TALLAHASSEE — At 10:50 p.m. Tuesday night outside Lee Hall on Florida A&M University’s campus, Democrat Andrew Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, stepped to the microphone. Florida’s first-ever black nominee for governor gave a gracious, hopeful concession speech to a devoted group of supporters after it became apparent that Republican former Congressman Ron DeSantis would become Florida’s 46th governor by a narrow margin.
“I believe, in the long run, good always wins out over evil,” Gillum said.
Despite multiple key Democratic wins across the country Tuesday night, up to and including regaining control of the House, in some ways it felt like 2016 all over again down in Florida: misleading early poll numbers favoring Democrats, a lost opportunity for someone other than a white man to make history and the realization that Trump-style politics are alive and well in the American South.
On Tuesday, Tallahassee saw a torrential downpour that didn’t let up until right after the polls closed at 7 p.m. ET, but Gillum supporters and volunteers still waded through the mud to fill onto FAMU’s campus and show support for the candidate and star alum. Gillum began his Florida political career while he was still a student at FAMU after being elected to the Tallahassee City Commission at age 23, so if there was any place for him to “bring it home,”— the rallying cry of his campaign — it would have been here.
Chazriq Clarke, an 18-year-old first-year FAMU student, tells Rolling Stone he volunteered with Team Gillum on election night because he felt drawn in by Gillum’s “authenticity and connection with people.” Gillum was the first candidate Clarke has ever voted and volunteered for. Before the election results rolled in, Clarke joyously said, “All of this happening is an amazing moment in history.”
Throughout the night, large TV screens showed MSNBC’s election coverage for Gillum’s watch party attendees, a predominately black crowd, who cheered every time it was announced that a Democrat had won a seat in the U.S. House or Senate. The audience was especially excited to see that Amendment 4 in Florida, which restores voting rights to felons who have served their time, passed with an overwhelming majority. Amendment 4 was the bright spot of Florida’s election night, seeing as over a million people just regained the ability to vote, which could significantly alter Florida’s politics in 2020.
Around 8:15 p.m., MSNBC reported that DeSantis had jumped slightly ahead of Gillum, and the screens were briefly muted shortly thereafter while David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” echoed over the loudspeakers instead. Campaign surrogates periodically took the stage to try and keep the energy up, but by 9:30 p.m., the crowd was straight-faced and the optimism had dissipated.
When Gillum announced his candidacy back in March 2017, liberal Floridians finally had someone to be excited about. “Democrats in Florida typically run safe moderates, and sometimes our voters aren’t as fired up about those kinds of candidates in midterm elections,” Geoff Burgan, a senior communications adviser to Gillum, tells Rolling Stone. “But the mayor was an unapologetic believer in his vision for a more inclusive state where health care is a right for all, where we actually pay teachers what they’re worth, and that vision took hold.” It was always going to be an uphill battle to defeat DeSantis, a Trump favorite whose entire campaign seemed to be based around the fact that he was just like Trump, but the momentum Gillum created within Florida will have a lasting effect.
“This campaign has never been a referendum on Donald Trump, it’s been about the better Florida we know we badly need,” Burgan says. And while Gillum energized voters by giving them something to vote for and not just something to vote against, it would have been impossible to separate national politics from state politics this year.
In the midst of Gillum’s efforts to aid Tallahassee after Hurricane Michael in October, Trump fired off tweets declaring the city one of the “worst” and “most corrupt” in the country, which residents were, obviously, offended by, considering Trump had no proof to back up his claims.
Trump went on to tweet about Gillum several more times over the subsequent weeks, calling him a “thief” (Trump has never used this word on Twitter to describe anyone else) and implying that Gillum’s FAMU education isn’t enough compared to DeSantis’ Ivy League alma maters. Trump’s all-too-obvious racist scare tactics were troubling, and completely predictable.
Racism was present throughout the entire election, starting right after Gillum’s Democratic primary win, which DeSantis responded to by telling voters not to “monkey this up.”
It can’t be overstated how the combination of DeSantis as governor and Marco Rubio and Rick Scott as senators will threaten Florida’s future. Florida is the state most in danger of the effects of climate change, and none of the aforementioned Republicans have any plans to address it. Meanwhile, the state’s environment is already in peril as toxic algae continues to take over after Scott failed to rectify the problem as governor. Florida also saw two of the deadliest mass shootings in modern U.S. history in 2016 and 2018; DeSantis boasts an “A” rating from the NRA.
But even with plenty to be worried about, Gillum’s supporters aren’t backing away from their beliefs. After the watch party, Erik Neff, a 34-year-old Gillum volunteer and lifelong Democrat told Rolling Stone, “Of course I’m upset that my candidate didn’t succeed, but I’m not upset about what I think the future of Florida should be.”
Before Gillum left the stage Tuesday night, he offered a reassuring message. “I sincerely regret that I couldn’t bring it home for you,” Gillum said, “But I can guarantee you this: I’m not going anywhere.” And with that, the 2020 talk began.