By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida
ST. PETERSBURG — Clad in her trademark “uniform” of combat boots and cut-off shorts at Star Booty in downtown St. Petersburg, cosmetologist Cassandra Bradshaw boasts that she not only voted for Andrew Gillum but recruited more than two dozen pals to cast ballots for the surprise victor of the Democratic primary for governor.
Bradshaw, a 29-year-old whose workplace is as much a hair salon as it is a hub for hipsters, said the left-leaning Tallahassee mayor sparked an excitement that Florida Democratic candidates have lacked in the decade since she and her millennial cohorts began voting.
“I’m sick of centrist Democrats. I want an actual progressive who’s actually going to do things to help me and the people who sit in my chair,” Bradshaw said in a recent interview.
Bradshaw and her friends are exactly the kind of progressive voters Democrats are banking on to show up in November and support Gillum and running mate Chris King, a one-time Gillum opponent who finished in fifth place in the Aug. 28 Democratic primary.
The two men and their young families — they’re both 39 and each have three young children — present a fresh take on politics for voters like Bradshaw who are eager to move a Democrat back into the governor’s mansion after being shut out for two decades.
The Democratic duo are in a matchup against a similarly youthful Republican ticket comprised of U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, who’s been endorsed by President Donald Trump, and Jeanette Nuñez, a popular Miami-Dade County state legislator.
DeSantis and his GOP supporters wasted no time in launching what are certain to be relentless attacks on Gillum, focusing on an FBI corruption probe that’s been covered in depth by the mayor’s hometown paper, the Tallahassee Democrat. The federal investigation involves three undercover FBI agents — including one who posed as a developer and another who was a purported marijuana industry representative — who, among other things, traveled to New York with Gillum as part of their effort to unravel potential wrongdoing by city officials.
Gillum, a former student government leader at Florida A&M University who served on the Tallahassee City Commission before being elected mayor in 2014, has steadfastly maintained that he is not the subject of the federal inquiry and that he has cooperated with investigators, turning over thousands of pages of documents.
But Gillum, who’s hoping to make history as the state’s first black governor, has been linked to the FBI investigation thanks to his ties to Adam Corey, a former friend who once served as Gillum’s campaign treasurer. According to the Tallahassee newspaper, Corey, a lobbyist and entrepreneur, has been named in at least three subpoenas related to the public corruption probe. Corey’s $2.1 million loan in local tax money to renovate the Tallahassee-based Edison Restaurant is part of the FBI probe.
“He (Gillum) is embroiled in a lot of corruption scandals,” DeSantis told Fox News after cruising to victory in the Aug. 28 Republican primary. “This guy can’t even run the city of Tallahassee. There is no way Florida voters can trust him with the entire state.”
But, unlike DeSantis, Bradshaw isn’t bothered by the FBI investigation.
“I think it’s also fair to say our president’s under an FBI probe, so I don’t know why the Republicans would bring something up that he can throw right back in their face,” she said.
Gillum’s team, and Democrats in general, also don’t appear worried about the mayor’s link to the corruption probe and point to DeSantis’ defense of Trump amid investigations in Washington and New York.
“You’ve got a Republican in Ron DeSantis who’s spent the last year obstructing the FBI, attacking the FBI and trying to discredit the FBI. And now he has the gall to talk about an FBI investigation that Andrew Gillum has been cooperating with and trying to help them resolve. We think the contrast here is clear. They’ll attack us on that, and we’ll go right back at it,” Scott Arceneaux, a former executive director of the Florida Democratic Party who’s a senior consultant on Gillum’s campaign, told the News Service.
Gillum’s primary campaign, with support from national groups backing black candidates and progressive politicians, laid out a strategy that relied on “black voters, brown voters, younger voters and poor voters,” the mayor told the News Service in an interview about a week before his primary win.
But, in a massive state like Florida, where nearly one-third of voters are independents, Democrats have to shift their approach to succeed in November, Arceneaux conceded.
“We’re much more focused now on a statewide strategy. We’re going to do 67 counties,” he said. “In the primary, we had a focus on the big urban areas. But we’re taking this thing statewide. Andrew’s talked about going to all the counties, whether there are voters there who voted for you or not and trying to get our message out.”
Despite being branded by DeSantis and other Republicans as “socialists,” the Gillum-King ticket will appeal to voters beyond the left-wing fringes, Democratic consultant Steve Schale said in an interview.
Gillum has called for access to affordable health care, increased spending on schools and a boost to the minimum wage — all issues that many working-class Floridians support, according to Schale, an adviser to former Congresswoman Gwen Graham, the runner-up in the Democratic primary.
“I think people who think Andrew has limited appeal to swing voters are misreading the situation,” Schale said.
The promise of the first black governor in Florida could generate excitement among minority voters, who typically have lackluster turnout in midterm elections like the one on Nov. 6, and independent voters who may distrust Trump.
“Yes, he has the ability potentially to turn out some voters who don’t necessarily turn out in a Florida midterm, but also has the message that will appeal to enough voters in the middle to help him get to a win,” Schale said.
As is always the case for Democratic candidates, political observers predict Gillum’s success depends on his ability to turn out voters.
“I don’t think it’s about convincing Democrats in the middle that it’s safe over here. I think they just feel it’s so unsafe in the other direction,” said Gary Yordon, a Tallahassee-based political consultant who worked for Gillum more than a decade ago.
For Democrats, Gillum “stimulates something visceral,” Yordon said.
“That’s the issue. You can serve up oatmeal so long. Sometimes you need steak and eggs. And I think Democrats in Florida are tired of oatmeal. I think they’re ready for something a little more dynamic,” he said.
The Gillum-King ticket also presents a shift that will resonate with Democrats tired of the same-old, same-old, as well as with new voters, said Allison Tant, a former Florida Democratic Party chairwoman.
“I do think it is an absolute tip of the hat to the youth voters, the independent voters, who want something besides traditional party-politics candidates,” she said. “This changes the face of the future for the party. We have two young candidates at the top of our ballot. This hasn’t happened in a long time. It’s very exciting to see this.”