Reflecting on his groundbreaking campaign last fall to become Florida’s first African-American governor, Andrew Gillum looked all the way back to his first race. At 23, while still a college student, he had won a seat on the Tallahassee City Commission, defying expectations and startling the city’s political elite.
But then the newly elected commissioner fell silent. Gillum didn’t say a word in meetings for months, thinking he had to wait his turn. Finally, a woman who had voted for him confronted him after church one day. Did she waste her vote? Why wasn’t he speaking up?
“It was like the light came on, the switch came on,” Gillum recalled. “I started weighing in on everything. I realized I brought in a different belief system and if I didn’t contribute, it wouldn’t get brought to the table. Ever since, I have not held my tongue on things I believe and feel strongly about. The biggest fear I had to get over was the one in my head. Once I got over it, I had agency and I could be my true and authentic self.”
Gillum, now 39, shared that lesson with hundreds of students at a John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum on Friday at an event that served as the keynote opening for “Affirming Blackness: Protest, Passion, and Policy,” the 15th annual Black Policy Conference for students at Harvard Kennedy School. Gillum spoke on stage with Aisha Moodie-Mills, a long-time national leader on LGBTQ rights, who is a Spring 2019 resident fellow with Gillum at the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics.
Moodie-Mills asked Gillum to think aloud about the real world of politics that he experienced during his razor-thin defeat in the Florida gubernatorial race and how he handled the challenges of running as Florida’s first black candidate for governor from a major party.
Gillum recalled his childhood in Miami-Dade County and then Gainesville, where his mother was a school bus driver and his father was a construction worker who sold fruit on the corner in slow times. He was the fifth of seven children; his four older brothers all had criminal records. He was the first in the family to graduate from high school.
He described making it through the five-candidate primary to get the nomination for the Tallahassee City Commission back in 2004 while he was still a student at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University. “From the moment I got in the race, the editorial pages and writers and other naysayers were calling it a fool’s errand,” Gillum said. “Not a week went by when someone wouldn’t say you should drop out, you are taking away votes from a candidate who can win.”
He was the youngest commissioner ever elected and served for a decade until he won election as mayor of Tallahassee in 2014, with 76 percent of the vote in a four-way race. In 2018, he became the state’s first black nominee for governor from a major party.
Gillum said Democrats in Florida had come to believe they had to run as “Republican light.” Instead, he vowed to pursue an openly progressive agenda, supporting gun control, better pay for teachers, expanded Medicaid, and repeal of the state’s “stand your ground” self-defense law.
Gillum lost to Republican Ron DeSantis by less than a percentage point; turnout rose from the usual 6 million to 8.5 million. For the first time, Gillum noted, black voters turned out in numbers that reflected their share of the population.
“I ran the most unapologetic campaign for governor in the history of our state,” he said. “We were unafraid. If I had advice for 2020 candidates and anyone considering it: Run as yourself, and give voters a chance to say whether or not they agree with you.”
Looking forward, Gillum is working on a new initiative to register one million new voters in Florida. In recent elections, he said, “we took our eye off the organizing ball. We thought we could win these elections by taking a short cut,” with a blitz of campaign ads in the final days.
“My goal is to beat Donald Trump in 2020 and, in the process, to build some infrastructure that will last after the election,” he said. “I just hope that in this primary, we will see bold, courageous, unapologetic thinking.”
Photography by Gail Oskin