"Attention potential 'protesters' coming near Lake County, FL. This is an AR-15—this will be a very common sight upon illegal entry at any Lake County business—FYI!" Sabatini wrote early Sunday, attaching a photo of a camouflage-covered rifle.
In response, Hialeah state Rep. Cindy Polo has filed a written complaint against Sabatini, accusing her colleague in the Florida House of "inciting violence."
"Representative Sabatini's comments are clearly inflammatory to an already volatile situation, and damaging to the integrity of the Florida House of Representatives. His behavior is contrary to good order and discipline," Polo wrote in a letter to House Speaker José Oliva. "It is our responsibility, as written out in our own rules, to admonish him and insist he behave responsibly and with integrity."
Hours later, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried — the lone Democrat elected statewide — tweeted that she had also written a letter to Oliva calling for Sabatini to be reprimanded.
Sabatini has served in the Florida House since 2018, when he was elected to represent District 32 in Central Florida. The 31-year-old Republican has aligned himself with President Donald Trump and GOP provocateurs including U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida. In his short tenure, he has publicly brushed up against his Democratic counterparts and other liberal-leaning activists, notably on issues of transgender rights and gun control.
Sabatini has also scraped with Polo on Twitter, including shortly before he posted the photo of the AR-15.
"Here are the 'protesters' that Rep. @CindyPoloFL103 and other FL Democrats have been defending all week—great job!" he tweeted late Saturday night, commenting on another person's video of a Dallas protest that became violent.
But Polo tells New Times the situation is more than a Twitter spat. The Hialeah representative says that while she's had her fair share of arguments with Sabatini, she believes his tweet this weekend "took it to another level."
"This isn't a beef; this is us holding each other accountable for irresponsible language," she says. "This is, in my opinion, a violation of our [Florida House] rules and the integrity we should be holding ourselves to."
Polo takes issue specifically with Sabatini calling out "protesters," saying it was a deliberate choice of wording on his part.
"In his tweet, he was not talking about quote 'rioters' or quote 'looters' — he used the word 'protesters,'" she says. "He knows exactly what he was doing."
Sabatini, meanwhile, accuses Polo of trying to "generate controversy."
"You'd have to really fail miserably at basic reading to look at that tweet and say it's actually inciting violence," he tells New Times.
Sabatini says he put the word "protesters" in quotations to refer to people who have ulterior motives to break into and loot businesses.
"The real protesters who are doing it peaceably and not causing any issues — clearly most Americans... know that the tweet is not referring to the real ones," he says.
Sabatini's tweet name-checked Lake County, a part of Florida that is roughly 70 percent white. As some people mentioned on Twitter, Lake County was also led for decades by Sheriff Willis McCall, a white supremacist who since his death has been connected to the bombing murders of two Florida civil-rights leaders in 1951.
Notably, McCall shot two black men who were wrongfully accused of raping a white woman, as documented in author Gilbert King's Pulitzer Prize-winning book Devil in the Grove. One of the men, Samuel Shepherd, died from a gunshot wound to the head.
Lake County, Florida is the place that kept re-electing Sheriff Willis McCall decades after he shot two black men in his custody, murdering one, and even though he was tight with the Ku Klux Klan. Looks like his spirit lives on. https://t.co/Ha85ZV6SCs https://t.co/D9413ZcT48— Andy Metzger (@MetzgerBot) May 31, 2020
But Sabatini says that history has nothing to do with the recent protests against Floyd's killing. He tells New Times most people living in Lake County today aren't from the area and would have no reason to connect his tweet to past horrors.
Tell me about it. I live in Lake County, I’ve seen it all my life I remember Willis McCall, disgusting man https://t.co/6l6bfyoTw5— Lori Piermatteo (@LoriPiermatteo) June 1, 2020
"The average person from Lake County is actually from the Midwest. They don't actually know anything about the county," he says. "You're talking about 70 years ago, murders from the 1940s."
A spokesperson for Oliva did not respond to an email from New Times asking if the speaker planned to address the complaints with Sabatini.
Sabatini, for his part, does not expect to hear from Oliva, a fellow Republican. "That's not happening," he says.