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The Democrats Running for Governor of Florida

August 14, 2018

L to R, Jeff Greene, Philip Levine, Gwen Graham, Andrew Gillum, Chris King

As the country’s third-most populous state, Florida is critically important in national politics, particularly since it is a swing state that has determined the US presidency. In 2000, George W. Bush won Florida by (a hotly disputed) 537 votes and therefore the White House. Obama won by about 3 percentage points in 2008 and by 1 point in 2012, and Trump won by 1.2 percent in 2016.  The races for the state governor have been similarly close and were decided by about 1 percent of the vote in both 2010 and 2014.

Despite the virtual even split in state-wide voting by party, Republicans have dominated the state government for decades, largely because of gerrymandering but also because the state legislature is seated hundreds of miles away from the big population centers where Democratic voters mostly are and therefore gets little public attention or scrutiny. If the Democrats can win the governorship, it could have an enormous impact on the state’s future. So this year’s contest really matters.

I will happily vote in November for any of the five Democrats now in contention for the nomination, any of whom would be a vast improvement over Rick Scott or either of the two Republicans in the race. But I do have definite opinions on the August 28 primary. Here is how I see the race in my personal order of preference (regardless of polling numbers).

Andrew Gillum, currently mayor of Florida’s state capital, Tallahassee, is my top choice. He is the most consistently progressive of all of the candidates and is endorsed by Bernie Sanders. He supports Medicare-for-all, higher corporate taxes to fund public education, strong environmental protection, and a $15 statewide minimum wage. He has campaigned for much tougher gun regulations, repealing “stand-your-ground”, and has been twice sued (unsuccessfully) by the NRA. He was the first of the candidates to support legalization of marijuana for recreational use. He is a charismatic speaker who  has attracted national attention as a young (39) politician with a promising future. I like the fact that he has actual experience in governing a fairly large city and can speak with assurance on the issues. He was raised in Miami and therefore knows the realities of south Florida, but has managed to succeed in the very different environment of  the Florida panhandle (sometimes known as “south Georgia”).

Gillum is African-American, which is potentially a major plus in generating enthusiasm within a party whose demographic base is increasingly composed of blacks, Latinos, and other people of color as well as younger whites who are comfortable in a multi-cultural environment. He has made a central theme of his campaign the idea of giving a voice to people who have not had much of one in Florida politics. Mobilization is key, because black candidates for statewide office have had a tough time in Florida, but Gillum’s skills in communicating in a “no bullshit” style could give him the ability to break through barriers, and he has not been afraid to take his campaign to the “red” areas of the state.

His major handicap has been lack of money. He is by far the least wealthy of the five candidates–his reported personal net worth of $334,000 is roughly 2 percent of that of the least wealthy of the remaining Democratic candidates. His campaign has been run on a shoestring, mostly on the enthusiasm of volunteers (of which, full disclosure, I have been one). See table below. He has not been able to afford many TV ads (I have seen none yet in the big south Florida media market), and has therefore suffered from lack of name recognition. If he can pull off an upset and win the primary, however, the money will be there, and I believe he really could win in November.

Campaign finance figures as of July 27, 2018
Candidate Contributions Expenditures
Andrew Gillum $2,834,580.89 $1,234,491.78
Gwen Graham $5,363,675.90 $2,586,821.63
Jeff Greene $10,600,150.18 $10,079,173.22
Chris King $6,233,654.49 $5,047,477.12
Philip Levine $13,232,081.29 $11,306,819.21

Philip Levine would be my second choice for the the nomination. Like Gillum, he has real governing experience as mayor (2013-17) of Miami Beach–a fairly small, but very high profile city with major national economic and cultural interests in play. He is personally wealthy with a reported net worth of some $133 million, having made a fortune in the cruise line business and real estate, and he has not been shy about spending his own money on his campaign. He has blanketed the south Florida media market (and I assume other cities as well) with effective and well-targeted TV ads.

Also like Gillum, he has staked out a highly progressive platform including emphasis on education, gun control, environment, and healthcare. He has also come out in favor of full legalization of marijuana. As mayor of Miami Beach–perhaps the city most threatened by sea level rise in the US–he initiated an innovative and expensive program to alleviate occasional flooding with an ambitious pumping system and by physically raising the level of major streets. He got good marks as mayor,  and despite an occasionally abrasive manner, he comes across as no-nonsense, can-do guy.

Levine has strong connections with the Clintons and served as a Hillary’s surrogate in south Florida during her presidential campaign. I do wonder whether he can really connect with and energize the black and Latino voters that he will need to win in the general election. He has, however, done some important outreach work with the growing number of Puerto Rican voters in Florida, with an ad highlighting his aid to the island after Hurricane Maria and the endorsement of San Juan mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz. There is little question, however, that he has the resources to run a campaign.

Gwen Graham is in many ways the candidate of the Florida Democratic establishment–with both the pluses and minuses that entails. Her father, Bob Graham, was both a Democratic governor of the state (1979-87) and a US senator (1987-2005), so she has deep connections to the party’s machinery. In 2014, she won election to the US congress from a district in northern Florida centered in Tallahassee, but she declined to run for re-election in 2016 after the congressional district map was redrawn and gave hers a large Republican base majority. During her one term in congress, she was considered to be among the most centrist Democrats, and opposed the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran and voted for the Keystone XL pipeline. In debates, other candidates have criticized her for lack of loyalty to Obama.

As candidate for governor, Graham has staked out a slightly more centrist platform, a bit less aggressive on gun control, favoring medical marijuana and decriminalization of recreational use but not outright legalization, and supporting raising the minimum wage while remaining vague about how much. Her vote on the pipeline has raised questions about her environmental bonafides, especially after she was questioned by reporter Jim DeFede of Miami’s CBS station regarding her family’s financial stake in a planned megamall at the edge of the Everglades in Miami-Dade county. When DeFede repeatedly asked her if building a massive shopping mall in that location was a good idea for the environment, she responded robotically with canned talking points that the site was inside the Urban Development Boundary (which is true) and that all legal environmental rules had been met (which in Florida can be a fairly low bar). She also is quite well off, with a reported net worth of some $14 million.

As the only woman in the race, Graham never fails to mention that she is a “mom” (the subhead on her website is “Mom, PTA President, Congresswoman”), and in debates has sometimes implied that she’s being picked on because she’s a woman.

My main concern about Graham is that to me she shows some of the same characteristics that hurt Hillary Clinton, namely that she comes off as a bit cold and mechanical, sticking resolutely to the script regardless of the context, along with having a sense of entitlement because of who she is. I just don’t know if she can generate the excitement and enthusiasm needed to get voters to turn out in November, but she has connections and name recognition.

Chris King is a 39-year-old Harvard grad and lawyer (Univ. of Florida) from the Orlando area who made quite a bit of money in real estate and property management. (His reported net worth is about $17 million.) He has worked on a number of progressive causes both in Florida and abroad, but this is his first run for elective office. He has highlighted his entrepreneurial skills while articulating a very progressive platform, with emphasis on gun control and the environment, but has struggled to get name recognition and to distinguish himself from the other candidates. Perhaps as a result, he has become more aggressive in attacking the vulnerabilities of the other candidates.

To me, King comes across as earnest and committed, but politically inexperienced.

Jeff Greene jumped into the race only this summer, but he is by far the richest of the candidates with a reported net worth of at least $3.3 billion (yes, that’s a B!). All that money has bought a blitz of well-produced TV ads that have made him into a contender. The ads portray him standing up resolutely for women’s rights and standing up to Trump. The latter is a bit of a sensitive point because he was quoted as saying that Trump was “a great guy” back in November 2016, and he may still be a member at Mar-a-Lago (he says he’s not sure). His mansion in Palm Beach is in the same neighborhood.

Greene made his fortune in real estate in Florida and elsewhere, and is reportedly the biggest landowner in West Palm Beach. He made an unsuccessful run for the Democratic nomination for US senator in 2010. He has made improving schools a major theme, but has his own three young children enrolled in a private school that he founded. He has also become more aggressive in attacking his rivals, funding attack ads on TV targeted at Graham and Levine.

While I have no real issues with Greene’s official platform, I am bothered by the implicit arrogance of his campaign–basically that he can use his vast wealth to buy the nomination. To me, the overwhelming importance of money in politics has become the debilitating–and perhaps terminal–disease of our erstwhile democracy. Delivering this critical nomination to someone with no track record in public office because he has unlimited campaign funds just seems wrong.

To conclude, it’s worth repeating that there is remarkably little disagreement among all five of the candidates on the major issues. The important thing is to vote! Florida has closed primaries, so you must be registered as a Democrat (or Republican) to vote in your party’s primary. (The only exception is if only one party has a candidate for an office, in which case any registered voter can cast a ballot for that specific office.) It is too late to register for the primary, but you can still register for the general election up until October 8. The date of the primary is August 28. Early voting in Miami-Dade County started August 13 and continues until August 26. In Broward County, early voting begins on August 18.




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