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How Andrew Gillum turned the state of Florida into a beachhead for the progressive movement

How Andrew Gillum turned the state of Florida into a beachhead for the progressive movement
Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, right, debates Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis on Sunday in Tampa, Fla. (Chris O'Meara / Associated Press)

With Hurricane Michael gone and its wreckage cleaned up, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum was finally able to leave town to resume his fight against that other storm swirling around him, the political one.

The Democratic gubernatorial candidate emerged back on the campaign trail this month to meet fresh questions about a trip to New York with lobbyists and developers, one of whom turned out to be an undercover FBI agent.

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On top of that, there’s a large share of his state’s electorate that’s still fond of the president Gillum insists should be impeached. And there’s a long-standing political playbook in Florida that suggests everything the progressive firebrand is doing on the campaign trail will lead to defeat.

Yet Gillum, who would be the state’s first African American governor, keeps succeeding.

In just a few months, he has risen from obscurity to become the exemplar for national progressives building a case that the most promising path back to the White House for Democrats leads left. In public and private polls by both parties, he has held a consistent lead over his Republican opponent, Rep. Ron DeSantis, who has hitched himself tightly to President Trump, airing a campaign ad in which he cheered on his toddler as she built a toy border wall out of blocks.

In a year full of political surprises, what is taking shape in Florida ranks among the most surprising. It may also be the most consequential.

If Gillum, a liberal black candidate running on an unabashedly progressive platform, can become the first Democrat since 1998 to win the nation’s largest swing state, his election will serve as proof of concept for a host of presidential hopefuls. If he stumbles in the campaign’s final week and a half, the failure will deliver a pounding blow to the hopes of the Democratic left.

So there was no small amount of pressure as Gillum bounded onto a stage in St. Petersburg and launched into a riff that veered from bashing the National Rifle Assn. to preaching the virtues of socialized medicine.

In an interview earlier, he said that even he had learned one thing from Trump.

“If Donald Trump taught us anything in the course of the 2016 election — notwithstanding whether I believe he is authentic or not — people believed he was, and they got with him because they believed he was going to be a real, unapologetic voice for them,” Gillum said. “There was a lesson in that. And I think we would do well to mine the lessons from that election, so that we don’t doom ourselves to repeat.”

Part of that lesson: Show up. Gillum has been traveling everywhere, including to enclaves of conservative, white working-class voters and retirees that Democrats had long abandoned. Where he goes, crowds emerge, just as they have in similar places in Texas for progressive Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke. And just as they did for Bernie Sanders in 2016.

It helps that Gillum has a common touch rivaled by few candidates for governor in any state this cycle.

“My lived experience better reflects that of the people in this state than anybody in this race,” said Gillum, the son of a bus driver and construction worker. “What will allow us to break through is that factor that says, ‘That guy is just like me.’ That is not a tactic. That’s the truth.”

DeSantis accuses his rival of being something else entirely: a corrupt insider. As the race churned through the summer and into the fall, federal and state investigators were probing possible corruption in Tallahassee that brushed uncomfortably close to the mayor. This week, text messages were disclosed suggesting Gillum accepted a ticket to see the Broadway show “Hamilton” from an undercover FBI agent posing as a property developer. Gillum said he took the ticket only because he believed his brother had already paid for it.

He has repeatedly said federal investigators assured him he is not a target of their inquiry, and so far no public evidence has shown otherwise.

The emergence of the text messages, however, highlighted once again how little Gillum was vetted in a primary campaign in which all the focus stayed on other candidates.

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“There is a lot of smoke,” said Ben Wilcox, research director of Integrity Florida, a nonpartisan watchdog group. “It is just hard to tell until we learn the results of the investigation how much fire there is.” In the meantime, Wilcox said, “it’s like he’s Teflon. This stuff is just sliding off him.”

Gillum has actually seized on allegations of corruption to talk about race — a topic he embraces even in a state where minority candidates seeking to win over white voters are often encouraged to sidestep it.

“The Republicans … have wanted people from this state to believe I haven’t deserved what I have gotten, I am unethical, I have participated in illegal activity, you name it,” he said in a Facebook video posted after the text messages emerged. “The goal is obviously to use my candidacy to reinforce, frankly, stereotypes about black men.”

DeSantis was the one who first injected race into the contest, although he says it was unintentional. The morning after bothmen emerged as nominees, DeSantis warned voters on Fox News that “the last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda.” The remark was widely condemned as a racial slur, and Gillum has brought it up again and again.

“The way he thinks he is going to win this race is by making me scary enough, black enough, different enough that people will say, ‘I’ll go with what I recognize, what I know,’” Gillum said. “It is my job not to fall into that trap.”

Minority voters will be a huge factor on election day. If they come out to vote in the numbers they did when Barack Obama was on the ballot and carried this state twice, Democrats will have a big advantage.

As DeSantis focuses almost exclusively on driving out his base — Trump will help him at a rally in Fort Myers next week — Gillum is focused on expanding his.

Democrats are scrambling to register Puerto Ricans who were angry at Trump’s dismissive response to the devastation and death toll from Hurricane Irma. Republican Gov. Rick Scott swiftly distanced himself from the president’s comments, and his outreach to the Puerto Rican community is a big reason some analysts say he could win his close race for Senate even if Gillum wins the race to succeed him in the governor’s mansion.

“The president has visited Florida and put his arms around Ron DeSantis onstage,” said Zachary Baumann, director of the polling center at Florida Southern College. “So when the president makes a statement that is hurtful to the Puerto Rican community, it becomes more closely tied to him than it does to Scott.”

Gillum’s humble beginnings would seem to make him a good fit for leading a progressive movement that mercilessly attacks the control billionaires have over American politics. But billionaires propelled his success.

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Democratic mega-donors Tom Steyer and George Soros took a particular interest in the Tallahassee mayor at a time he was an also-ran for governor. When Gillum came on their radar, the heavy favorite to win the multi-candidate primary was former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, whose moderate, reach-across-the-aisle, govern-down-the-middle approach is the hallmark of a Florida political dynasty established by her father, former Democratic Gov. Bob Graham.

But the billionaires saw in Gillum a political natural who presented a rare opportunity to change the course of a state that is a political bellwether. They launched a high-stakes experiment in national progressive politics around his race, investing millions in it and using it as an incubator for new voter-turnout blueprints that could be applied nationwide.

The political organizations Steyer runs have sent about 100 organizers to Florida, and a linchpin of their strategy is tapping the list of 6 million voters Steyer has compiled who want to see Trump impeached.

The list is not dominated by the multicultural millennials whom Steyer’s groups tend to target. Most of the signers are older than 50, and more than 80% of them are white. In Florida, there are about 400,000 of them, two-thirds of whom are not likely midterm voters. But the billionaire reasons that if these people were energized enough to sign onto the impeachment campaign, they can be energized to go to the polls with a little nudge from organizers and some inspiration from Gillum.

The Democrats’ largest individual donor, Steyer complains of “inside the Beltway” Democratic thinking that assumes turnout in the midterms will always hover around 45%, and that the strategy for winning needs to be to appeal to a tiny fraction of swing voters “who can’t figure out if we should separate children at the border and put them in cages.”

“We say, ‘No, 55% of Americans are not voting in midterms and they don’t believe you,’” he said in an interview. “They think there will be no addressing them and so they see no need to vote.... We do not accept this shrinking of the electorate and doing Republican-lite to win that 1 to 2% of voters. We are talking about a completely different electorate, and democracy that functions and people participate.

“This is the fulcrum state for the presidential election,” he said. “The implications are really huge.”

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