The street is blocked off south of Bethel A.M.E. Church. Young marching-band members clog the road, reviewing their formations. Majorettes take their final stretches, wearing outfits designed to sparkle in the sun. Band members blow out their last practice notes. There are a few white folks sprinkled throughout the crowd, but approaching the campus, it’s clear that Homecoming Day at Florida A&M University might be the blackest place possible to meet Andrew Gillum.
That makes it the perfect place, really. The man who may soon become Florida’s first African American governor arrived here almost 19 years ago as a freshman, and ended up protesting the state’s governor at the time: Jeb Bush. Gillum was one of the organizers against Bush’s push in 2000 to tier the state university system in a way that would have put FAMU at the bottom, making it a “baccalaureate factory,” as Gillum called it, without graduate programs. Bush did succeed in endIng affirmative action in state college admissions, but Gillum and his fellow Rattlers helped FAMU maintain its master’s and doctorate programs. Now, he is asking Floridians to give him Bush’s old job.
“Florida A&M University was my first real introduction to politics as a heavyweight game,” Gillum tells Rolling Stone. “That fight, you know, when folks tell you who you are? And you know you’re somebody different? It can be real, defining how you engage in the process and how the process engages you. It activated me.”
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Gillum eventually became president of FAMU’s student government — where he met his future wife, R. Jai Howard, a former student vice-president. Now a senior executive with the Florida Dental Association Foundation, she joins Gillum during the parade in tending to their youngest, Davis, in a stroller, while their four-year-old twins, Caroline and Jackson, toss candy to other children from the convertible that leads their contingent. “You understand it’s not talking points,” she tells Rolling Stone later, after watching her husband have several dozen actual conversations along the parade route. “This is the real Andrew. There’s an aura of authenticity around him, and I think the voters see that. Even on video, it’s easy to see and capture that, but especially in person when you meet him.”
Gillum, 39, didn’t even wait for his college career to end to get into politics. He was elected to the Tallahassee City Commission before graduating in 2003 with a degree in political science. The 11 years on the commission, plus his four years as mayor, was all training for the work he now wants to do as governor. “I feel in many ways the type of life he’s led and the walk that he’s walked, this is almost like a natural progression,” says Gillum senior adviser Sharon Lettman-Hicks, who gave him his first job in politics with the People for the American Way, and managed his city commission campaign.
As the Gillums march alongside trees dripping with Spanish moss, there is a palpable sense of family, history and legacy. Martin Luther King III is there among the throngs lining the parade route to cheer on Gillum. And the elders whom Gillum greets barely stop chanting his slogan, “Bring it home.” It’s a mantra that was spoken by his mother’s mother — a directive to achieve whatever he set his mind to, then bring that success home to his family and community. The previous day, Gillum had buried his other grandmother in Jacksonville.
“You know, this is probably an asset that my wife hates, where you compartmentalize,” Gillum says hours after the parade sitting in a Bethel A.M.E. sanctuary pew. “Most times, I think it’s an asset, where you can just sort of feel like you chop off one part of your brain to do the next thing that you’ve got to do.”
But if Gillum had been looking for consolation in the embrace of this crowd, it didn’t show. He wasn’t there merely to ask for votes. He was there taking notes.
“Even along a parade walk, somebody pulls you in close and says, ‘I need a job.’ Or, you know, they’ll tell you their son got a felony and [ask], ‘What can we do about it?’” Gillum says. “So you know, even those things which feel very celebratory — there are, all along the way, nuggets that somebody wants to drop on you that informs you in some way.” He pauses. “You really do feel like you’re carrying a lot of people’s stuff with you.”
It may be a state race, but Gillum has undoubtedly arrived on the national scene — and arguably as the most polished and charismatic African American (male) politician since Barack Obama. Tall, persuasive and possessed both of a considerable charisma and preternatural ease among voters, the comparisons were inevitable. There are clear reasons why Hillary Clinton considered Gillum as a running mate in 2016 and why Bernie Sanders’ Our Revolution group endorsed him in August, before the primary. Donna Shalala, the former Clinton Cabinet official now running for Congress in a Miami district, tells Rolling Stone that Gillum “has [Barack] Obama’s eloquence and Bill Clinton’s touch.”
As for his Republican opponent, Ron DeSantis is a Trump-endorsed former Congressman who filmed a viral ad that may run up his two young children’s therapy bills when they grow up. It jokingly showed him indoctrinating the toddlers in the ways of MAGA by building border walls with blocks and “reading” Trump’s The Art of the Deal. There was no hint of a platform beyond some kind of cartoonish obsequiousness to the president. Less than 24 hours after both he and Gillum won their primaries, DeSantis, 40, told a Fox News interviewer, “The last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda with huge tax increases and bankrupting the state.”
The parties played the expected this-was-Republicans-being-racist/it-wasn’t-racist-you-silly-liberals dance in the media — but anyone who approached it with the slightest bit of sense knew what was up.
With Gillum’s star on the rise, there is reason to worry, though, that Democrats are again searching for some kind of political savior. And who could blame them? Not while we’re in this America, in this Trumpian time, when the marginalized have even more justification for their anger and fear. With so much at stake, there is a considerable weight for any opposition candidate to lift, but especially for black candidates, who are often compelled to marry the fury of a political moment with a statesmanlike performance that white voters will find respectful. Support activism for racial equality, for instance, but not NFL players kneeling during the anthem. Faced with the inherent incongruity of confronting systemic racism while seeking to be elected as part of that system, many a black candidate simply opts to drop the (public) anger and go the kumbaya route.
Gillum is not that dude. Some of the Obama comparisons undoubtedly arise from the fact that he is a gifted orator and unwilling to mute or sideline his blackness. Like many other politicians, Gillum is proud of his hardscrabble roots, often mentioning that his mother drove a school bus and that his father worked in construction. One of seven children, Gillum was the first of his family to graduate from college. But he has also made the name Markeis McGlockton — a 28-year-old black man shot and killed by a white man in July — a staple of his stump speech as he highlights the racism of Florida’s “stand your ground” law. He has called for ICE to be abolished and for President Trump to be impeached.
Gillum also hopes to sign Amendment 4 into law, should voters approve it in November — restoring the right to vote for around 1.4 million people who have been convicted of a felony in Florida. Gillum tells me that Amendment 4 “lands politics in a real way for people who don’t really understand how the process works, but they understand they’ve got a brother or a sister or a cousin, a dad, a sibling” — as Gillum himself does — ”who has a felony. And it may have the ability of turning more voters out.”
“The excitement around this amendment has been real,” says musician John Legend, who’s been campaigning in the state for Amendment 4’s passage. “I’ve talked to a couple of people where they’ve said, like, ‘Yeah, I’m coming out because of these issues together.’ The fact that you have a chance to elect a black governor, I think that definitely will drive people to the polls on both sides.” (Gillum’s presence on the ballot should also help Bill Nelson, the Democratic senator fighting to keep his seat out of the hands of outgoing Republican governor Rick Scott.)
Gillum has consistently had a slight edge in the polls as the race has reached its homestretch, with a New York Times poll giving him a five-point lead this week over DeSantis. Gillum’s top challenge, notes Luther Campbell, a longtime activist and columnist for the Miami New Times and a former member of the hip-hop outfit 2 Live Crew, will be making up the primary deficit against DeSantis; Gillum earned 517,417 votes, DeSantis 913,679. “The question that I don’t think the community has figured out is, are you just going to be the black governor?” says Campbell. “We’ll have a black governor, OK, we’ll jump up and down — but what is the black governor going to do for us? I think because we’ve had an African American president and not too many things were done for African Americans — now, coming behind the African American president, you, African American governor, we want to know: The basic question is, what are you going to do for us?”
All that considered, a Governor Gillum would have something else in common with the first black president: Republican obstruction. The GOP will likely maintain full control of the state legislature. Explaining that to his constituents who expect results may prove difficult. When Gillum tells me that citizens have called him, as a local official, when their Social Security check is late, it is not because they misunderstand his role in government. It is because they expect more of government, now more than ever.
“Most people project onto you what they think you can do,” Gillum tells me. “They want you to make sure you stand up and you fight for this, that and the third, and they’re not interested in a civics lesson about who was actually responsible for doing that part. They just know you. And they expect you to get it done.”
What Gillum wants to do as governor and what he’ll get to do if elected may be very different things. He says he would like to reverse current Gov. Rick Scott’s decision and expand Medicaid for more than 800,000 Floridians; support the national push for Medicare-for-all with a corporate tax hike; and set right a public education system that diverts the most public money of any state to private schools and ranks 45th in the nation in teacher pay. He also insists that “guns that can shoot off 60 bullets in 60 seconds don’t belong in civil society.” Not to mention that the next governor will have influence over redistricting in the wake of the 2020 census and will need to fill three vacant state Supreme Court seats, which will determine the court’s ideological balance.
Florida Republicans have held the state government trifecta — governorship, state Senate, state House — for the past 20 years, and the GOP lawmakers still in power will be more than ready to slow Gillum’s progress.
“It’s going to be a pretty heavy lift to put this state on a track that’s consistent with my vision for what this state ought to be,” Gillum says. “But I can’t do it by myself. I want to avoid what we did with President Obama, where it was like, ‘Oh, we’re excited. Go, go, go, go, go. Go forth and do great things.’ And then everybody went back home.”
Gillum seems to grasp not only that governing is a collective process, but that he’ll get no help from the opposing party. That is why he and Democrats throughout the state are placing a heavy emphasis upon not just sending Gillum to the statehouse, but sending fellow Democrats with him. “Send the squad, we need a squad,” he tells me. Gillum says he’s as worried about his party’s down-ballot races as he is about his own contest. He didn’t train in this profession solely to make history or to be a symbol.
“He’s a student of public policy,” Lettman-Hicks says of Gillum. “He made every decision in his career based on doing it nobly, doing it well-prepared, not wanting to just be an elected official, without having the preparation necessary to be an effective policymaker.”
The sad part is that he and most other candidates of color often must handle their own status as pioneers in addition to doing the raw business of politics. Should Gillum and the other two black nominees for governor — Georgia’s Stacey Abrams and Maryland’s Ben Jealous — win election, they would, in a single day, best the total of two black governors ever elected in United States history. Barring any ascent to a higher office, “the First Black Governor of (Insert State Here)” will be their political epitaphs, ahead of any of their accomplishments in office. The mere fact of their exceptionalism is a sorry reminder of a political system too often closed to those who look like us, and the refusal of too many white Americans to embrace truly representational government.
To boot, the power Gillum could wield, should he win, would be extraordinary. For all of the high-profile progressive candidates to emerge in this election cycle, Gillum may have the potential for the most lasting legacy. There are hopefuls throughout the country who aren’t shy about confronting racism. None of them are running to be in charge of a state as big as Florida, the third most populous in the country, with the potential to turn blue in 2020. But it is how Gillum shows his dissent in the Trump era, particularly in his responses to racism and Trumpism, that should serve as a model for the increasingly diverse candidate pool that Democrats seem poised to field in election cycles to come.
When Gillum shocked the Democratic establishment in August’s primary — defeating both Gwen Graham, a former congresswoman in the Panhandle and the daughter of the popular ex-governor Bob Graham, and former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine — Chris King finished third-to-last with less than 3 percent of the vote. But a little more than a week later, rather than pick either of his two closest competitors to run with him, Gillum chose the Harvard-educated real estate entrepreneur from Orlando to be his lieutenant governor. It wasn’t too hard to see why.
King, who is white, speaks with a Central Florida drawl full of charm, one that surely plays well in rooms where Gillum’s skin doesn’t. He can confront those audiences a bit more readily with the argument that electing a black governor is important, especially in the state that was home to the most lynchings per capita in U.S. history. King tells me he knew his own bid for governor was in real trouble way back in April of last year, when he had the misfortune of immediately following Gillum at a Manatee County Democratic Party Dinner. “We got a problem,” King remembers saying on the way home that night. “We gotta work on our fast pitch, because he’s good.” Just how good became clear when Gillum took to the debate stage in October.
During their first debate, Gillum called DeSantis’ “monkey up” remark intentional and obviously racist, and confronted the issue. “The ‘monkey up’ comment said it all,” Gillum told moderator Jake Tapper, “and he has only continued in the course of his campaign to draw all the attention he can to the color of my skin. And the truth is, you know what? I’m black. I’ve been black all my life and as far as I know, I’ll die black.”
He could have let it slide. Too often, black politicians do that in the name of going high when others go low, of keeping the focus on the Real Issues. Gillum, by rebuking it that ferociously, made fresh space for anger — specifically, at racism — at the manicured political image to which so many black candidates adhere.
Gillum cut even deeper in the second and and final debate three days later. When DeSantis was asked about “monkey this up” and his several appearances at Restoration Weekend conferences organized by conservative activist David Horowitz — who has alleged that “this country’s only serious race war is against whites” — he attacked the moderator, launching into one of those indignant “I’m not racist” monologues that is meant to make the accused appear like a victim.
Gillum offered this response, once again quoting one of his grandmothers:
Well, let me first say my grandmother used to say, “A hit dog will holler.” And it hollered through this room. Mr. DeSantis has spoken. First of all, he’s got neo-Nazis helping him out in the state. He has spoken at racist conferences. He’s accepted a contribution and would not return it from someone who referred to the former president of the United States as a Muslim n-i-g-g-e-r. When asked to return that money, he said “no.” He’s using that money to now fund negative ads.
Now, I’m not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist. I’m simply saying the racists believe he’s a racist.
The final line in particular was a sublime incineration of one of the right’s most intellectually dishonest arguments: that racism is only provable when certain words are uttered or in the most extreme cases — such as the recent rash of racist anti-Gillum robocalls, one of which had actual monkey sounds in it. That convenient formulation allows for them to consider racism so rare that most allegations are instinctively rendered invalid. Gillum punctured that lie by boiling it down to a political transaction: Why would a conspicuous bigot like Horowitz invite a sitting congressman to his conferences and foot the bill for room and board if this elected official didn’t share his agenda? DeSantis may harp on those Hamilton tickets the mayor received in 2016 from an undercover FBI agent — an issue that continues to plague his campaign due to inconsistent explanations — or the broader FBI probe into alleged corruption in Tallahassee city government that hasn’t yet implicated Gillum. But Democrats have to wager that Floridians worry more about electing a candidate who keeps company with men like Horowitz.
“We’re running against an ideology,” says Lettman-Hicks. “We’re running against a past. We’re running against Donald Trump. I mean, DeSantis is just a person that was chosen to run what Donald Trump needs to keep a foothold on a major artery of this country. I don’t feel like we have a genuine opponent because we can’t articulate what our opponent stands for. All we can articulate is who our opponent supports.”
DeSantis, whose campaign did not return repeated requests from Rolling Stone for comment, has also implied that Gillum himself is a bigot — or bigotry-adjacent, at least. The Republican claimed several times during the debates that a pledge Gillum made with the Miami-based Dream Defenders civil rights group — a document written after the Parkland high school massacre in which politicians who signed promised never to take private prison and National Rifle Association money — somehow means that Gillum must agree with the group’s position that Israel is built on “stolen Palestinian land.” (In a statement sent to Rolling Stone, Dream Defenders communications director Nailah Summers wrote that the Freedom Papers, which DeSantis referenced, and the Freedom Pledge that Gillum signed are “two totally separate documents.” )
Lettman-Hicks resists the DeSantis push to categorize Gillum so narrowly. “We’re not just selecting a politician, we are electing a whole person that understands the responsibility of being a servant leader, a husband, a father, a son, a big brother, a mentor. He accepts all those identities in a way that lets you know you’re getting more than a politician. He’s deeply grounded in the responsibility of what a local community needs in a leader.”
Less than a week after Homecoming at FAMU, Gillum was back in Tallahassee, with a chainsaw in his hands. He took 10 days off the trail to help his city endure Hurricane Michael — at times cutting up downed trees in the street himself.
The work he is doing now is nothing compared to what it will require to govern through Republican obstruction, to deliver concrete results to communities that are pinning their hopes on not only his historic win, as Luther Campbell tells me, but on his ability to deliver “jobs and money” — not just hope and change. Confronting Florida’s legacies of racist housing, crime, poverty and climate neglect is unavoidable, but Gillum isn’t letting that burden him now. The campaigning is heavy enough.
“I don’t want to take away anybody’s joy,” Gillum told me as we sat in that church pew. “I’m not trying to disavow anybody of what this race means to them and to their family, and to their state and to their history. But I also don’t spend a lot of time talking about that. Every opportunity I get, I try to bring this thing back in focus about what we’re fighting for because ultimately, beyond history, people do want better. They want a better life. They want to be able to earn more. They want to be able to go to a doctor that isn’t the emergency room to get routine care.
“Teachers want to be paid a salary they can live on,” Gillum adds, speaking a little faster with each phrase. “Those things stay front and center for me, period. If anybody thinks I’m drunk on history, they got another thing coming.”