Cen­tral ques­tion: Can a black man be elected Florida gover­nor?

An­drew Gil­lum has said his race is only in­ci­den­tal to his bid to be­come gover­nor of Florida. But his cam­paign strat­egy has been clearly in­flu­enced by it.

Miami Herald (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY LES­LEY CLARK lclark@mc­clatchydc.com

An­drew Gil­lum says vot­ers have al­ready an­swered the ques­tion of whether Florida is ready to elect a black gover­nor: they twice de­liv­ered the state to for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama.

Yet it’s still very much an open ques­tion for Gil­lum, the Demo­cratic gu­ber­na­to­rial nom­i­nee who cam­paigned with Obama Fri­day in Mi­ami. And it’s one that has re­quired a de­lib­er­ate strat­egy as the Tal­la­has­see mayor cam­paigns to be gover­nor.

Gil­lum from the start sought to down­play the is­sue of race, telling CNN in a post-pri­mary in­ter­view soon af­ter he won the Demo­cratic pri­mary that he was “vy­ing to be the next gover­nor of the state of Florida. I just so hap­pen to be black.”

But race has since played a cen­tral role, with Gil­lum sur­ro­gates quick to ac­cuse his Repub­li­can ri­val of play­ing a race card by warn­ing Florid­i­ans in an in­ter­view the day af­ter the pri­mary

not to “monkey this up” by elect­ing Gil­lum.

Gil­lum, the first black Demo­cratic nom­i­nee for gover­nor in Florida, has un­de­ni­ably thrilled the party’s base. Younger than 40 and un­apolo­get­i­cally lib­eral, he has at­tracted a na­tional fol­low­ing with his mas­tery of so­cial me­dia and his fre­quent, folksy ap­pear­ances across the state. The en­thu­si­asm he has gen­er­ated is ex­pected to boost in­cum­bent Sen. Bill Nel­son, a more cau­tious cen­trist.

Gil­lum told the Mi­ami Her­ald on Thurs­day that his cam­paign has a sin­gle mes­sage, re­gard­less of race: “I talk to white au­di­ences the same way I talk to black au­di­ences,” he said as he took a break from knock­ing on doors in Rich­mond Heights, his child­hood home. “I don’t think there’s a point in try­ing to code switch.”

He said he’s de­liv­ered the same ap­peal, even in the red­dest parts of the state: “My lived ex­pe­ri­ence is so much like so many peo­ple in this state who are just get­ting up ev­ery day, try­ing to make a way for them­selves and their fam­i­lies. When we can see each other on that hu­mane level then some of the su­per­fi­cial bar­ri­ers that we think di­vide us be­come a lot less di­vi­sive.”

Yet strate­gists and African-Amer­i­cans who them­selves have sought statewide of­fice say black can­di­dates, par­tic­u­larly in the South, are asked to meet ex­pec­ta­tions not re­quired of white can­di­dates. They have to prove to a greater de­gree than white can­di­dates that they can raise money and, per­haps most crit­i­cally, they say black can­di­dates need to make white vot­ers com­fort­able.

Gil­lum ac­knowl­edged as much in a “Daily Show” in­ter­view this week in which he also ar­gued that the ques­tion of race was set­tled by Obama’s vic­to­ries. But he went on to say that he fears that his op­po­nent, for­mer Rep. Ron DeSan­tis, and Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump are count­ing on him to blow his top. Gil­lum didn’t use the ex­act words, but they were fa­mil­iar to black po­lit­i­cal strate­gists who said black can­di­dates run the risk of play­ing into the “an­gry black man” trope.

“What DeSan­tis and Trump want to do is to drag me into the gut­ter with them,” Gil­lum said. “They can sur­vive get­ting dirty. I can’t sur­vive get­ting dirty, be­cause what they want to do is have me fit a stereo­type. I’ve got to be cool and col­lected. Pre­cise, non-de­fen­sive, but also have the abil­ity to land a punch where nec­es­sary.”

For­mer state Sen. Daryl Jones, who in 2002 be­came the first African-Amer­i­can to run for gover­nor, said racial pol­i­tics in Florida have im­proved but that black can­di­dates still have lit­tle mar­gin for er­ror.

“It’s all about trust and it’s not easy to earn,” said Jones. He says Gil­lum is earn­ing it by be­ing con­sis­tent: An un­abashed pro­gres­sive in the pri­mary, he has not tem­pered his po­si­tions for the gen­eral elec­tion.

When he ran for the Florida House in 1990, Jones said, he re­jected his cam­paign man­ager’s sug­ges­tion that he not use cam­paign signs with his pic­ture on them in white neigh­bor­hoods. The tra­di­tion­ally Demo­cratic district had flipped four years ear­lier when an African-Amer­i­can Demo­crat lost to a white Repub­li­can, and Jones said his cam­paign feared a re­peat.

“I said ‘How are you go­ing to fool peo­ple?’ “Jones said. “They’re go­ing to know, so put them up ev­ery­where. We did and I got elected any­way. You can’t be dif­fer­ent, you have to be con­sis­tent ev­ery place you go and leave peo­ple with the com­fort of who you are.”

De­spite his stated re­luc­tance to use race as an is­sue, Gil­lum has reached for it to de­fend him­self against a swirl of ques­tions about his in­volve­ment with an FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tion into cor­rup­tion in Tal­la­has­see.

“The goal is ob­vi­ously to use my can­di­dacy as a way to re­in­force, frankly, stereo­types about black men,” Gil­lum said in a Face­book video af­ter records were re­leased that sug­gest an FBI agent pos­ing as a de­vel­oper had paid for Gil­lum’s ticket to the Broad­way mu­si­cal “Hamil­ton” dur­ing a 2016 trip to New York. No one has been charged in the cor­rup­tion probe, and Gil­lum has said that agents as­sured him he was not a tar­get.

Out­side strate­gists sug­gest black can­di­dates are bet­ter off not mak­ing an is­sue of race while cam­paign­ing in Florida, where racial ten­sion re­mains very much a fac­tor.

“The state is still 68 per­cent white vot­ers, and His­panic vot­ers are not al­ways go­ing to vote for a mi­nor­ity over a white,” said Brad Coker, man­ag­ing direc­tor of Florida-based Ma­son-Dixon Polling. “That’s just sta­tis­tics and num­bers and it’s got noth­ing to do with more than that.”

Coker was the poll­ster for Demo­crat Doug Wilder, who won elec­tion in Vir­ginia in 1989, be­com­ing the first elected African-Amer­i­can gover­nor in Amer­i­can his­tory. Wilder ran a con­ser­va­tive, raceneu­tral cam­paign, largely sidestep­ping racial pol­i­tics, Coker said.

“He went right at the heart of the vot­ers who would be sort of like, ‘Nah, I can’t vote for that guy,’ and he won them over,” Coker said of Wilder. “If you look at the black politi- cians who have won in South­ern states, they’ve taken the mod­er­ate road, ‘I’m against gun con­trol, I’m against tax in­creases.”

Yet Coker says race played a fac­tor in Wilder’s elec­tion. Exit polling had Wilder win­ning by 6 points. He eked out a vic­tory by less than a half a per­cent, and some vot­ers told poll­sters that race was a rea­son for their de­ci­sion.

“Race is a fac­tor. No one likes to talk about it, it’s taboo,” Coker said. “They do vote on race and they don’t talk about it. That’s just a fact.”

But Coker ar­gues that, more sig­nif­i­cantly, Florida Democrats haven’t won a gover­nor’s race in 20 years. Gil­lum sup­port­ers con­tend that Democrats have been too timid and that their can­di­date is mak­ing the case that he will suc­ceed by en­er­giz­ing vot­ers drawn to more lib­eral po­si­tions than his pre­de­ces­sors.

Coker said he be­lieves a black can­di­date could win — Florida is far more di­verse than most south­ern states — but he’s skep­ti­cal that a can­di­date who leans left will be em­braced.

“It wouldn’t sur­prise me if Florid­i­ans elected a black Demo­crat. It would sur­prise me if they elected a black Demo­crat who has the more pro­gres­sive agenda, the Bernie San­ders, Elizabeth War­ren agenda,” he said.

Marvin Dunn, a for­mer col­lege psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor and chron­i­cler of Florida’s African-Amer­i­can his­tory, said he be­lieves Gil­lum is be­ing ad­vised to “not nec­es­sar­ily be race neu­tral, but not be overly, overtly com­mit­ted to what whites could per­ceive as a black agenda.”

Gil­lum has fo­cused on broadly pop­u­lar Demo­cratic stan­dards like health­care and sup­ports rais­ing the state’s cor­po­rate tax rate to bol­ster pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion.

“He needs to get in­de­pen­dents and mod­er­ates to view him as a non-threat, and he’s done that,” said Dunn, who briefly ran for a con­gres­sional seat. “He does not need to be seen as Max­ine Wa­ters” — the fiery House mem­ber from Cal­i­for­nia who, like Gil­lum, has called for Trump’s im­peach­ment, but also rou­tinely torches Trump on tele­vi­sion.

Jaime Har­ri­son, the first African-Amer­i­can to chair South Carolina’s Demo­cratic party, said Gil­lum and Stacey Abrams, the Ge­or­gia Demo­crat bid­ding to be­come the first black woman to serve as gover­nor, de­serve credit for win­ning their par­ties’ pri­maries and clear­ing a per­sis­tent hur­dle for blacks run­ning for of­fice: the per­cep­tion that they can’t win.

“We con­stantly hear, ‘You don’t have a chance to win, you can’t raise money,” said Har­ri­son, who said he heard sim­i­lar doubts when he de­clared his can­di­dacy for state party chair.

Har­ri­son, who is now with the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee and who’s charged with de­vel­op­ing the party’s strat­egy for win­ning elec­tions across the South and in ru­ral dis­tricts, said his only ad­vice to Gil­lum was to be him­self.

“Typ­i­cally in the South, can­di­dates be­lieve they have to be Repub­li­can lite,” Har­ri­son said. “They’ll hedge on the is­sues, but An­drew is like, this is who I am and this is what I be­lieve.

“Au­then­tic­ity is what vot­ers are at­tracted to,” said Har­ri­son, who tweeted an ap­praisal af­ter Gil­lum’s first de­bate: “@An­drewGil­lum put on a #MasterClass that I hope ev­ery Dem can­di­date in the

South watches re­peat­edly,” Har­ri­son wrote. “Be who you are ... stand up for your val­ues .. have vi­sion .. throw away the poll tested mes­sages ... stop chas­ing uni­corn vot­ers .. be gen­uine .. bot­tom­line #DoYou.”

Gil­lum won the pri­mary by post­ing enor­mous num­bers in the four most pop­u­lous coun­ties with the high­est per­cent­age of black vot­ers. But he has sought to push be­yond that ap­peal, cam­paign­ing in ar­eas of the state where black vot­ers are scarce.

“We’ve gotta talk to every­body,” Gil­lum said at a re­cent stop in Palm Coast — DeSan­tis coun­try. “You win by get­ting one more vote. And that one vote might come from any­where through­out the length and breadth of this state.”

Gil­lum also named as his run­ning mate Chris King, a pri­mary ri­val and a white, evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian with a base in Or­lando.

But he has also leaned into race. He has pushed for re­peal­ing the state’s con­tro­ver­sial “Stand your ground” law, cit­ing the case of Markeis McGlock­ton, a black man shot and killed by a white man in a dis­pute over a park­ing spot. And he backs a con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment to re­store vot­ing rights to most con­victed felons, call­ing the ban “a relic of Jim Crow that we should end for good.”

Dur­ing their first de­bate, Gil­lum ac­cused DeSan­tis of in­ten­tion­ally in­ject­ing race into the cam­paign with his post-pri­mary warn­ing that vot­ers could “monkey up” the state by elect­ing Gil­lum.

“The ‘monkey up’ com­ment said it all,” Gil­lum said. “And he has only con­tin­ued in the course of his cam­paign to draw all the at­ten­tion he can to the color of my skin. And the truth is, you know what? I’m black. I’ve been black all my life and as far as I know, I’ll die black.”

Those who ran be­fore Gil­lum say they hope that as chal­leng­ing as 2018 may be, the cli­mate has im­proved for a black can­di­date.

“He was not told by party lead­ers, like I was, that you re­ally don’t have a shot,” said for­mer state Rep. Wil­lie Lo­gan, who in 2000 ran for the U.S. Se­nate as an in­de­pen­dent af­ter a fall­ing out with Florida Democrats. Post-Obama, Lo­gan be­lieves, “peo­ple are more will­ing to give you the ben­e­fit of doubt, to see you as a fel­low hu­man be­ing rather than as solely black.”

He sees progress, too, in that un­like Obama, who was bi-racial, Gil­lum is un­mis­tak­ably black.

“There was al­ways a be­lief you had to be” light­skinned, Lo­gan said, “to win out­side your neigh­bor­hood.”

Steve Schale, the Florida strate­gist who ran Obama’s Florida cam­paign in 2008, ar­gues that Gil­lum’s cam­paign is do­ing what it needs to do to broaden his ap­peal by em­brac­ing is­sues “that mat­ter pretty much to ev­ery­one.” He ar­gues there is no dif­fer­ent play­book for black can­di­dates.

“Ev­ery­one knew Barack Obama was a black man, ev­ery­one knows An­drew Gil­lum is a black man,” Schale said. “The im­por­tant strat­egy is run­ning on is­sues, like we did, that res­onate with peo­ple.”

Schale said Gil­lum’s cam­paign has taken a page from Obama’s play­book: send­ing the can­di­date to red ar­eas, like DeSan­tis’ for­mer con­gres­sional district, where Gil­lum drew a large and en­thu­si­as­tic crowd.

“A vote in St. Johns County to us was as im­por­tant as a vote in Broward County,” Schale said. “And they’ve made the ef­fort in very Repub­li­can places. They’re not go­ing to win it, they’re not even go­ing to come close, but if they move the num­bers two or three per­cent, that’s a lot and that adds up across the state.”


JOE RAEDLE Getty Im­ages

Bill Nel­son and An­drew Gil­lum rally in West Palm Beach. Story, 25A

PE­DRO POR­TAL ppor­tal@mi­ami­her­ald.com

An­drew Gil­lum meets sup­port­ers at Bethel Church in his home­town of Rich­mond Heights on Thurs­day.

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