At one of Miami’s best-known black churches, Pastor Arthur Jackson III delivered a message before the Sunday sermon.
“This is a critical election,” he said, speaking from the pulpit as the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church flock fluttered fans bearing the likeness of Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum. “We have to make it happen.”
The people nodded, and repeated his words. And Gillum’s gubernatorial campaign hoped that it was good.
If the only African American candidate in Florida’s Democratic primary for governor is going to make history, he’ll need the help of the state’s black community to get through Tuesday’s primary election. Significantly out-spent by his four opponents, Gillum’s ability to connect with a staunchly Democratic and somewhat disenfranchised voting population remains one of his biggest advantages.
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And if his campaign’s talk of a last-minute “surge” from the middle of the pack is to become more than just hype, then Sunday was a likely tipping point for Gillum. The final day of early voting — known as “Souls to the Polls” due to the tradition of faith-based politicking in the black community — had the potential to make or break his upset bid, as black pastors around the state urged their parishioners to cast their ballots.
“We’re right where we want to be,” said Gillum spokesman Geoff Burgan, pegging the African American electorate at just shy of a quarter of the 700,000 votes cast so far by Democrats heading into Sunday morning.
Gillum, who is running for the Democratic nomination against Gwen Graham, Jeff Greene, Chris King and Philip Levine, has made clear that his campaign is not tailored exclusively to black voters. His message as “the only non-millionaire” in the race is more appropriately described as a call to the lower and middle class.
But while most of the field spent the weekend in north and Central Florida, Gillum, 39, bounced around South Florida’s historically black neighborhoods, traveling from Deerfield Beach to Richmond Heights, where he grew up as a child. He attended Jackson’s church Sunday morning, and was given time to make a direct plea to parishioners.
“We can create more of that opportunity for all people. But we can’t do it, y’all, unless we vote. We can’t do it unless we get out there and let our voices be heard. We can’t do it unless we put some respect back on our vote and on our community by showing up and voting like our lives depend on it,” he said. “When we win, all of us are going to Tallahassee.”
From Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, Gillum’s tour bus made the short trip to Miramar for a Souls to the Polls event promoted by Mayor Wayne Messam and state Rep. Shevrin Jones. Talitha Anyabwele made the same trip, voting in time to greet Gillum when he arrived.
“I’m hoping Gillum’s campaign reignites what we had in the Obama campaign,” said Anyabwele, who is 38 and attended Florida A&M University with Gillum. “What’s so important to me in this race specifically is that our voices, the voices of the African-American community in Florida, is finally heard.”
In Miami the previous night, Annette Taddeo, a Miami state senator and lieutenant governor candidate with Charlie Crist in 2014, had a similar thought: Barack Obama “won because he excited young people, the base, African-Americans, Hispanics. I think that’s what many of us see in Andrew.”
Anyabwele was confident that African American Democrats are turning out to vote for Gillum. But it was hard to see signs of a surge Sunday afternoon in Miramar, where black voters lined up for hours daily in 2008 to vote for Obama. Instead, a few dozen people awaited Gillum when his campaign bus arrived.
“I can not do this without you,” Gillum said into a microphone, his voice hoarse from campaigning.
From Miramar, Gillum was scheduled to travel across the county to Fort Lauderdale for a Souls to the Polls march down Sistrunk with Congressman Alcee Hastings, former governor Bob Graham and Levine. He ran behind, arriving two hours late. He hustled up to a stage when he arrived, tore through a speech about empowering the overlooked, improving access to healthcare and housing, and reforming the state’s criminal justice system, and then took selfies with a small but enthusiastic mob before rushing to Miami.
Observers of Florida politics have mused that a strong turnout could land Gillum the Democratic nomination for governor over the better-funded and better-known Graham and Levine. Though the black community makes up about 17 percent of Florida’s population, it comprises close to one-third of the Democratic voting base.
But not every large African-American church went all-in on Souls to the Polls.
At Bishop Victor Curry’s New Birth Baptist Church in North Dade, where about 1,000 people showed up for a mid-morning service, one prayer leader focused on Donald Trump’s “instability,” warning that Paul Manafort’s conviction and Michael Cohen’s plea deal are examples of an unraveling leader.
There was only a passing mention of Gillum, and the service ended with no organized effort to bring people to the polls.
But Gillum, even while courting South Florida’s black vote, pushed back Saturday night during a visit to Little Havana on the idea that he must have an exceptional turnout of the black vote to win. Though he pointed out that election day is Aug. 28 — the same day that Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech and the day Obama became the Democratic nominee in 2008 — he said he needs to win voters across all lines.
“We think we’ve already had a great turnout,” he said while crossing Calle Ocho on his way to the Cubaocho Museum and Performance Arts Center. “I think a lot of people are assuming that the only way we do well is with black voters, but we’re gonna do well with voters across all demographics.”
Twenty four hours later, Gillum spoke on the steps of the Bethel Church in Richmond Heights, where he was baptized as a child growing up in South Dade.
In front of 400 supporters with a campaign drone whizzing overhead, Gillum made his plea to the entire electorate that Florida has tried and failed for 20 years to elect Democrats who play it safe.
“It’s my opinion that the way we are going to win is by nominating a candidate who has the ability to move more of our voters to the polls, more black voters, more brown voters, more young voters, more purple voters, more white voters, more working class voters,” he said. “That’s how we’re going to win.”
Miami Herald staff writer Joey Flechas contributed to this story.