By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Jane Fonda. Alec Baldwin. Tom Steyer. George Soros. Norman Lear.
The star-studded endorsements Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum has snagged in his quest to become Florida’s first black governor go on and on, capped by progressive patriarch U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders.
But while the celebrity support may translate into desperately needed cash, Gillum’s also banking on ginning up excitement among folks he says Florida Democrats have ignored or taken for granted far too long.
“It hasn’t worked,” Gillum said in a recent telephone interview, referring to the party’s approach.
It’s a mantra Gillum — who cut his political teeth as Florida A&M University student-body president and, at 23, became the youngest person ever elected to the Tallahassee City Commission — repeats often on the debate stage and on the campaign trail.
Gillum, along with his four primary opponents, frequently note that Democrats have been shut out of the governor’s mansion for two decades.
And, even though he’s trailing in the polls and in fundraising while some of his opponents have blanketed airwaves and mailboxes leading up to the Aug. 28 primary election, Gillum insists that unabashedly leaning to the left is a winning strategy.
Gillum points out that his party has lost each of the last two governor’s races by fewer than 70,000 votes, despite having what he described as “good candidates” he actively worked to help elect.
“What we have failed to do is to turn out the very base of voters that we need if we want to win. They’re largely black voters, brown voters, younger voters and poor voters,” he said.
But, the mayor concedes, those voters are also “a different and difficult constituency to motivate and organize,” especially because they tend to stay home during midterm elections like the one at hand.
That’s where grass-roots aid comes in from groups like NextGen, which targets young voters; the Florida Immigrant Rights Coalition; Color of Change; New Florida Majority; and a slew of other organizations that target minority voters.
Despite being outspent, Gillum believes his appeal to minority voters could boost him to victory in a state that twice supported Barack Obama for president.
“There’s no reason I should even be breathing in this race. I get that. But inspite of that, I honestly feel like we have momentum at our backs as we go into this final stretch,” Gillum said in a recent telephone interview en route to a campaign event in South Florida.
Gillum’s opposition includes Palm Beach billionaire Jeff Greene and former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, who are both largely self-funding their campaigns.
He’s also up against the frontrunner in the race, former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, who earned the distrust of progressive voters during her single term representing a North Florida district in Congress. Progressive critics say she crossed party lines too often and supported the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.
Among far-left voters, Gillum is battling against Winter Park entrepreneur Chris King, a Democratic gubernatorial hopeful who is also largely spending his own money and who’s doggedly chasing the progressive mantle.
Gillum’s plan is to capture a majority of white progressives and the bulk of black voters, a coalition he believes could nail down the nomination.
“If all I got was progressives and 70 percent of the black vote, that would be enough to get us to about 42 percent of the vote,” he said, adding he believes the winner of the Democratic primary would capture at most 35 percent of the vote.
But Matt Isbell, a data consultant who’s supporting Graham, said Gillum’s calculus is flawed. According to Isbell, recent polls show Gillum with a maximum of 30 percent support among black voters, far shy of the 70 percent the mayor is counting on less than two weeks from the primary election.
“Does he have the time and the money, with early voting starting up? I’m just skeptical about it. If they pull it off, it will be quite the story,” Isbell said.
Gillum’s position as mayor of a city that has been the target of a lengthy FBI investigation into public corruption is another albatross.
Gillum insists that he is not the target of the federal probe, but admits his longtime friendship with Adam Corey, a lobbyist who appears to be at the center of the investigation, and a trip to Costa Rica in which Gillum paid cash for his share of a rental house shared with Corey and others, have made him a subject of scrutiny.
The mayor maintains he’s done nothing illegal.
“I’ve asked people to measure me only by what my actions have been,” he said.
Susan Smith, chairwoman of the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida, said Gillum generates enthusiasm among base voters, something other Democrats lack.
“He brings an excitement to the race that I don’t think we feel (with) the other candidates. He is a progressive, and he always has been a progressive and he’s never shied away from that, and he’s saying the things we need to hear if we want to make Florida a better place,” Smith said in a recent interview.
Gillum also injects “boldness” into the campaigns, something progressives are hungry for, according to Smith.
“We want some bold, forceful ideas from the candidates. Andrew has always had that. Plus, he just has a depth of knowledge on issues that surprises me sometimes,” she said.
Relatively few degrees of separation differentiate the Democratic candidates on issues such as health care and medical marijuana, which Gilllum isn’t alone in saying he wants to legalize — and tax — for recreational use.
Gillum also isn’t alone in demanding stricter gun control or seeking a repeal of the state’s controversial “stand your ground” law, something each Democratic candidate supports. But as the black father of two young sons, he says he has a more personal take on the issue.
“You start to really wonder like, what is it going to take to compel people — friends who I have dinner with, who I work with, who I encounter in the political space, who like me as a person — to really get a sense of the anxiety that I hold when I’m in certain places or frankly when I lay eyes on certain black men because I know that they’re going to have it harder,” Gillum said.
Even so, he acknowledged the issue probably wouldn’t tip votes in his favor in the primary election, where his opponents include King, who’s also vying for the progressive crown.
King’s conversation is peppered with “transformational,” “big ideas,” and “bold,” as he tries to make inroads in an election dominated by candidates with deeper pockets and national backing.
The 39-year-old King takes credit for changing the shape of the governor’s race, starting with laying the groundwork for nearly all candidates — with the exception of Republican Adam Putnam — to refuse money from U.S. Sugar, the powerful “special interest” many blame for contributing to an outbreak of toxic algal blooms on both coasts.
King also lays claim to introducing affordable housing, the focus of his Orlando-area business, into the political conversation.
An earnest and enthusiastic father of three young children, King insists he’s in the race to win but at the same time acknowledges it’s an “uphill race” for him.
“I’ve got two gazillionaires I’m running against,” he said, referring to Greene and Levine. He called Graham “the daughter of one of the great political icons” who “was one of my idols,” referring to former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham.
And, of course, he faces Gillum, “who has extraordinary capabilities” and who has captured the attention of the “national ultra-progressive, thought-shapers class,” King said.
“If he was not in this race, they would probably move in my direction. But he’s had relationships for 20 years with these people,” King acknowledged.