While Stacey Abrams’ bid to become Georgia’s first black governor has generated national headlines and set liberal hearts a-flutter, the Democrat who’s seeking to do the same in neighboring Florida has largely flown under the radar — even in parts of his own state. But Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, running like Abrams as a full-throated progressive, appears to have picked up momentum heading into a wide-open August 28th Democratic primary, thanks to big infusions of money and ground-level support from progressive donors like George Soros and Tom Steyer, and a recent endorsement by Bernie Sanders, who is scheduled to join Gillum on Friday for rallies in Tampa and Orlando.
When he spoke to Rolling Stone earlier this week, Gillum was back home for one rare day before heading southward for another solid week of whipping up enthusiasm among his coalition of white progressives, African-Americans, young folk, Asians and Latinos. “This is not for the faint-hearted,” he joked, and that’s a good description of the campaign that he launched more than a year ago. The 39-year-old hasn’t just been up against four serious (and well-heeled) Democratic contenders, but has also been shadowed by an FBI investigation into city-hall corruption in Tallahassee. (The investigation hasn’t implicated the mayor directly but appeared to make some big progressive donors shy about investing in his campaign.)
Gillum has only begun to air his first TV commercial — in a far-flung state where advertising matters more than most — in recent weeks. But with African-Americans making up more than a quarter of Florida’s Democratic voters (and Hispanics another 17 percent), and with no other candidate pulling out far in front (white centrist Rep. Gwen Graham has mostly led in the polls but with support in the 20s), Gillum’s late surge has given him a shot at replicating Abrams’ success in firing up long-overlooked voters with an uncompromising message they haven’t heard in decades, if ever. We asked him why he thinks the old formulas won’t work for Democrats anymore.
Why did your campaign take so long to catch fire, and why do you still think you have a chance at the nomination?
It certainly is challenging when you are the only non-millionaire in a race like this, in a state as big as Florida is, competing for the highest office in the state — which a Democrat hasn’t won in 20 years. And I’m a little outside the mold of what our party is used to nominating. We’re used to conservative Democrats. I don’t look, I don’t sound like and I don’t hold the same views that people have been accustomed to.
I think our strongest case is that what we’ve been doing as Democrats for the last 20 years hasn’t worked. The last two elections for governor, we lost to the man [Rick Scott] who committed the largest Medicaid fraud in the country — right here in the Medicaid state, if you will. The only way to change that is by not shrinking from who we are and what we believe as Democrats. Putting our flag in the ground and giving people something to vote for and not just vote against — that’s how we win. When Republican voters have a choice between a real Republican and a fake one, they’re going to go to the real one every time. In Florida, Republicans have had power for 20 years now. They’re not just going to just give away that power just because they like a Democratic nominee.
Have Florida Democrats been failing to speak to the rest of the state in their efforts to sound “centrist”?
Absolutely. When our base doesn’t get excited about our nominee, they don’t show up. Many of them feel they’ve been failed by the politicians, by the government. They’re out there working two jobs to try and make ends meet, and even if they lean toward the Democrats, just that is not going to get them to take the time to vote and to participate.
I worked pretty hard for Hillary Clinton. I endorsed her, I spoke at her convention, I was a surrogate for her throughout 2016. But my candidacy has been able to pull together the Bernie and Hillary wings of the party. The way we’ve been able to do it is not being apologetic about who we are. And in my case, among other things, that means somebody who’s been the chief executive of the capital city of Florida for four years, and held elected office for 15.
What have you accomplished in Tallahassee that you’d like to make happen for the rest of the state?
For starters, our crime rate is at a 10-year low. We leaned in on restorative justice. I banned the box [which job applicants had to check if they’d been convicted of any crimes]; we measure you on your merit in Tallahassee. The week that President Trump was pulling out of the Paris climate accord, I broke ground on a 120-acre solar farm in my community. We’re out there talking about what we’ve done, not just what I believe. That’s important. It’s not just theoretical.
You struggled for much of the race to raise the money to be competitive. Why do you think that’s been more of a problem for you than for Stacey Abrams in Georgia?
African-Americans are a majority of Democratic voters in Georgia, which isn’t true here; it’s easier to see why my friend Stacey had a chance to win. And the truth is, so many people have long seen Florida as this sort of wacky state. We’ve been at the center of so many national headlines, from our “stand your ground” law (which allows killing in cases of perceived self-defense) and murders of African-Americans to some of the more racist rallies that have gone on. We were the state that hung up the 2000 presidential election. We’re always the state that everybody thinks, “Oh, there goes Florida again.”
Nationally, people see the state as too big, too expensive, and god knows, too unpredictable to make a big investment in a particular candidate. And I have in this race four white opponents, two of them billionaires — and one of the others self-funding in the millions. With all those options, why do you choose the black guy, who’s from Tallahassee, who also has a job and a mortgage and a family to support?
“Stand your ground” has become a central issue in this campaign; according to the polls, it’s one of the top three issues Florida Democrats say will most affect their votes. That’s unusual for anything related to gun control.
I have been consistent since the shooting death of Trayvon Martin that “stand your ground” is indefensible. It allows vigilantes to operate as judge, jury and executioner. They are able to agitate and precipitate conflict, and then they they are able to murder in broad daylight. And this law is not created equal. It does not take an imaginative mind to see, in a case like Markeis McGlockton [a black man shot recently in a parking lot by a white man who questioned his taking a handicapped space], that if the situation had been reversed — if he had been banging on a vehicle with the other man’s wife and children inside, her white husband would have had every right to come out of that store and confront that person without facing death.
What explains the staying power of such a law, which has been on the books for more than a decade in Florida?
I think the NRA is primarily responsible. First of all, they wrote the law. They will defend it to the hilt. We have had a legislature full of people who cower to the will of the NRA. What people know about me is that I will not cower to them. They took us through the courts for two years, all because we refused to repeal a law that banned guns in public parks in Tallahassee. That was it. The whole case. But it was such a radical thing to say, “no, we don’t want guns in our parks,” that they were willing to spend on a protracted legal fight. We beat them not once but twice, and I said I’d see them in the Supreme Court if they wanted to keep the battle going. If you want to fight them, you have to be ready for a fight.
Ending the “school to prison pipeline” has long been a priority for criminal-justice reformers. How would you work toward that as governor?
We’ve got a long way to go here in Florida. We know what we need to do; we just haven’t had the will to get it done. But it’s certainly not simple. There’s a multi-layered set of policies that have created this pipeline. We’ve got to deal with poverty, for starters; right now, 44 percent of people in my state say they cannot make ends meet at the end of the month. I’m also promising a $1 billion investment in public education. Forty percent of Florida children begin kindergarten not ready to learn.
We have had a very backward approach to criminal justice in Florida. In Tallahassee, we’ve created “Community Connections,” where non-violent juvenile offenders go in front of panels of victims and community members instead of a judge; they learn how their actions affected the community. The rate of reoffending for juveniles is huge in Florida; in our program, after six months, over 90 percent have not re-offended. That’s the kind of policy we’ve got to scale up statewide.
One challenge you’re facing is familiar to progressives everywhere: How do you kindle hope in the age of Trump and Trumpism?
What I’ve tried to say, and said all along on the trail, is that there are more of us than there are of him. Loving, caring, decent people. The country didn’t become something in 2016 that it wasn’t before. Six million people who had voted before didn’t vote. And half the country didn’t vote at all.
Given the demographics of Florida, one would expect to see a lot of non-white politicians winning statewide and federal races on a regular basis. Why hasn’t that happened?
One of the barriers has been the Democrats’ obsession with a certain typograph of a Democrat running statewide. Even though it hasn’t worked for us, we seem to go to it automatically.
I have to remind people that aside from Senator Bill Nelson, the only Democrat to carry Florida in the last two decades was an African- American, Barack Obama.
People ask me all the time, can a progressive win in Florida? Can a black candidate win? I point out to them that, well, we’ve nominated five white candidates for governor over the last 20 years and lost every time. Don’t hold me to a standard that applies to others.
Barack Obama was sometimes criticized as not being “black enough” — and by progressives for being too accommodating. But that never seemed to “reassure” white people en masse — quite the contrary, it seems, given the force and duration of the blowback against his presidency. What did you learn from Obama — both to emulate and perhaps to avoid?
One of the more important lessons I took from him was how, throughout all the obstructionism that he faced as president, he was a man who kept his cool. He understood that being the first black president meant that his actions had to be for the ages, not just for the moment.
Another thing I took from his example, though: Power cedes nothing without a demand. Accommodating, simply being nice, and believing that others will then simply come along with you is a myth. You have to empower people to come along with you. I’ve said to folks on the campaign trail, ‘All of you are coming with me to the governor’s office. We can’t govern without you being both inside the door and outside the door, making demands.’We expected too much from President Obama. And he didn’t ask enough of us.