Florida Republican Refuses to Resign Over Blackface Photo, Says He Was Only Impersonating His Friend

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Republican Rep. Anthony Sabatini of Florida is the latest politician facing calls for his ouster after damning high school photos of him dressed in blackface.

Sabatini is refusing to resign, however, calling the photo a “prank.”

Rep. Anthony Sabatini
Rep. Anthony Sabatini insisted the “prank” was never racial, arguing that he and his friend were only dressing like one another. (Images courtesy of The Orlando Sentinel)

On Tuesday, Florida Democratic Chair Terry Rizzo called on the lawmaker to step down after the photo, which circulated prior to Sabatini’s election, became a source of controversy yet again, The Orlando Sentinel reported. In it, a young Sabatini, with his face covered in black paint, smiles for the camera as he poses in sunglasses, gold jewelry and a Yankees baseball cap.

The 30-year-old congressman has denied the photo is racist, telling the newspaper this week that the image has been “decontextualized,” and described it as an “immature high school prank” between friends. Not everyone agreed.

“I don’t care what age you are, where you grew up, what political party you belong in, this is not where we belong,” his former opponent, Democrat Cynthia Brown, said on Facebook Monday.

The photo was mailed anonymously to Brown’s office last fall when the two were running for Florida House District 32 and was the subject of several news outlets, including an op-ed published in the Sentinel entitled, “Lesson to be Learned for Young People from Florida House Candidate Who Donned Blackface in High School.”

The scandal has gained renewed attention after Virginia Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam walked back his apology over a photo on his medical school yearbook page featuring a man in blackface and another wearing a KKK robe. It wasn’t long before state Attorney General Mark Herring revealed that he too had darkened his skin for a costume party in the ’80s.

In January, Florida Secretary of State Michael Ertel stepped down over similar photos of him dressed as a Hurricane Katrina survivor.

“In light of the Florida Secretary of State resigning for belonging to such a disgusting racial divide (and by the way the Democratic [governor] of VA should also resign, so I am being consistent on my position), my former opponent Sabatini should resign,” Brown continued. “Anthony, you cannot represent ALL the people of our district, just as the Florida Secretary of State decided he couldn’t. “Do what is right for once, step down and resign.”

Sabatini has defended himself against the backlash, saying he and a friend, who his Black, had concocted a ruse to dress like each other. The friend, Brandon Evans, backed up his claims.

“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 said. “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 explanation didn’t satisfy Brown, who argued that regardless of Sabatini’s age, “he still did it.”

“It’s hateful for so many people,” she said. “It wasn’t the ‘80s, like the governor of Virginia’s defense. This was in the 2000s.”

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