Andrew Gillum is on the verge of making history. Gillum, 39, is the mayor of Tallahassee, a husband, a father of three, a FAMU grad– and he’s vying to be the Democratic candidate in Florida’s gubernatorial race.
If he wins the general election, he’d be the first Black Governor in the state’s history.
For the son of a construction worker and a school bus driver, it’s a classic tale of the American dream, and a new chapter in Gillum’s ambitious political career (he became the youngest person elected to Tallahassee’s City Commission when he was just 23-years-old).
Gillum is also endorsed by The Collective PAC, a Black political action committee, which has succeeded in helping other Black candidates win their elections.
But Gillum’s journey in politics hasn’t been entirely smooth sailing. An FBI investigation connected to one of Gillum’s associates, affected his fundraising efforts early on, as some donors tried to avoid controversy at all costs. Nevertheless, Gillum has gained momentum in a new poll in the final days leading up to the race, and earned the endorsement of former Democratic Presidential contender, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT).
Gillum spoke with theGrio about taking on the Stand Your Ground law, being a non-traditional Democratic candidate (which includes bumping the latest Migos track for inspiration) and why getting Black people out to the polls is an urgent civil rights issue.
theGrio: Before we get into anything serious, I have to note that you are a Rattler, a FAMU alum. How has your HBCU community been reacting to your run?
Andrew Gillum: They’ve been incredible. We just show up for each other. I would not be who I am today were it not for me having passed by the Florida A&M University. When I went into FAMU I was the one exceptional student of color. The one brown kid in student government in high school. When I got to FAMU everybody was there student body president. As the saying goes “Iron sharpens iron…” I had the chance to have whatever iron I have, rub up against some other excellent examples of Black excellence.
It has without a doubt allowed me to be the person I am today, the mayor of Florida’s capital city and a candidate competing to be the next governor of the state of Florida. I owe that in large part to the education, exposure, and education I received at FAMU. The Rattler network across the country has come together not only to hosts fundraisers for me, but also campaigning for us– we are that kind of FAMUly.
theGrio: You would make history if you become the governor of Florida, becoming the first Black person to win ever. Why is this feat important to you?
Secondly, Stacey Abrams is trying to accomplish the same thing in Georgia. If she wins, what will having two African Americans leading two Southern States mean ?
AG: It would be incredible. Can you imagine? I heard of the “new south” but it would really be a new South with a Spelman sister as the Governor of Georgia, and a brother from FAMU leading the great state of Florida. Couple that with maybe Ben Jealous, Justin Fairfax over in Virginia, Mandela Barnes out in Wisconsin another HBCU alumni.
The new south would be rebirthed historically by the same people who built the south in the first place. It would be pretty poetic and powerful.
“The new south would be rebirthed historically by the same people who built the south in the first place. It would be pretty poetic and powerful.”
To your first question – I was sick of losing. In the state of Florida, we have lost the race for governor in the last 20 years. Dems fell short. The last two times, we fell short by less than 1 point – fewer than 70,000 votes in the state of 20 million people.
My belief is we keep falling short because we fail to nominate a candidate who speaks to the interest of, and values of the experiences of people, who make up the majority of our party.
Black voters, brown voters, young voters, poor voters, progressive voters– they want a candidate they can rally behind and believe that they can believe in and reflects their values.
We have shown before we may not go to the other side, but staying home is also consequential.
6 million people staying home in 2016 got us Donald Trump. We can’t afford that. My biggest motivation is our need to win – my belief is we need a candidate that connects with voters. In this five-way race, I’m the only non-millionaire, Democrat running for governor in the state of Florida.
That isn’t to say my colleagues who aren’t individually wealthy can’t empathize, but I don’t need a pollster or messaging expert to tell me what that means – I know it because I lived it. I think that lived experience will be very valuable.
theGrio: You gained momentum in the last few weeks. One political analyst said not enough Black voters know who you are. This person theorized it was related to fundraising. Do you think money is a factor?
AG: Well in a sense money can be a factor when you have one candidate who came from basically nowhere, spent close to $30 million on television and shot up in the polls, so I can’t say that it is not consequential. I just don’t think money votes. I believe people vote.
We have built a pretty strong grassroots apparatus to do it. Unlike my opponents I have literally had to politic my way across 20 million people, which is not an easy thing to do but I committed myself to it for the last 18 months.
And the fact that we are now surging in the polls is a result of people are now beginning to pay attention this race. They are now accepting candidates for who they are, not just what they represent…
Now that voters are seeing that I’ve been the same person for 15 years as an elected official. I referenced this in Black churches- we know that over the arc of our history using Harriet Tubman as one example, she didn’t have any Facebook, TV, even when she was not able to use her voice- they had to communicate to each other that it was time to be free.
I am not going to let any amount of money or any size contribution or any billionaire or millionaire walk away with this thing. I know the voters I need have everything in their power to get out the vote, to elect the most qualified candidate running on the Democratic side– who just so happens to be a brother.
theGrio: You called out Governor Scott asking him to end Stand Your Ground– and said you would do so if elected Governor. How would you take on the NRA?
AG: The good news is — we didn’t back down from the NRA before. We beat them not once but twice. I am prepared to do it a third time.
Stand Your Ground in my opinion is giving license to vigilantes in the recesses of their mind to assess somebody to be a threat and agitate, instigate conflict… and hide behind Stand Your Ground as justification. You have to look no further than Trayvon Martin.
We know that persons of color, particularly our Black boys are at-risk under Stand Your Ground. Black defendants who try to claim stand your ground are less likely to have judges allow them to claim Stand Your Ground as defense, compared to white defendants who claim Stand Your Ground as a defense. It is a law that has no place in civilized society. Not to mention, it is a completely unnecessary law.
theGrio: You’re quoted as saying that people are used to “Conservative Democrats” and that you’re like nothing they’ve seen before. Talk about what makes you different. How do you plan to reach out to people who maybe never voted Democrat before, particularly as a Black man?
AG: Floridians will vote for a Black candidate. Barack Obama won the state of Florida twice. The last five Democrats were all white and each one of them lost the state consecutively for the last 20 years…
We are going to talk to them about the issues that matter — quality education for their kids. Skills training, micro-credentialing. Earning a good livable wage. People are terrified of getting sick, it is among the number one concerns. That cost this state about 6 billion alone.
This isn’t red or blue or Democratic or Republican…When you are the governor of the state of Florida, your job is to act in the best interest of the people in the state of Florida.
If you don’t like me, just vote your own self interest. I believe there is enough voters that believe what believe. It is going to be our job to turn those voters out in November and that is how we are going to win this state.
theGrio: Voting rights particularly for African Americans have been under attack in many places. We have seen attempts to suppress the vote. What would you say about the meaning of getting out and voting this midterm? Why does it mean so much in your race and beyond?
AG: In Florida, we’ve been dealing for a long time with voter suppression efforts. Look no further than the 2000 election. We know this trickery. What I have to communicate to voters is show up, vote. Stop allowing people to dissuade us, prevent us from doing what we have the power to do.
“One of the most consistent questions I get in large rooms of color is ‘Can you win?’ My response is ‘can you vote’?”
One of the most consistent questions I get in large rooms of color is “Can you win?” My response is can you vote?
If you vote we can win, but if you allow for these suppressive tactics to deter you, then they really will win. We have the power to get out there and vote. Yes we will have election protection.
We need everybody who has opportunity and the legal right to vote to get out there and do it– right now Democracy is losing because of our failure to show up and show out in this process.
In my state on the November ballot, there will be a question about the re-enfranchisement of voters who have had their voting rights permanently taken away from them in the state of Florida. This is because of a Jim Crow Law that bans you from voting forever until you go before the cabinet and beg to have your rights restored. That is a process that has outlived its life. It should have never been around in the first place.
Florida is now one of four states that has such an archaic law on the books. We have something on the ballot to repeal that. If it passes by 60% nearly 1 million people will have their rights restored. That’s powerful.
Nobody is taking anything from us, we are letting them have it when we don’t vote. My encouragement will be go vote. If you don’t vote, don’t complain.
theGrio: What is your “Song of the Moment”?
AG: (Laughs) Walk It Like I Talk It – Migos
theGrio: What is the best piece of advice you have gotten?
AG: DeVal Patrick told me “Be willing to go everywhere, you never know where you may pick up a vote.” Over these last 18 months on the trail, I’ve been to red areas, deep red areas. I have been to blue areas of the state. I been to purple areas of the state, suburban, and highly urban areas of the state… I’ve not changed what I said any place.
In fact, I was told by my grandmother when you tell the truth you don’t have to worry about lying. You don’t have to worry about keeping up with a story because it is consistent always.
I follow that advice by being willing to go everywhere and tell the truth everywhere. Those two pieces of advice coupled together have really aided me well on this journey.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Natasha S. Alford is Deputy Editor of theGrio and covering midterms and the journey of black candidates running for office across the country.
Follow her on Twitter and Instagram and @NatashaSAlford for the latest in news, entertainment, politics and pop culture.
Chalise Macklin is a freelance print and digital writer as well as a news producer. She is also an adjunct journalism and communications professor for Arkansas State University. She has written for Black Enterprise and Kontrol magazine.