The 39-year-old mayor of Tallahassee upset the establishment favorite, Gwen Graham, by embracing some of the same views on health care and immigration that thrust upstart New York congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez into national stardom in a House contest in June. And he now becomes the second black gubernatorial nominee in the South, along with Georgia candidate Stacey Abrams, whose nomination in that neighboring state has energized many liberals.
The Florida race now stands as a national test for the base of each major party. Gillum, who won with the support of an array of liberal activists such as Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent from Vermont, and billionaires Tom Steyer and George Soros, will face off against Republican Rep. Ron DeSantis. He secured his party’s nomination on the strength of an endorsement from President Trump and allies such as Fox News host Sean Hannity.
Gillum seems happy to play up the contrast.
“When people see my face and hear our story, there’s a different level of passion and drive to go out and vote,” he said in a recent interview. “And it’s not just the color of my skin, it’s my lived experience, coming from a working-class family. Voters have an appetite for a candidate who is going to reflect them.”
Gillum was born in a working-class neighborhood near Miami, the fifth of seven children. His mother drove a school bus and his father was a construction worker, and on days when he didn’t get on with a crew, he would sell fruits and vegetables on street corners.
The younger Gillum recalled getting free dental care from a mobile clinic that came through his neighborhood.
In 1992, just before Hurricane Andrew devastated South Florida, Gillum said his father moved the family to Gainesville to care for his ailing grandfather.
There, he said, some teachers took him under their wing and “put me on the track to being college bound.” He went to Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, stayed after graduation and in 2003, at the age of 23, became the youngest person elected to the city commission. In 2014, he was elected mayor.
Gillum, who is married with three children, said that Trump’s election pushed him to run for governor this year.
He said the Democratic Party, which has not won a gubernatorial race in Florida since 1994, had repeatedly failed to win because it put up “Republican-lite” candidates who failed to excite the state’s growing population of minorities and young people.
“We can’t do any worse than they’ve done and the stakes are too high to try their way again,” he said.
Gillum now will top the ticket for a state party that has long looked to more centrist candidates in the tradition of the late Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles.
Many longtime Florida Democrats were backing Graham, the former congresswoman and daughter of former senator Bob Graham, who had been leading in the polls. And Gillum has faced questions about an FBI investigation that apears to be focused on Tallahassee city government, though the target is unclear and Gillum has said he has a “zero tolerance” for corruption.
But Gillum, who worked as a youth organizer for the liberal group People for the American Way, tapped into the restive left.
He marched with the students from Parkland, Fla., who were demanding stricter gun control after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
An endorsement from Sanders helped, as did a barrage of negative ads by billionaire candidate Jeff Greene aimed at Graham and another major candidate, Philip Levine, a former mayor of Miami Beach, paving the way for Gillum to catch up.
On Tuesday night, Gillum presented himself as an unusual Democrat with the ability to bring together various factions of his party because he had received Sanders’s support even after he had backed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race.
Asked about the chance to be Florida’s first black governor, Gillum said, “I’m trying to be the next governor of Florida. I just happen to be black.”
Yet Gillum has also drawn parallels between his candidacy and that of Abrams, noting that the two could make a statement in the South.
“The same part of this country that was built by people of color may soon be led by people of color,” he told The Washington Post in a recent interview. “That, in the shadow of Donald Trump in Washington, would be poetic justice in this country.”