“I don’t need a pollster to tell me what to believe in this race. I don’t need a set of message board points to tell me that people are hurting in my state. I know it because I’ve lived it.”
There was something familiar in the tone, urgency and words of Andrew Gillum, the Democratic mayor of Tallahassee. “I think that that is what is going to make way for us to not only break through this primary election,” he continued, “but is what’s going to pierce the hearts, the minds, the imagination, the hope, the inspiration and aspiration of voters all across our state, who may or may not be Democrats.” Gillum is one of five candidates for the Democratic nomination for Florida governor.
But it is what he said at the end of this oration in the latest episode of “Cape Up” that triggered my sense of deja vu. “I’m not gonna capitulate and shrink from who I am, and what I believe in, in this race,” Gillum told me at the WNYC studios in lower Manhattan earlier this month.
Rhetorically, Gillum reminded me of Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee for governor of Georgia. If she wins the general election in November, Abrams would become the first female governor of the state, the first African American to become governor in the state and the first black female governor in the United States — ever. If Gillum wins the Florida Democratic Party nomination for governor on Aug. 28, he could become the state’s first African American governor.
“Democrats have to be willing to stand on our own truth consistently,” Abrams told me on the podcast last September. “My job is not to convince you that your beliefs are wrong. My job is to convince you that the pathway to getting what you need comes through the work I’m willing to do.” As for the initial Democratic obsession with winning back white working-class voters, Abrams said, “What Democrats mean is we’ve gotta convince Republicans to come back, as opposed to, ‘Let’s get the Democrats we have to come out.’ ” This sentiment was echoed by Gillum when I asked him point-blank, “What makes you so special?”
“We keep running these races as if we are running Republican lite on the belief that if we are just good enough, just nice enough, just acceptable enough, if we don’t say loud enough what it is that we believe in, that maybe they’ll like us, and when they go into the ballot box they’ll choose us,” Gillum said, referring to the difficulty Democrats have had in winning back the Florida governor’s mansion over about the past 20 years. “What Republican voters have shown us is that when they have the choice between the real thing and the fake one, they go with the real one every time. … And then our voters, the very ones that we need in order to win, we’re not providing them a motivation or a stimulation to get out there and vote for us. Why? Because they’re not sure that we’re for them.”
Gillum also believes that Democrats in general and he in particular have to do more than rail against President Trump. Despite there being plenty of reason to be angry with him and what he’s doing, the party and its candidates have to motivate the base with more than anger. “I’m anti-Trump as much as anybody else, I’m just not trying to believe that that’s how we’re going to win this race for governor,” Gillum said. “We’re gonna win by giving voters a reason to vote for us, and not just against somebody.” And what about trying win back Trump voters? Again, he sounds like Abrams. “We would draw the wrong lesson if what we think we need to do is go out there and track a voter who is a diminishing part of the population, and an increasingly resistant part of the population to the Democratic message,” he said.
When I asked him if he were hoping that lightning would strike twice in the South, Gillum responded enthusiastically, “I hope so, yes.” Field operation is the most important lesson Gillum said he learned from Abrams’s successful campaign. And that leads to one of the major challenges for the Florida Democrat: money.
“My challenge is that because I am not self-funding … I’m going out leaning on the generosity of everyday folks,” said Gillum, who is the only candidate with no personal wealth to help finance his campaign. Three of his Democratic challengers are millionaires. The fourth is a billionaire. “I am one of seven kids, number five of seven, and the first of my siblings to graduate from high school, and the first to graduate from college,” Gillum said. “And I simply don’t buy this belief that in Florida you have to be a millionaire in order to run to serve the people of our state.”
Gillum expressed frustration with potential donors who say their heart is with him but fret that he doesn’t have the money and the television commercials that it allows his opponents to run. “It blows my mind, because I always wanna say, ‘Well, you could be that difference. You could be the difference,’ ” he told me. “But that’s okay, we’re gonna keep running our race, because I feel like we’ve got everything that we need and will have everything that we need to run the kind of primary race that we’ve gotta run in order to win.”
Listen to the podcast to hear Gillum talk more about his campaign, including what it’s like to campaign in Trump country and the federal investigation into Tallahassee city government that ensnared a longtime friend.
“People are entitled to their friendships, and we’re all entitled to be disappointed by our friends when they disappoint us,” said Gillum, who was first elected to public office at age 23. “I would never, ever, ever betray the trust of the public. I’ve been elected 15 years by doing right, not by doing wrong.”
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