NEW YORK, N.Y.—Andrew Gillum lost the gubernatorial election in Florida by 32,000 votes last November, but says the lesson of that should be “this idea that you’ve got to run as Republican-lite in a state like mine — I hope we’ve blown it into mythology.”
The 39-year-old former Tallahassee mayor is considered a rising star in the Democratic Party. Introducing Gillum at the New York City Central Labor Council’s Labor & Civil Rights Breakfast Feb. 27, 1199SEIU President George Gresham called him part of “a generation of leaders that are going to bring this country back to working people.” His narrow defeat was the best any Democrat has done in a Florida governor’s race since incumbent Lawton Chiles beat Jeb Bush in 1994.
In conversation with NYC CLC President Vincent Alvarez, however, Gillum espoused a more subtle approach. In places like the Florida panhandle or The Villages, a planned retirement community north of Orlando inhabited mainly by conservative white Midwesterners, he said, it’s more effective to “lead with a union message” rather than a “union brand,” to talk about health care, the right to have a job with dignity and a living wage, and “people’s lived experiences and real stories” rather than extolling the institution of organized labor.
That discretion extends to racial issues. Immediately after Gillum won the nomination last year, Republican Ron DeSantis urged voters not to “monkey this up.” But while Gillum at the time said that was not a dog whistle, but “full bullhorns,” he told the CLC audience that it’s hard to get traction calling an opponent racist in a state that’s only 11% Afro-American. While you can’t ignore comments like that, he continued, you have to “move the conversation to a higher level.” It’s not a good idea to fight Donald Trump in the gutter, he believes, because that’s where he’s most comfortable.
Gillum expressed lukewarm sentiments about the Medicare for All bill introduced later in the day. It’s an audacious idea, he said, the current health-insurance system is “not a smart way to go” compared with other countries, and “we do need a North Star” ideal — but he added that there are multiple ways to pay for health care, with or without insurance companies.
He was more enthusiastic about the Green New Deal concept, saying that the government needs to make things like building solar farms and retrofitting older buildings with solar panels a priority.
“Those are jobs you don’t outsource,” he said. “You’ve got to put a man or a woman on the rooftop to lay that photovoltaic.”
The 1930s New Deal, he added, “was socialist, it was out of the range of possibility — and now you can’t try to take someone’s Social Security away.”
There has been much speculation about what office Gillum plans to run for next. Democrats can’t depend on demographic change in Florida, he said. The number of white Midwestern retirees, who tend to be more right-wing and habitual voters, moving to Florida exceeds the number of Latino immigrants eligible to vote. And last year, he said, “85,000 legally cast votes didn’t get counted” — primarily because absentee ballots can be rejected if the voter’s signature doesn’t exactly match the one on file. About 70% of those rejected came from black and Latino voters, he said.
Right now, Gillum is working on a project called Bring It Home Florida, both registering new voters — a 2018 ballot initiative ended the state’s ban on people with felony convictions voting — and “re-energizing” nonvoters disillusioned with electoral politics.
“We still believe our state is winnable,” he concluded.
PHOTO CREDIT: NYC Central Labor Council/Michel Friang