Andrew Gillum is the man of the hour, not only in Florida but in the nation’s political landscape.
The charismatic Tallahassee mayor, an unabashed progressive, became the first black nominee for governor in Florida by running a confident, energetic “Let’s Bring it Home!” campaign that spoke to a coalition of Democratic voters tired of the same political game.
The racial historical marker should have been a feel-good moment for everyone. The country noted its importance, quickly catapulting interest in the Florida governor’s race to replace Rick Scott way beyond the state.
But Gillum, Miami-born and Gainesville-raised, didn’t have to wait long to confront the old ghost of racism — and its new incarnation in the era of Donald Trump-fueled bigotry.
On the morning after his momentous win, his Republican opponent, congressman Ron DeSantis, was on his familiar stomping ground of Fox News using a racial slur to describe what would happen to the state should Gillum beat him.
“He is an articulate spokesman for those far-left views. And he’s a charismatic candidate,” DeSantis said. “I watched those Democratic debates. None of that is my cup of tea but he performed better than the other people there so we’ve got to work hard to make sure that we continue Florida going in a good direction. Let’s build off the success we’ve had with Gov. Scott. The last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda with huge tax increases and bankrupting the state. That’s not going to work. That’s not going to be good for Florida.”
Using “monkey” language to demean a black man is the oldest trick in the bigot’s bible, but it’s not surprising coming out of DeSantis’ mouth. He also called another young progressive, New York Democratic congressional nominee Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, “this girl … or whatever she is” to equally dismiss her electoral victory by belittling her gender and looks.
The man is the perfect spawn of his idol, President Trump, who endorsed him and all but gave DeSantis the Republican nomination in the primary race against Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, another adoring Trump fan who had been prepping for the governorship since he graduated from college.
An hour and a half before DeSantis’ racially-charged comment, Trump also had taken on Gillum via an 8 a.m. tweet, dismissively calling him “a failed Socialist Mayor,” and boasting that this kind of opponent is DeSantis’ “biggest dream.”
The president forgot that a senator from Chicago named Barack Obama won Florida in 2008 against John McCain, war hero and class-act, and again in 2012 against Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, albeit this time by a slim margin.
It is possible — and most likely — that Gillum can inspire a similar coalition of voters again to win the governorship. He has already been inspirational. This primary had the highest turnout in a decade.
That’s why DeSantis is playing the race card from the get-go: to appeal to the same ugly white-dominance sentiments that gave rise to Trump, by evoking fear of the black man in coded language.
And it is why Gov. Scott’s administration and state Republicans may again try to make it harder for black voters, young voters, and Latino voters to get to the polls, as we’ve seen happen throughout the last eight years.
Despite the upset win over former congresswoman Gwen Graham, who led the polls and is the daughter of a former senator and governor, Gillum’s victory is a welcomed political evolution for the real Florida, which is racially diverse and multicultural.
The state failed to elect its first female governor when it chose Scott in 2010, but from 1987 to 1991, Florida had a Hispanic governor, Bob Martinez, a Republican. It’s about time African Americans take their rightful place in state leadership.
Republicans like DeSantis, who live in their white-only power circles, haven’t noticed Florida’s rising black middle class, rising black political class, rising black professional class.
But it’s in plain view in cities like Jacksonville, Miami, Orlando, Miramar, Pembroke Pines, Parkland and Tallahassee.
“What our state and country needs is decency, hope, and leadership,” Gillum shot back at the president on Twitter.
And, for the closer: “Also, @ me next time, @realDonaldTrump.”
And, going for the slam dunk, he didn’t miss a beat addressing voters on video: “Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis are both scraping from the bottom of the barrel. I believe that Florida and its rich diversity are going to be looking for a governor who’s going to bring us together. Not divide us. Not misogynists. Not racists,” he said.
Those who thought of Gillum as “the impossible candidate” — little money versus two millionaires and a billionaire, a black man in a state where acts of racism aren’t a thing of the past — didn’t think Obama could win, either.
Now, Gillum’s race for governor against a Trump surrogate has people talking about Florida as a microcosm for the country — and its choice of governor as a referendum on Washington.
Well done, Mr. Gillum.
Follow Santiago on Twitter, @fabiolasantiago