On Tuesday night, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum won Florida’s Democratic gubernatorial primary in an upset, startling the political establishment and earning immediate comparisons to upstart congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In retrospect, though, Gillum’s unexpected defeat of his closest rival, Gwen Graham, probably shouldn’t have been shocking. Graham, a moderate one-term congresswoman with deep ties to Florida politics, ran a professional but insipid campaign that failed to ignite a groundswell of support. Other competitors in the race included Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, a self-described “radical centrist” and millionaire who blitzed the airwaves with bland ads, and Jeff Greene, a Palm Beach billionaire indulging in a vanity run. Levine and Greene siphoned votes from Graham, allowing Gillum, who positioned himself as a different, more progressive kind of Democrat, to claim victory. Gillum beat Graham by about 45,000 votes; had Levine or Greene dropped out, Graham may have won handily.
And yet Gillum’s underdog triumph really was staggering because he was able to do what no statewide Democratic candidate in Florida ever has: bring together a winning coalition of progressives—young voters, racial minorities, LGBTQ people—without paying lip service to centrist orthodoxy. For decades, the Florida Democratic Party has run moderates who can ostensibly win over a chunk of rural whites. This strategy has failed more often than it has succeeded, and Gillum is the first statewide candidate to reject it outright. It is not at all certain that he will win in a general election. But his canny ability to unite and inspire unflinchingly progressive voters in Florida bodes well for his chances of turning out Democrats in November.
It’s difficult to understand Gillum’s political rise without taking into account his political education in Tallahassee, my hometown. In 2003, at age 23, Gillum became the youngest candidate to be elected to the Tallahassee City Commission, where he served until becoming mayor in 2014. Florida’s capital is a speck of blue in a sea of red, a liberal enclave populated by college students, state employees, and minorities that is surrounded by white, rural, Republican communities. Gillum bridged factions on the commission, kindling a pro-development reputation while boosting progressive policies. After the killing of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, in 2012, Gillum endorsed sweeping reforms to the state’s criminal justice system. He urged the legislature to repeal the “stand your ground” law, compel law enforcement to take training on racial profiling, and repeal Florida’s “zero tolerance” public school policy, which compels punishment (including expulsion and arrest) for minor infractions.
That didn’t happen—Florida’s legislature is overwhelmingly Republican—but Gillum quickly became a star on the council. When Tallahassee’s three-term mayor declined to seek re-election in 2014, Gillum was the obvious front-runner. He easily won the race, mostly by touting his work to revitalize large parts of the city without favoring business leaders over community members. Gillum entered the mayor’s office as a consensus builder, and he mostly governed that way, continuing his quest to improve public services, help underprivileged youth get jobs and education, and draw commerce to the city.
But there were clear signs that Gillum had higher ambitions, or at least an itch to fight at the front lines of progressive battles of the day. In addition to backing criminal justice reforms, Gillum found himself at the forefront of a nasty skirmish over gun control—and appeared to relish the role. The conflict involved a 2011 law that imposes fines on officials who “promulgate” local firearm ordinances. In 2014, gun lobby groups demanded that Gillum and the commission repeal an ordinance that bans firearm use in public parks. The ordinance wasn’t even enforceable—legislators nullified local gun laws in 1987—but lobbyists demanded that Tallahassee formally repeal its law. When Gillum refused, these lobbyists filed suit, seeking to punish the mayor personally. They lost after a court found that keeping a law on the books did not qualify as promulgating it. Gillum boasted that he had beat the NRA and drew favorable coverage to his fight against the gun lobby.
This clash with the NRA became central to Gillum’s gubernatorial campaign mythology, and for good reason: It seemed to prove that the candidate was no opportunistic newcomer to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Gillum’s strong, early stance on gun control proved particularly helpful in the primary: In light of the Parkland shooting and the Pulse massacre, Florida has exemplified the dangers of loose gun laws pushed by the GOP. The state’s “stand your ground” law has proved similarly controversial, particularly after the deaths of Martin and Markeis McGlockton.
Graham, Gillum, Greene, and Levine all sought to portray themselves as fierce supporters of gun safety reform, which emerged as a key issue in the race. But Gillum had the best track record by far. As a congresswoman, Graham endorsed bipartisan legislation to restrict gun sales to those on the terror watch list, but declined to support a ban on assault weapons. (Neither of these measures even made it to the floor of the House.) Some of Graham’s high-profile votes in Congress also came back to haunt her during the campaign: She voted to limit Syrian refugee resettlement in the U.S., to authorize the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, to loosen the Dodd-Frank Act’s regulations on Wall Street, and to bar the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to U.S. facilities.
During her campaign for governor, Graham sought to depict these votes as sensible compromises responsive to her constituents in a closely divided district. She identified as a progressive—but Gillum had no trouble seizing the mantle of today’s left. He endorsed legalizing recreational marijuana, Medicare for all, hiking corporate taxes to fund public education, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement as well as private prisons. (Gillum also supported Medicaid expansion, which would extend health insurance to 700,000 Floridians, but so did every other Democratic candidate.) Sen. Bernie Sanders endorsed him—even though Gillum supported Hillary Clinton in 2016—and billionaire donors Tom Steyer and George Soros cut him big checks.
For most of the race, however, Gillum’s campaign was broke. He spent little money on TV as his opponents blanketed the airwaves with ads. He couldn’t afford direct mail or, at times, flyers. Instead, he used social media to encourage direct donations and spent his money on extensive statewide organizing. Gillum is tall and handsome, and his oratory is at once lofty and forthright. He speaks candidly about race, frequently reminding voters that more than 21 percent of Florida’s black voting-age population can’t vote due to its grossly discriminatory felon disenfranchisement law. (Gillum’s own brother is disenfranchised by the ban, which voters will have an opportunity to repeal in November.) And his story is undeniably inspirational: His mother drove a school bus; his father was a construction worker; he was the fifth of seven children and the first to graduate high school, setting an example that motivated his two younger siblings to finish school as well.
Moreover, by a stroke of luck, Gillum ran for governor the same year that Sean Shaw decided to compete in the Democratic primary for attorney general. Shaw, a state representative whose father was the first black chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court, is widely respected in the state’s legal circles. For an attorney general’s race, his candidacy generated an unusual amount of excitement. Shaw fostered that enthusiasm by running on a bold platform of racial justice, marijuana legalization, environmental protection, and gun control. (He also vowed to sue the legislature for failing to fund public education.) And at just 40 years old—one year older than Gillum—he qualifies as young for the political scene.
Shaw’s views overlap extensively with Gillum’s, and a number of staffers on Shaw’s campaign helped Gillum in their spare time. While the two never formally endorsed each other, both ran as firebrand progressives, giving Democrats alienated by the state party’s centrism a reason to show up to the polls. Both Shaw and Gillum also attracted extensive support among Florida’s black community. Both won on Tuesday.
But there was no single reason for Gillum’s success in the primary. His ballyhooed surge late in the race was ultimately the result of a vigorous get-out-the-vote effort. In the end, his base simply came through for him: Lefty college students, racial minorities, teachers, union members, LGBTQ Floridians, and everybody else who was tired of moderate Democrats running and losing decided to bet on a true progressive candidate for a change. If he can maintain that support through November, he has a real shot at winning—so long as an FBI probe into possible corruption in Tallahassee politics doesn’t tarnish his chances. (So far, Gillum has not been implicated, and no charges have been filed.)
The stakes could not be higher. In the general election, Gillum will face Rep. Ron DeSantis, a Trump clone who committed a possibly racist gaffe shortly after Gillum’s victory. DeSantis spent his primary campaign touting Trump’s endorsement and bashing immigrants; as governor, he could plunge the state into four years of Trumpian dysfunction and anti-immigrant fervor. Gillum, who would be Florida’s first black governor, can beat him, but he’ll need to win over moderate Graham voters without estranging his base. He’s clearly ready for the challenge. Soon we will learn if Florida is ready for him.