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The Florida Primary–Wow!

August 29, 2018


More than a year ago, I first met Andrew Gillum at a meet-and-greet at a supporter’s home in Miami Shores. I knew very little about him then, but once I heard him speak I knew that he had something special and that I wanted to support him in any way I could. Here was a man I agreed with on virtually every issue and who could discuss them without sounding like he was just reciting talking points. And he had charisma–not the demagogic kind, but the kind that makes you believe that he would really do something to address the gross inequalities in American society. I was sold.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one, because last night he won the Democratic nomination for governor of Florida–something that no poll or pundit predicted. This was truly a grass-roots campaign, and it’s worth looking closely at how it happened. It certainly wasn’t because of money. Here are the figures on campaign spending:

Philip Levine: $37.7 million
Jeff Greene: $34.7 million
Gwen Graham: $16.3 million
Chris King: $7.8 million
Andrew Gillum: $6.6 million

During the entire campaign, here in Miami I saw exactly one TV commercial for Gillum and that was on the day before the election. By contrast, both Greene and Levine blanketed South Florida with television ads throughout late spring and summer. Greene also spent heavily on attack ads that targeted Levine and Graham, and Levine responded in kind. Graham was late getting into the TV campaign, apparently banking on her lead in the polls and strong ties with the state Democratic establishment to carry her to the general election. Here I get echoes of Hillary Clinton’s complacency and sense of entitlement.

Nor did I find an single mailer from the Gillum campaign in my mailbox, even though I received tons of them from other candidates for state and local office. I think the campaign simply didn’t have the money.

Political commentators are focused on money that Gillum got from wealthy liberal donors George Soros and Tom Steyer (Fox News is already repeating the meme “Soros-backed Andrew Gillum”), but most of this money came very late in the campaign and was relatively modest compared to what was being spent by other candidates. As instrumental as it might have been in putting Gillum across the finish line, it’s hard to see where that money went in terms of traditional ways of boosting his message and name recognition with the general public.

I worked the polling station for Gillum at my precinct on election day, and people kept coming up and telling me that they were voting for Andrew. This is when I first suspected that some kind of earthquake might be happening, but scarcely dared to think it was true. At the same time, I wondered how they even knew about Gillum and what he represents given his minimal presence on traditional media.

The answer, I think is primarily word-of-mouth amplified by social media, starting with hundreds of appearances by the candidate in homes and churches and recreation halls all over the state. People just saw and heard Gillum and wanted to get involved. They talked to friends and family. Several people mentioned to me his performance in the candidate debates. Getting endorsed by Bernie Sanders late in the campaign clearly helped give him visibility and highlight his message, but Gillum was who he is long before Bernie backed him. He succeeded because of the Obama-like faith and enthusiasm he inspired in his volunteers. The polls missed it completely! I suspect polling tends to under-represent black voters and younger voters. I haven’t seen any detailed analysis of the vote yet, but my impression is that Gillum’s message of giving a voice to people who haven’t had much of one is resonating with both groups–I think I could see that in the people who were turning up to vote yesterday.

But now, of course, it’s going to be a different game–and an ugly one. The contest against Republican nominee Ron De Santis, who couldn’t thank Trump enough in his victory speech, will be the title fight for the national mid-terms, given Florida’s key role as swing state and the perfect polarity between the two candidates. The national parties are going to be in this big time, and astronomical sums of money–especially dark money–will be pouring in with all that entails. It is worrisome that slightly more people voted in the Republican primary than in the Democratic one. This is not going to be easy.

Race will certainly be a big factor in this election. No African-American has ever won statewide office in Florida. The last major contest involving a black candidate was in the Tea Party year of 2010 when Kendrick Meek lost in a three-way race for the US Senate with Marco Rubio and Charlie Crist. Outside of South Florida and the major cities, Florida is still Southern. According to census data from 2016, black voters represent only about one-eighth of all registered voters in Florida, and register at significantly lower rates than whites (47.4% vs. 69.1%). Much of that disparity probably has to do with targeted voter suppression measures, notably the law that permanently strips voting rights from anyone convicted of a felony and which disproportionately impacts minorities. (A measure to end this practice will be on the ballot in November.) The flip side of this is that there are potentially a lot of votes to be gained if Gillum can energize disaffected and unregistered voters to sign up. But especially in the era of Trump, we can expect a lot of overt and covert racism to infect the campaign. Indeed, it has already started. Quite honestly, I fear for the physical safety of Gillum and his family, just as I did for the Obamas.

I am impressed, however, by Gillum’s ability to build a loyal coalition that spans classes and ethnicities. His positions are being called leftist, socialist, and radical, but that is just an indication of how constricted our vision of what life in this country could be has become. I think the time is now to articulate a bold liberal alternative to the greed, corruption, racism, and xenophobia of Trumpism, and I believe Gillum has the charisma and leadership qualities to do that and win.

I admit to feeling a measure of grief for the Gillums whose lives are about to change in ways beyond anything they could imagine as they are suddenly thrust into a national spotlight. I hope and trust they will find the inner strength to rise to the challenge. I’m not a religious man, but I wish them Godspeed and will do all I can to help.



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