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Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum hopes to join other politicians of color on November ballots

Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum talks with a supporter at a rally on Aug. 19 in Miami Gardens, Fla. If Gillum wins the Democratic nomination and goes on to win in November, he would be the state's first black governor. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

Andrew Gillum is one of five candidates vying for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination Tuesday in Florida. He hopes to join other candidates of color who have made history during the 2018 midterms by winning major-party primaries for their states' chief executive jobs.

Gillum, 39, the mayor of Tallahassee, Florida’s capital, would be the first African American to win a major-party nomination for governor in the Sunshine State. Just across the state line in Georgia, Stacey Abrams in May became the first black woman in the nation to win a major party’s gubernatorial primary. Democrats also have nominated candidates of color for gubernatorial contests in Idaho, Maryland and Texas.

Instead of shrinking in the face of a more visible and vocal white voting bloc that elected Donald Trump president, several candidates of color have stepped forward to challenge the notion that Democrats can’t win with diverse candidates.

Quentin James, co-founder of the Collective PAC, which recruits and supports blacks for elected office, said white Democrats and progressives have struggled to respond to Trump’s divisive racial messages.

“Black candidates are able to code switch in order to provide a unifying message for Democrats,” James said. “But also, their very presence on a ballot is in direct opposition to white nationalism, because it says that we, too, are American, and we, too, can lead. But to lead in Georgia and in Florida, to lead in the former Jim Crow South, is powerful.”

After trailing in the polls for much of the race, Gillum has picked up enough support to rank in the top three. An endorsement two weeks ago from 2016 presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) helped, as did a barrage of negative ads aimed at the top two Democratic candidates — Gwen Graham, a former congresswoman who is hoping to become the state’s first female major-party nominee, and Philip Levine, a former mayor of Miami Beach.

In total, seven people are seeking the Democratic nomination. Republicans will be choosing among eight candidates. The incumbent, Gov. Rick Scott (R), is term-limited and seeking a U.S. Senate seat.

Gillum has received an infusion of cash and mobilization support from several groups, including People for the American Way, Collective PAC, New Florida Majority and the New Florida Vision PAC and other groups that provided about $3.5 million, as well as $650,000 pitched in late last week by progressive donors Tom Steyer and George Soros.

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Sharon Wright Austin, a professor of African American studies and political science at the University of Florida, said that the success of Barack Obama has given candidates such as Gillum and Abrams confidence to run for governor in states that have seemed politically hostile to black candidates. Like Obama, she said, Gillum is young and has “multiracial appeal. He’s campaigning heavily to young voters, particularly college students.” She thinks these candidates represent political pushback against “Trump, [who] has been so blatant in saying things offensive to people of color and young voters.” But she questions whether Gillum’s surge has come too late for him to win Tuesday.

Gillum said that he decided to run for governor this year after Trump’s presidential win. He said he thought it was important that Democrats offered an unequivocal contrast to the president’s political message.

“It became very clear that something was seriously wrong, and we couldn’t take the risk in Florida of putting up another Republican-lite Democrat who would lose for governor the sixth consecutive time,” he said in a recent interview. Democrats narrowly lost those races, he said, because of “black, brown and poor voters who feel they don’t have a reason to show up with the nominees that have been put before us.”

Growing up in a working poor family, more than race, is what will connect him to Florida’s electorate, which is about 30 percent black and Hispanic, he said. He often notes that he is the only candidate in the race who is not a millionaire.

“My daddy was a construction worker … and my mother drove a school bus,” Gillum said. “That kind of experience, I think, prepares me well for what many folks in our state are facing. In Florida right now, 44 percent of working people say they can’t earn enough to make ends meet.”

But he has also drawn support from Florida residents on the other end of the economic spectrum.

On Monday, actress Gabrielle Union, who also is the wife of Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade, tweeted her endorsement of Gillum.

“This is the man I’ll be voting for. Join me Florida!”