Andrew Gillum is one of five candidates vying for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 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 state’s chief executive job.
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 been nominated candidates of color for gubernatorial contents 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 Collective PAC, which recruits and supports black for elected office, said that 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,” said James. “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 can, 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 Democratic 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 – appears to have improved Gillum’s standing among late deciding voters.
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 is seeking a U.S. Senate seat.
Gillum has received infusion of cash and mobilization support from several groups, including a coalition organized by People for the American Way that provided about $3.5 million and $650,000 pitched in late last week by progressive donors Tom Steyer and George Soros.
Sharon Wright Austin, a professor of African American studies and political science at the University of Florida, also said that the success of Barack Obama has given candidates like 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, too, thinks that these candidates represent political push back to “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 on Tuesday.
Gillum said that he decided 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. Democrats have narrowly lost those races, he argued because “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.”
Moreso than race, he says is life experiences growing up in a working poor family is what will connect him to Florida’s electorate, which is about 30 percent black and Hispanic. 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 school bus,” Gillum said. “That kind of experience, I think, prepares me well for what is 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’s also drawn support from some Florida residents on the other end of the economic spectrum.
On Monday, actress Gabrielle Union, who also is the wife of NBA star Dwayne, tweeted her endorsement of Gillum.
“This is the man I’ll be voting for. Join me Florida!”