It’s been two weeks since Andrew Gillum cried. The 39-year-old mayor of Tallahassee got wet in the eyes after an upset victory in his Democratic primary race against former U.S. Representative Gwen Graham, but this latest release of emotion happened as the candidate campaigned at churches in the center of the Sunshine State. A group of young women was performing a liturgical dance, and as it neared completion, they held up “Gillum” signs.
“I just really felt my emotions stirring. It underscored for me why I was in this race. Every one of those kids’ faces struck a note with me,” Gillum told CL via telephone in the moments after his campaign bus left a Tampa rally at Al Lopez Park and headed for Orlando.
“Their youth, their spirit and their energy just reminded me that I wanted to do everything that I can to make sure that they have real, promising futures. It reminded me that this thing is so much greater than one person.”
The idea that the race for the Florida governor’s mansion is greater than a singular personality is a little funny, because that message isn’t the one voters are always seeing when they forget to fast-forward through the commercials. The surprise win over Graham signaled a change in the state’s Democratic party; it was a pivot away from centrist politics and an embrace of an unabashedly progressive agenda that includes higher corporate taxes, healthcare as a right and a moral, values-based immigration system that does not use ICE to lock up babies or seperate kids from parents. That stance earned Gillum the ire of the political right, which has tried to paint him as radical. His opposition has even resorted to insults and veiled dog whistles that call quietly to the worst impulses of a nation that — on the internet and cable TV — feels more divided than ever. Still, he remains unphased.
Gillum knows there are more loving, caring and decent people than there are archetypes of the president who performs a charade on television and Twitter daily. He believes that whoever ends up in the state legislature will want to work with him no matter what party they belong to. Gillum is, however, reluctant to use the word “compromise.”
“I would probably use the word ‘cooperate.’ There will be areas where we can find find a way to cooperate with each other, but by no means is it going to be acceptable for us to get to Tallahassee and do nothing. That won’t work for the members, and it will not work for me,” Gillum said of a the prospect of having a Democrat as governor for the first time since Lawton Chiles left office in 1998.
“We’re gonna have to figure out how we’ll get together and, in spite of whatever differences might exist, get some good things accomplished for the people of our state. I’m prepared to do that work.”
Gillum, who was the first of seven kids to graduate from high school and college, has famously done that work, and his moral compass was forged by a grandmother who wouldn’t even let him play cards.
“It was of the devil,” he said, adding that he got lucky with a grandma who kept him under her thumb and gave him an opportunity to admit that he didn’t know the difference between right and wrong before doling out a punishment.
“You didn’t dare say ‘No’ if you thought she would catch you lying. You said, ‘Yes grandma, I knew.’ That’s when you would get disciplined, because you knew better. My grandmother would say, ‘When you know better, you do better.’”
Gillum should have known better than to receive a Hamilton ticket in New York two years ago and has been open about the minor stain in his campaign.
“I should have asked more questions to make sure that everything that had transpired was aboveboard,” he said in response, adding that he has been told by the FBI that he’s not the target of an investigation that probably won’t reach a conclusion before Election Day. Those who would question Gillum’s character should also consider his opponent Rick DeSantis’ failure to release detailed travel records of more than $145,000 in taxpayer-funded trips he took to New York, including two visits to appear on Fox News, while in Congress. On-the-fence supporters of Gillum should look no further than the 2016 presidential primary, when he refused to attack Bernie Sanders on behalf of Hillary Clinton.
“You know who you are. You know what you stand for. Even though I endorsed Hillary, I never considered Bernie to be extreme,” Gillum said, turning back to why he was running this campaign.
“When I decided to run, the first decision I made was that I was gonna run as me. I feel good that even up to this point, this far into the general election I have had not to shrink from who I am and what I believe.”
A win would usher in a new brand of authentic politics for the left — one where candidates might run on what they truly believe in. But that lesson will be a lot harder to teach should Gillum end up conceding on November 6.
“I gotta win so that we can go forward and inspire other people to run as their authentic selves with a set of progressive values that are a winning set of values,” he said.
At one point in the interview, a neighbor — whose grandparents have had a Gillum sign in their yard for months — walked up to talk. I apologized to the mayor, but Gillum ended up talking to my friend, who I’ve watched grow from a little kid into a teenager over the last 10 years. A dumbstruck look and what appeared to be all 32 of the teeth in my neighbor’s mouth flashed, and his pearly whites gleamed against the not-yet-weathered skin on his face. It was in that moment, looking into a young person’s eyes, feeling that energy, that one can truly understand what Gillum is talking about when he talks about doing this not for himself, but for future generations.
This race really is bigger than one person, and while it’s easy to lose sight of basic decency in the pageantry of a high-profile campaign, there are always signs waiting to stir people’s emotions and help show them what’s right and what’s wrong. Most people know better when they see it. And when they know better, they do better, too.