It was 1918. Lynching ran rampant throughout the South.
Gov. Sidney Johnston Catts took office after a campaign promising to rid Florida of Jews and Catholics. Blacks were too numerous to rid of, so he stopped funding their schools.
Fast-forward 100 years. Today, most campaigns are about inclusion.
Among the Democratic contenders in the Florida primary for governor are two Jews, a few millionaires, one billionaire and a woman.
And among the ranks stands Andrew Gillum, the sole Black candidate. The 38-year-old charismatic mayor of Tallahassee is running for the governorship on a progressive platform.
The road to the state House has been paved for Gillum by civil rights activists and those who shattered political barriers before him, and it’s not lost on him.
“On August 28, 1963, Dr. [Martin Luther] King gave his ‘I Have a Dream, speech, tweeted Gillum. “On August 28, 2008, President Obama accepted his nomination for President. On August 28, 2018, I’m going to win the Democratic primary for Governor of Florida.”
With less than a month to the Aug. 28 primary, Gillum has work to do to accomplish this weighty goal. He is running in a field of candidates who can only be described as big money and big establishment.
Gillum is also behind in the polls. He has just broken single digits coming in at 10 percent while his main contender, Gwen Graham, has shot up to a 29 percent in most recent polls.
He also must contend with an FBI investigation within his City Hall in Tallahassee, which he has managed to stay clear from but lingers in the background.
Gillum has convinced others that he can make history and edge out the field of Democrats in the primary and go on to beat a Republican challenger.
“This is very possible,” said Quentin James, the founder and executive director of The Collective political action committee. “No doubt, this is a historic moment.”
“Building Black political power” is the sole, unbashful purpose of The Collective PAC.
Not only has the political environment changed since 1918, it has changed drastically since 2016, said James. And the possibility of electing, not just Gillum, but other Black governors is a strong possibility.
The Collective is supporting the candidacy of eight Black prospective governors across the nation. There are no Black governors currently.
“We learned in 2016 that most of these polls are wrong,” said James. He said most of those polls are based on 625 registered voters whereas their internal polling is modeled after the electoral base, which is expected to come out to vote on primary day.
“He [Gillum] has been flying under the radar,” said James. “What we found in our polling is that he is the most progressive candidate.”
James compared the Florida race to what happened in Georgia.
Stacey Abrams, who eventually won the Democratic primary for governor, was said to be in a close race with her opponent who was a white female.
“They said she was only ahead by five or eight points, but she won by a 50-point margin,” cited James. “The polls are wrong. I think he [Gillum] is in a stronger position than what the polls are saying.”
Gillum’s campaign may want to take some notes from the Democratic primary success of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes in New York, who unseated a big money and big establishment powerhouse. Her opponent, Congressman Joe Crowley, was poised to take the leadership of the Congressional Democrats from Nancy Pelosi when Ocasio-Cortes snatched the crown from his head with a jaw-breaking victory. The 28-year-old political novice unseated Crowley who won 10 consecutive elections for the seat, had the blessings of the party establishment and outspent Ocasio-Cortes in the same way Gillum’s opponents are outspending him.
Gillum spokesman Geoff Burgan said there are no plans for Gillum to stump with Ocasio-Cortes, but he has been active on her social media platform.
“I am the only non-millionaire running in this race,” Gillum is known to say at the numerous debates and stump speeches. According to the Florida Division of Elections, Chris King has posted $2.3 million in donations and $4 million in loans to his campaign as of July 20. Gwen Graham has cash contributions of $3.8 million.
Real estate developer Jeff Greene is a billionaire who is funding his campaign, while Philip Levine and King are both millionaires who have the advantage of lending their campaigns millions of dollars.
Greene has donated $7 million to his campaign and has loaned his campaign $6.5 Million since entering the race on June 1. Levine has made nearly $12 million in loans to his campaign and has collected more than $2 million in cash contributions.
Gillum has raised just over $1.5 million in cash contributions mostly through small donations and has given no loans to his campaign. Gillum is certainly behind in raising funds for his campaign but has set up a statewide political committee called Forward Florida. These bigger-money donors are listed on his site and include supporters such as George Soros. For Gillum, the effect of having a PAC helps to overcome the big-buck funding of his opponents.
“Our contributions will not close the funding gap completely,” said James.
Graham, a former congresswoman and Democratic candidate who could be considered the establishment candidate, has taken issue with what she calls the use of “dark money,” a term applied to political funding which is not reported to the Florida election bureau. Graham, who is currently in the lead in the traditional polls with nearly 29 percent, has called for full disclosure of donors.
James said all of the contributors to his PAC also directly contribute to Florida Forward, which addresses the issue of transparency.
James says most of the PAC funds have been spent on ads.
“Our ads have primarily been negative ads,” said James, who anticipates more than $2.5 million coming in before the election. “This is not a personal attack … We are showing candidates’ record and where they are at on these issues.”
A winning strategy
Gillum has been crisscrossing the state but seems to spend a good deal of time in South Florida.
Getting out the vote of young people and people of color – especially Black women – could be a determining factor. To that end, Gillum’s campaign has reached out in an inclusive effort to small, politically active organizations based in urban centers. Uplifting and defending minorities and historically neglected groups by eliminating political, economic and social inequities are the hallmarks of progressive candidates.
Democrats outnumber Republicans statewide but have not been able to muster together a coalition of party members and nonaffiliated voters to win the governor’s seat for more than 20 years.
Minorities make up the largest share of Florida Democrats at 45 percent, according to Susan MacManus in a recent article in Sayfie Review. And 82 percent of Florida’s Black population are registered as Democrats.
In addition, the majority of Florida’s registered Democrats live in seven counties: Broward, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, Hillsborough, Orange, Duval and Pinellas.
“People of color make up the majority of Democratic voters in Florida. We have the numbers,” writes Andrea Mercado, director of the New Florida Vision PAC in an open letter to the community. “Too often candidates like Gillum get lost in the pack of millionaire self-funded campaigns.”
As part of its strategy to make a historic win for Gillum, the PAC is reaching out to Black, Latino and Haitian “infrequent” voters via a door-to-door, text and social media campaign.
The PAC’s efforts are mirrored by several other grassroots, progressive organizations in South Florida and across the state.
Organizations such as 350 Action, Working Families Party, Indivisible, Democracy for America, Next Up Victory Fund, Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Our Revolution, National Nurses United, NextGen America, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, FLIC Votes and the New Florida Majority will be actively bringing people to the polls.
“This is about turnout,” acknowledges James. “If that electoral looks a lot Browner he wins; if not, his chances are going to be tight. If we turn them out to vote on Aug. 28, we will be on our way to electing the first Black governor of Florida.”