Last Tuesday, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum defied the odds and won the Democratic primary for governor in Florida. He had neither the biggest name nor the most money, and still he emerged as the clear winner. Gillum is now, along with Stacey Abrams of Georgia and Ben Jealous of Maryland, one of three black candidates for governor who could make history this year.
The gubernatorial election in Florida will be a test of progressivism vs. Trumpism. On one side we have Gillum, a 39-year-old with strong grass-roots support and bold progressive stances on issues such as establishing Medicare for All, abolishing ICE in its current form, reforming the criminal-justice system and ensuring a living wage. On the other is Ron DeSantis, a Trump devotee.
But that’s only part of the story. Gillum’s victory is not simply a reaction to the Trump administration, nor is Gillum an overnight sensation. His success is a long time in the making as he has worked his way through the leadership pipeline for progressive candidates. Strengthening this pipeline will be critical for the progressive movement to sustain victories such as his in the years to come.
The son of a school bus driver and a construction worker, Gillum got an early start in politics. He became Tallahassee’s youngest-ever city commissioner in 2003, and its mayor a little more than a decade later. At the Nation, we’ve been following Gillum’s rise since before he won his first election. Years ago, when Gillum was still in college and helping drive black voter turnout in the state, he told us, “Florida is the battleground state for democracy in 2002.” Of course, the same could be said for 2018, and now Gillum’s name is at the top of the ballot.
Gillum both emerged from the leadership pipeline for progressive candidates and helped build that pipeline. He is the former national director of the Young Elected Officials Network (YEO), a branch of People For the American Way. Its alumni include several 2018 Democratic primary winners, including Abrams; Rashida Tlaib, who is running for Congress in Michigan, and Kyrsten Sinema, who is running for U.S. Senate in Arizona.
Gillum described the biggest challenge in his primary campaign as overcoming “decades of muscle memory around what our nominee is supposed to look like, sound like, where they are supposed to come from.” YEO helps communities reshape that muscle memory by supporting young leaders who defy stereotypes and helping them learn how to run successful campaigns. In this, YEO isn’t alone. Other groups such as Wellstone Action and the New Leaders Council have also done this for years. And newer groups such as the Collective PAC and Run for Something have expanded on this work.
What sets YEO apart, perhaps, is that it supports leaders both before and after Election Day. It gives winning candidates access to the tools they need to govern, including a broad network, a robust leadership development program, and a database of hundreds of sample bills on issues such as Election Day registration and in-state tuition for undocumented students. (The State Innovation Exchange, or SiX, has a similar library of legislation for elected officials to use as a resource.) Put simply, YEO invests in the full life cycle of progressive leaders, helping them learn how to solve big problems and create lasting change in their communities.
It has been said that “winning was easy; governing is harder.” I’d add that governing as a progressive is just as important, especially if we want to keep winning. As George Goehl, executive director of People’s Action, a community-organizing network that trains activists and policymakers, recently noted, “If there is a blue wave and we don’t deliver, that would be crushing. . . . We have to win elections and produce tangible victories in people’s lives if we want people to come back to the next election and get engaged.”
Gillum has proved that he will deliver. In Florida, as in many other states, state preemption laws remove power from local governments, such as the power to raise the minimum wage, establish paid-leave benefits or impose gun safety measures. As city commissioner, Gillum experienced the blowback from these laws firsthand. When he refused to repeal ordinances that banned shooting firearms in public parks, he was sued by the gun lobby. If elected governor, Gillum could change the law that allowed the gun lobby to sue him and further unlock the power of Florida’s cities. Gillum sees preemption for what it is: a tactic to suppress democracy and progressive actions. And he has vowed to take it on. It’s this kind of strategic leadership that has garnered voters’ confidence in Gillum — not only in the most recent primary election but also in the several general elections he has won throughout his career.
The governor’s race in Florida, beyond being a clash between progressivism and President Trump, is a tribute to the infrastructure the progressive movement has built to provide young leaders with the support they need to run for elected office and then lead as elected officials. For the 2018 midterms and beyond, this long-term investment in progressive leaders could give the movement a much-needed edge.