He slides into a corner booth, in a navy blue suit, white shirt and a black-and-white tie. Gillum has been to Jacksonville at least 20 times, beginning months before he’d begun to make his case for succeeding Rick Scott as the 44th governor of Florida. It may prove to be his lucky number: Obama was our 44th president, and if Gillum wins in November, maybe he could be president, too, someday. But that is a long way away. At present, it’s 9:35 a.m., nearly nine weeks from the primary, and the first step is breakfast, though in his case it may be more of a mid-morning snack. Gillum has already been up several hours, doing interviews and prepping for a town hall meeting later in the day. Right now, the subject is footwear and sleep.
“What’s the longest time you’ve gone with your shoes off?” I ask, eyeing his polished, brown cap-toe loafers with a buckle, size 11.
Gillum, who is methodically eating a lemon poppy-seed muffin, like he’s using a line-item veto on legislation from a state house that might stay red, which is likely even if he wins—pauses to answer the admittedly inane question. “I don’t take my shoes off unless I’m asleep,” he says with perfect timing. Married and the father of three, Gillum, who turns 39 on July 26, is running against four older, richer, arguably better-connected Democratic candidates for governor while serving as mayor of Tallahassee (and doing so in a very hands-on sort of way, as friends and foes both attest). Even by those standards, the man doesn’t get much sleep. Luckily, he’s one of those people who can fall asleep anywhere, almost instantly, which is an indispensable trait in both politics and parenthood. It also helps that he’s a morning person.
“It’s changed with my kids. It used to be a 5 a.m. wakeup, but now it’s more like 6:30,” he says. “When I’m home, I’m not able to go to work until after I’ve dropped them off, so I get to sleep longer in the morning.”
Gillum is probably the only person in history who can say that having a toddler and four-year-old twins has caused him to get more sleep, but he’s also the type who thinks of a 6:30 a.m. rise time as sleeping in. “It’s actually a positive development, because before I had kids, I’d be out of the house at 6 in the morning, and the only time I could get work done was between 6:30 and 8:30, before meetings began at the office. Now, who knows how that will translate once we win?”
Andrew Gillum has been fully immersed in the mechanics of North Florida politics since he was 23 years old, in 2003, when he became the youngest member ever elected to Tallahassee’s City Commission. He became mayor 11 years later, winning 76 percent of the vote against three other contenders. Now he stands a chance of becoming one of the youngest governors the state has ever had, not to mention the first black governor.
He’s running on a firmly liberal platform, campaigning on establishing access to health care as a right, rather than a privilege; combating man-made climate change by decreasing carbon emissions; making a $1 billion investment in public schools, raising teachers’ annual salaries to $50,000, and diminishing over-reliance on high-stakes testing; legalizing (and taxing) marijuana; gun safety reform; promoting equal treatment of LGTBQ citizens statewide; raising the state corporate tax; etc. Accordingly, it will be easy for Gillum to differentiate himself from whichever Republican he may face in the general.
The primary election on Tuesday, Aug. 28 ends a four-way competition that centers on a troika of top-notch Democratic talent drawn from all over Florida. All three campaigns are in the process of beating a path around the state, repeatedly. “In South Florida, you’re rarely just in Miami,” he says. “It’s usually Miami, Broward, Palm Beach. In Central Florida, it’s Orlando, Tampa. Jacksonville is special and unique, because there are not a lot of areas with high-density populations. As we get closer to election day, we have to be very surgical about what demographics and populations we’re out in front of.”
Campaigns are always grueling affairs, but Gillum’s itinerary has been exceptionally brutal. “One day last year, we had the Florida Blue in Fort Lauderdale, but the teachers’ union was hosting their state conference at the TPC, and the trial lawyers were having their conference in Tampa. So, the day before, we were in Orlando; we drove to Tampa, drove to TPC and ended the night at a reception in Broward County. The only thing missing was Pensacola.”
“That’s been one of the hallmarks of Andrew’s campaign,” adds Donna Deegan, a local news icon whose public embrace of Gillum has been one of the more interesting stories this year. “He’s been absolutely everywhere.” Deegan hosted Gillum at her house on March 29, a considerable boost to his standing with local audiences/voters, and she was by his side as he made the rounds in July.
Even with a powerhouse like Deegan in his corner, Gillum’s path to the nomination runs uphill, with the slope increasing as his competition falls into defensive mode. U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham and Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine have backed out of a couple of recent debates, which has irritated the rank-and-file and minimized Gillum’s public profile leading into August. While this strategy has hurt his candidacy a little, Gillum thinks the Democratic Party suffers far more. “Every moment that we are not engaging with voters and telling people what we believe, we think is wasted,” he says. “Not just for a candidate, necessarily, but for a party that is struggling to get back into power. Voters don’t really know what we think and believe, because we haven’t had a leader for 20 years.”
This is the message Gillum brings to Northeast Florida, where a proposed Aug. 9 debate at Jacksonville University was turned down by his competitors; he and Chris King likewise vetoed a debate proposed for the panhandle, capping the debates at five. The last one was in Miramar on June 11, and the final two scheduled for Fort Myers on July 18 and Miami on Aug. 2.
“This race, if there is a narrative to be written, it’s that it is wide-open,” Gillum says, playing down polls that have him trailing Levine. “We’ve not commissioned any ourselves, we’re just looking at public polls, and the only public tracking poll that’s been done is the Gravis Poll; the rest have all been paid for by Phil Levine, and there may be one or two independent polls, but the only monthly tracking poll is Gravis—which had us at third, then had us at second, and now has us at first. It also happens to be one of the polls that’s demographically diverse. So if black voters are going to be 28 to 32 percent of the electorate, then why are they showing up at 9 percent in the Phil Levine poll? Why are they showing up at 12 percent in the Rasmussen poll? They’re not to scale.”
For a party that lost the White House in 2016, in large part because it took the polls as gospel and failed to foresee Trump’s late-stage momentum, this argument may carry extra weight. “If you look at the candidate who’s out there claiming the lead, it’s the softest lead you can imagine, because the majority of his supporters are still open to voting for somebody else.”
Whoever wins has a reasonable chance of beating the GOP nominee, whether it be the scandal-plagued Commission of Agriculture Adam Putnam or lower-profile and even further-right Congressman Ron DeSantis, either of whom will enter the general election weakened by intra-party animus, the ever-present specter of Trump, and a natural tendency to commit a gaffe. It’s the most competitive governor’s race in a generation, and the most winnable for Democrats, a fact that has them dropping major coin and logging the kinds of miles that would make a big-rig trucker gasp.
Gillum’s campaign to become the Florida’s first black governor has lit a fire under the rumps of progressive activists from one end of the state to the other. He is perhaps the first politician they can truly embrace on this level, and their passion is palpable at even a cursory glance. At just 38, Gillum’s meteoric rise in Tallahassee politics offers a clear path forward for a younger generation of politically minded people who got their start as followers of Bernie Sanders, and have now been galvanized by the Parkland students, whose efforts these last few months have captured the hearts of liberals—and some conservatives—nationwide.
Gillum grew up in Miami, the fifth of seven children, graduating from high school in Gainesville. His ties to Tallahassee go back 20 years, to when he was a freshman at Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University, still a boy but already a man on the move. If he wins, he might be the first governor to use part of his salary to pay down his student loans, which is something to which Millennials can relate. He’s proficient in the argot of activism—he speaks their language, in terms of policy, using words that carry extra weight in that crowd because he’s been able to actually do some of this stuff as mayor.
Younger voters are seeing their peers put in work on his behalf, which also has substance. The campaign employs a full-time staff of 25, augmented by about 3,000 volunteers, a number that increases on the daily. It’s not just the kids getting into Gillum, though, as a growing number of establishment Dems are coming to see him as a plausible alternative to the business-as-usual approach some would say has left the party playing catch-up with Republicans at a time when all the momentum should be firmly on their side. With an epochal midterm election season in full swing, Florida is once again positioned as a battleground state, and the results in November will bear directly on the local elections in spring 2019.
More than one analyst has seen, in Gillum, similarities to other prominent African-Americans on the national scene, most notably former President Barack Obama and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. That latter comparison is of greatest relevance, given the roughly equivalent path Booker has taken from the Municipal Council of Newark to the governorship in Trenton, from which he advanced to Washington, where it seems almost inevitable that he will end up somewhere on the national Democratic ticket in the next two or three elections. Just as many observers see Booker as the most likely candidate to be America’s second black president, a successful run by Gillum this year will instantly put him in a similar sphere of perception.
“Florida is a big state,” says Gillum, “so I don’t suffer illusions that we’ll be able to individually retail our way all the way through it, and that’ll be enough. It won’t be.” To that end, Gillum has raised a few eyebrows among progressives and conservatives alike with some of the support he’s received from certain big-money donors, including $1 million from billionaire Tom Steyer and $700,000 from the infamous George Soros. These dollars will go a long way toward helping close the advertising gap as Aug. 28 draws nigh.
Later that evening, I rejoin Gillum for a campaign event at a local church. Nestled deep in the city’s oft-neglected Northside, Gateway to Heaven Christian Church stands at the corner of 68th and Pearl, about halfway between North Shore Park and the iconic Carroll’s Meat Shoppe. Gillum has a personal connection to the church: His uncle Carlton Jones is a pastor there. By the time Gillum takes the podium, he has already put in a 12-hour day, including seven media appearances, but it seems like he is just getting started. As he speaks to the enthralled crowd at 9 p.m., Gillum comes across exactly the same as he did at 9 a.m., and not much different than he has at other local events in recent months. If anything, Gillum seems to be gaining strength as he enters the final weeks of primary season, an apt metaphor for the campaign itself.
At Gateway to Heaven, Gillum is joined by supporters like Tony Hill, Mia Jones and Tracye Polson, who have all bucked the party establishment that seems to mostly lean toward his competition. Each of their campaigns will benefit greatly if Gillum gets the nomination, especially since he’s explicit about the need to bring new voters into the process. “I consider them ‘opportunity voters,’” he says. “We’re trying to turn out those voters who have the muscle-memory of what it means to vote; they just don’t turn out in off-cycle elections.” He points out that in 2016, six million fewer people came out to vote nationwide than in 2012.
Part of Gillum’s case for the nomination is his personal charisma, and the thousands of miles he’s clocked on the trail so far, giving him a unique ability to both inspire new voters and motivate longtime voters, some of whom may be inclined to sit out this cycle due to a perceived lack of party leadership. “My pastor refers to this distinction as ‘the thermostat versus the thermometer,’” says Gillum. “Leaders are thermostats. Anybody can be a thermometer—any one of us can read the temperature. We just look at the gauge and read what it says.” What’s needed, he thinks, are leaders who can set the temperature, and the pace.
A Democratic win for governor in November will shift the polarity of party politics in Florida, and would be the biggest win for the Resistance in a year that’s had plenty, with no doubt more to come. That cannot happen unless the progressive left is on fleek, and Gillum has done the best job so far of skimming the cream from the massive crop of volunteers who matriculated under Bernie Sanders two years ago, whose energy had not been effectively harnessed on a statewide level since. He benefits from running at a time when youth activism is the political story of the year, and doubly so from running in the very state where that story began. He speaks their language because it’s his language, too.
With most politicians, supporters show up, maybe buy a T-shirt to take home and wear later. The Gillum folks buy their shirts on the way in and put them on, and wear them on the way home. What he once lacked in material resources, he’s made up for in human capital and sweat equity. All his people see the hours he puts in, and what he gives up every day to campaign. His commitment keeps them motivated, keeps their energy high and rising. He gives them a chance to put in serious work, and they are seeing the results for themselves, with more buzz and a fresh influx of capital to further execute a strategy that’s already working.
Like many recent underdog campaigns, Gillum’s has used the power of social media to offset a lack of TV time. He has nearly 34,000 followers on Twitter, double that of Graham or Levine. He has another 50,000 on Facebook, almost double that of Graham but 11,000 fewer than Levine. Oddly, none of them has much of a following on YouTube, though Gillum’s page offers a variety of clips that are essentially TV-ready, and the candidate is eager for people to see them.
These next few months between state and local elections will dictate the course of municipal affairs for the next decade, and Floridian Democrats are looking to generate a “Blue Wave” of winning in 2018 to overpower the Trump-dominated Republican agenda, not to mention drown the president’s hopes of winning his second home state in 2020. A loss like that would hurt Trump’s feelings more than Alec Baldwin’s impressions, to say nothing of his reelection chances. The first step for Democrats is taking Tallahassee.
If Andrew Gillum is to run the table this fall, it is absolutely imperative that he wins hearts, minds and, most important, votes in Northeast Florida.
“Our campaign has not yet begun our paid communications,” Gillum says. “When we do that, and voters get to see me, to understand me and my family, I trust every day that we will have better resonance in this state than any other candidate running.”