Gillum confident ‘souls to the polls’ will give Democrats the early-vote advantage

Andrew Gillum couldn’t move.

The Democratic mayor of Tallahassee hoping to be Florida’s next governor stepped off his bus in Miami into a throng of 300 sweaty revelers ready for a “souls to the polls” march on the final day of early voting in South Florida.

But first, Gillum had to make way for a procession of motorcycles and the inevitable selfie requests.

Once the revving bikes made their way through the crowd to lead Gillum down 22nd Avenue in Brownsville, the march began at a snail’s place as ushers attempted to get people marching behind Gillum and the lead line of elected officials. Jeremy Ring, the Democrat running for state Chief Financial Officer, found himself on the wrong side of the line and was ordered to the side.

“I’m running for CFO!” he shouted.

“Let him in,” a security guard responded.

As the procession picked up to a walking pace, the gospel singing began and a giant cardboard likeness of Gillum’s face bobbed up and down on a day where Democrats were hoping to use a last-minute push to beat Republicans at the ballot box.

Registered Democrats entered the day trailing registered Republicans in early-vote totals by a slim 28,000 vote margin, and the last-minute push by Gillum and Democrats across the state focused on black churches could give Democrats a tiny advantage in registration totals heading into Election Day. Republicans have held the early-voting advantage for years in Florida.

“At this point we’re typically five or so points behind Republicans in early vote and absentee vote,” Gillum said. “I think we’re a point behind, we’ve closed the gap substantially. Considering that Democrats usually lose the last few races by less than a point, we’re feeling great heading into Election Day.”

Andrew Gillum, Tallahassee mayor and Democratic nominee for Florida governor, center, marches to the Caleb Center arm-locked with Al Sharpton as part of “Souls to the Polls” on Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018. Carl Juste cjuste@miamiherald.com

Democrats are particularly focused on taking back a governor’s mansion they haven’t held since 1999, and a victory in the nation’s largest swing state could have 2020 implications, when Donald Trump is up for reelection. The president has made Florida a top priority in the campaign’s waning days, holding rallies in Fort Myers and Pensacola for Republican governor nominee Ron DeSantis over the past five days.

Gillum said his campaign is confident it is winning the majority of the 800,000 registered independent voters who have already voted and are picking off a significant number of registered Republicans. At least one registered Republican, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, was present at Sunday’s march.

Karen Coplin-Cooper, a 56-year-old from West Miramar sporting a blue Gillum T-shirt, said Sunday’s march was the largest “souls to the polls” event she’s seen in a non-presidential election.

“He stands for everything I’m about, a just democracy, the freedom of choice, the freedom of speech and a future for my kids,” Coplin-Cooper said.

Sunday’s march was part of a South Florida blitz for Gillum that began in Boynton Beach and included an address in front of 1,500 worshipers at North Miami Senior High School, which doubles as the Tabernacle of Glory’s sanctuary on weekends.

Voters line up outside an early-voting site at the Caleb Center in Miami on Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018. Carl Juste cjuste@miamiherald.com

After he greeted the Haitian-American crowd in Creole, Gillum promised that he would stand up to Trump on behalf of the Haitian community and fight for Temporary Protected Status, a program that allows Haitians to live and work legally in the U.S. and that Trump announced last year he will end.

“Wouldn’t it be something to have a governor that’s prepared to stand up to Donald Trump?” Gillum said to wild cheers. “To let him know that if he has something to say to the people of Florida, to include the Haitian community, you’re going to have to come through me.”

African-American turnout this election has far surpassed turnout from 2014, the last midterm election. So far, 474,455 have voted compared to 344,352 four years ago, and the count doesn’t include anyone who voted on Sunday.

Gillum had surrogates at church services throughout Miami-Dade and Broward on Sunday, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, who made the rounds at a number of African-American churches in Miami, exhorting parishioners to get and out vote for Amendment 4, the provision that would allow felons to be able to register to vote after completing all terms of their sentences.

“The church represents restoration, the church represents another chance,” Sharpton said. “All of us have sinned and come to ask God to forgive us and give us some mercy. We need to extend that to ex-felons in the state of Florida and return them to full restoration.”

Sharpton said passing the amendment would show a “rebirth” of the state, raising Florida’s checkered racial past, calling it the “state where they didn’t respect Mandela” — a reference to the snub that many Cuban-American political leaders in Miami-Dade delivered to the late South African leader when he visited in 1990. Resolutions were passed in the county demanding that Mandela repudiate his friendship with Fidel Castro. He did not.

Sharpton also mentioned the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin, calling it the state “that let [Martin’s shooter George] Zimmerman go.”

From the pulpit of New Birth Baptist Church in Opa-Locka, Sharpton told black voters not to forget that some of their predecessors gave up their lives so that others could vote.

“People suffered to give us the right to vote. Ain’t nobody woke up one morning and said, ‘Let’s let black people start voting,’ “ he said to a chorus of “Amen.” He continued, “Folks suffered, folks went to jail, folks went to their graves to give us the right to vote.”

He said he thought about it last week when a gunman shot and killed 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, noting that two of the civil-rights workers who were murdered in 1964 with African-American activist James Chaney were Jewish.

“And here you are, 30 years later in sunny Miami, and people are too lazy and ungrateful to get out to vote,” he said. “Stop asking God to give you more blessings if you haven’t used the blessings he’s given you.”

Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver G. Gilbert III followed Sharpton to the pulpit, noting he was traveling to six churches to urge voters to get to the polls.

“We need everybody who sucks up air conditioning at your house to vote,” he said. “We need the people who are in church and who ain’t in church. I want the churched and the unchurched to vote.”

After communion, the emcee urged attendees who hadn’t yet voted to leave their cars in the parking lot and jump on a church shuttle to early vote at the North Dade Regional Library.

Many said they already had.

“I did as soon as I could, it’s that important,” said Travis Gibson, 33, a Miami teacher and mortician who wore a bright blue “Andrew Gillum for Governor” T-shirt to the service. “This is good they’re telling people. They need to hear it and get out there. This is a stamp of approval.”

At the library, which last week was the only one out of the county’s 28 early-voting sites to actually see more voters than it did during the same four-day stretch during the 2016 presidential election, there was a festive atmosphere early Sunday — and traffic jams.

Several food trucks had parked near the library, and sound systems competed for attention with partisans hawking campaign material.

Let My People Vote, the statewide campaign that is backing Amendment 4, said more than 800 congregations were participating in Souls to the Polls drives.

And it’s not just African-American churches.

“I have rabbis who connected with us to participate,” said Rhonda Thomas, a pastor and the campaign director. “It’s brought together the leaders of all faiths and races because we believe in second chances.”

The spillover from the library parking lot clogged streets nearby.

Lucius Williams, 76, who lives across the street from the library and usually frowns on anyone parking on his lawn, had an open-door policy when it came to voters.

“My neighbors are shocked, but I said, ‘Yeah, for voting they can park,” he said. “From the time I was a little boy in Overtown, my mom had us in line late at night to show us how important voting is.

“Everybody in my house over 18 has to vote,” he said. “Or they have to move out.”

Alex Daugherty, @alextdaugherty, 202-383-6049