Elections

Can a black candidate win Florida’s top job? Andrew Gillum bids to make history.

Andrew Gillum says voters have already answered the question of whether Florida is ready to elect a black governor: they twice delivered the state to former President Barack Obama.

Yet it’s still very much an open question for Gillum, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee who will campaign with Obama Friday in Miami. And it’s one that has required a deliberate strategy as the Tallahassee mayor campaigns to be governor.

Gillum from the start sought to downplay the issue of race, telling CNN in a post-primary interview soon after he won the Democratic primary that he was “vying to be the next governor of the state of Florida. I just so happen to be black.”

But race has since played a central role, with Gillum surrogates quick to accuse his Republican rival of playing a race card by warning Floridians in an interview the day after the primary not to “monkey this up” by electing Gillum.

Gillum, the first black Democratic nominee for governor in Florida, has undeniably thrilled the party’s base. Under 40 and unapologetically liberal, he’s attracted a national following with his mastery of social media and his frequent, folksy appearances across the state. The enthusiasm he’s generated is expected to boost incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson, a more cautious centrist.

Gillum told the Miami Herald on Thursday that his campaign has a single message, regardless of race: “I talk to white audiences the same way I talk to black audiences,” he said as he took a break from knocking on doors in Richmond Heights, his childhood home. “I don’t think there’s a point in trying to code switch.”

He said he’s delivered the same appeal, even in the reddest parts of the state: “My lived experience is so much like so many people in this state who are just getting up every day, trying to make a way for themselves and their families. When we can see each other on that humane level then some of the superficial barriers that we think divide us become a lot less divisive.”

Yet strategists and African-Americans who themselves have sought statewide office say black candidates, particularly in the South, are asked to meet expectations not required of white candidates. They have to prove to a greater degree than white candidates that they can raise money and, perhaps most critically, they say black candidates need to make white voters comfortable.

Gillum acknowledged as much in a Daily Show interview earlier this week in which he also argued that the question of race was settled by Obama’s victories. But he went on to say that he fears that his opponent, former Rep. Ron DeSantis, and President Donald Trump are counting on him to blow his top. Gillum didn’t use the exact words, but they were familiar to black political strategists who said black candidates run the risk of playing into the “angry black man” trope.

“What DeSantis and Trump want to do is to drag me into the gutter with them,” Gillum said. “They can survive getting dirty. I can’t survive getting dirty, because what they want to do is have me fit a stereotype. I’ve got to be cool and collected. Precise, non-defensive, but also have the ability to land a punch where necessary.”

Former state Sen. Daryl Jones, who in 2002 became the first African-American to run for governor, said racial politics in Florida have improved but that black candidates still have little margin for error.

“It’s all about trust and it’s not easy to earn,” said Jones. He says Gillum is earning it by being consistent: An unabashed progressive in the primary, he has not tempered his positions for the general election.

When he ran for the Florida House in 1990, Jones said, he rejected his campaign manager’s suggestion that he not use campaign signs with his picture on them in white neighborhoods. The traditionally Democratic district had flipped four years earlier when an African-American Democrat lost to a white Republican, and Jones said his campaign feared a repeat.

“I said ‘How are you going to fool people?’ “ Jones said. “They’re going to know, so put them up everywhere. We did and I got elected anyway. You can’t be different, you have to be consistent everyplace you go and leave people with the comfort of who you are.”

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Andrew Gillum, Democratic nominee for Florida governor, greets supporters as he arrives at Bethel Church in his hometown of Richmond Heights to encourage early voting on Thursday. Pedro Portal pportal@miamiherald.com

Despite his stated reluctance to use race as an issue, Gillum has reached for it to defend himself against a swirl of questions about his involvement with an FBI investigation into corruption in Tallahassee.

“The goal is obviously to use my candidacy as a way to reinforce, frankly, stereotypes about black men,” Gillum said in a Facebook video after records were released that suggest an FBI agent posing as a developer had paid for Gillum’s ticket to the Broadway musical “Hamilton” during a 2016 trip to New York. No one has been charged in the corruption probe and Gillum has said that agents assured him he was not a target.

Outside strategists suggest black candidates are better off not making an issue of race while campaigning in Florida, where racial tension remains very much a factor.

“The state is still 68 percent white voters and Hispanic voters are not always going to vote for a minority over a white,” said Brad Coker, managing director of Florida-based Mason-Dixon Polling. “That’s just statistics and numbers and it’s got nothing to do with more than that.”

Coker was the pollster for Democrat Doug Wilder, who won election in Virginia in 1989, becoming the first elected African-American governor in American history. Wilder ran a conservative, race-neutral campaign, largely sidestepping racial politics, Coker said.

“He went right at the heart of the voters who would be sort of like, ‘Nah, I can’t vote for that guy,’ and he won them over,” Coker said of Wilder. “If you look at the black politicians who have won in Southern states, they’ve taken the moderate road, ‘I’m against gun control, I’m against tax increases.”

Yet Coker says race played a factor in Wilder’s election. Exit polling had Wilder winning by 6 points. He eked out a victory by less than a half a percent, and some voters told pollsters that race was a reason for their decision.

“Race is a factor. No one likes to talk about it, it’s taboo,” Coker said. “They do vote on race and they don’t talk about it. That’s just a fact.”

But Coker argues that, more significantly, Florida Democrats haven’t won a governor’s race in 20 years. Gillum supporters contend that Democrats have been too timid and that their candidate is making the case that he will succeed by energizing voters drawn to more liberal positions than his predecessors.

Coker said he believes a black candidate could win — Florida is far more diverse than most southern states — but he’s skeptical that a candidate who leans left will be embraced.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if Floridians elected a black Democrat. It would surprise me if they elected a black Democrat who has the more progressive agenda, the Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren agenda,” he said.

Marvin Dunn, a former college psychology professor and chronicler of Florida’s African-American history, said he believes Gillum is being advised to “not necessarily be race neutral, but not be overly, overtly committed to what whites could perceive as a black agenda.”

Gillum has focused on broadly popular Democratic standards like healthcare and supports raising the state’s corporate tax rate to bolster public education.

“He needs to get independents and moderates to view him as a non-threat, and he’s done that,” said Dunn, who briefly ran for a congressional seat. “He does not need to be seen as Maxine Waters” — the fiery House member from California who, like Gillum, has called for Trump’s impeachment, but also routinely torches Trump on television.

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Candidates for Florida governor Ron DeSantis and Andrew Gillum debate at Broward College on Wednesday, Oct. 24. Wilfredo Lee Getty Images/Pool

Jaime Harrison, the first African-American to chair South Carolina’s Democratic party, said Gillum and Stacey Abrams, the Georgia Democrat bidding to become the first black woman to serve as governor, deserve credit for winning their parties’ primaries and clearing a persistent hurdle for blacks running for office: the perception that they can’t win.

“We constantly hear, ‘You don’t have a chance to win, you can’t raise money,” said Harrison, who said he heard similar doubts when he declared his candidacy for state party chair.

Harrison, who is now with the Democratic National Committee and who’s charged with developing the party’s strategy for winning elections across the South and in rural districts, said his only advice to Gillum was to be himself.

“Typically in the South, candidates believe they have to be Republican lite,” Harrison said. “They’ll hedge on the issues, but Andrew is like, this is who I am and this is what I believe.

“Authenticity is what voters are attracted to,” said Harrison, who tweeted an appraisal after Gillum’s first debate: “@AndrewGillum put on a #MasterClass that I hope every Dem candidate in the South watches repeatedly,” Harrison wrote. “Be who you are ... stand up for your values .. have vision .. throw away the poll tested messages ... stop chasing unicorn voters .. be genuine .. bottomline #DoYou.”

Gillum won the primary by posting enormous numbers in the four most populous counties with the highest percentage of black voters. But he’s sought to push beyond that appeal, campaigning in areas of the state where black voters are scarce.

“We’ve gotta talk to everybody,” Gillum said at a recent stop in Palm Coast — DeSantis country. “You win by getting one more vote. And that one vote might come from anywhere throughout the length and breadth of this state.”

Gillum also named as his running mate Chris King, a primary rival and a white, evangelical Christian with a base in Orlando.

But he’s also leaned into race. He’s pushed for repealing the state’s controversial “Stand your ground” law, citing the case of Markeis McGlockton, a black man shot and killed by a white man in a dispute over a parking spot. And he backs a constitutional amendment to restore voting rights to most convicted felons, calling the ban “a relic of Jim Crow that we should end for good.”

During their first debate, Gillum accused DeSantis of intentionally injecting race into the campaign with his post-primary warning that voters could “monkey up” the state by electing Gillum.

“The ‘monkey up’ comment said it all,” Gillum said. “And he has only continued in the course of his campaign to draw all the attention he can to the color of my skin. And the truth is, you know what? I’m black. I’ve been black all my life and as far as I know, I’ll die black.”

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President Donald Trump talks with Republican candidate for governor Ron DeSantis, left, and Florida Gov. Rick Scott, right, after arriving on Air Force One at Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers, Fla., Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018. Susan Walsh AP

Those who ran before Gillum say they hope that as challenging as 2018 may be, the climate has improved for a black candidate.

“He was not told by party leaders, like I was, that you really don’t have a shot,” said former state Rep. Willie Logan, who in 2000 ran for the U.S. Senate as an independent after a falling out with Florida Democrats. Post-Obama, Logan believes, “people are more willing to give you the benefit of doubt, to see you as a fellow human being rather than as solely black.”

He sees progress, too, in that unlike Obama, who was bi-racial, Gillum is unmistakably black.

“There was always a belief you had to be” light-skinned, Logan, said, “to win outside your neighborhood.”

Steve Schale, the Florida strategist who ran Obama’s Florida campaign in 2008, argues that Gillum’s campaign is doing what it needs to do to broaden his appeal by embracing issues “that matter pretty much to everyone.” He argues there is no different playbook for black candidates.

“Everyone knew Barack Obama was a black man, everyone knows Andrew Gillum is a black man,” Schale said. “The important strategy is running on issues, like we did, that resonate with people.”

Schale said Gillum’s campaign has taken a page from Obama’s playbook: sending the candidate to red areas, like DeSantis’ former congressional district, where Gillum drew a large and enthusiastic crowd.

“A vote in St. Johns County to us was as important as a vote in Broward County,” Schale said. “And they’ve made the effort in very Republican places. They’re not going to win it, they’re not even going to come close, but if they move the numbers two or three percent, that’s a lot and that adds up across the state.”

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark
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