different standard. I get it.” However, he also called the Sentinel’s reporting on his photo “shameful,” and said that any coverage would be seen as “left-wing liberals spinning” a narrative against him.
With all that in mind, it makes some logical sense why he’s refusing to step down now. After all, people actually voted for this guy despite knowing that he was a high school shit who thought it was OK to wear blackface, so it makes sense that’s he’s feeling even more empowered to keep the seat, which he earned despite that racism being on full view.