Florida Politics

‘Floridians need a champion again,’ Democratic hopeful for governor says

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, a Democratic candidate for governor in 2018, talks to members of the Capital Tiger Bay Club in Tallahassee before delivering a luncheon speech on Wednesday, May 31, 2017.
Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, a Democratic candidate for governor in 2018, talks to members of the Capital Tiger Bay Club in Tallahassee before delivering a luncheon speech on Wednesday, May 31, 2017. kclark@miamiherald.com

Amid a crowded field of contenders for governor in 2018, Democrat Andrew Gillum is casting himself as the “slightly out of place” candidate who would bring years of government experience but also fresh ideas and “something different” than Florida has seen under two decades of Republican rule.

“It is our political leadership — or the lack thereof — that has failed us,” Gillum said Wednesday, speaking for nearly an hour in front of a couple hundred people at the Capital Tiger Bay Club in Tallahassee. “We’ve had enough with slogans and showgames, enough with struggling to get ahead, enough with shrinking from our state’s challenges. ... Floridians need a champion again.”

People are terrified of the state of affairs — and although we get great press releases and good news about what’s going on, underneath the surface people are really struggling.

Democrat Andrew Gillum, Tallahassee mayor and 2018 candidate for governor

Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, aimed to set himself apart from other Republicans and Democrats seeking to lead the nation’s third largest state, while also acknowledging his long odds against competitors who have more prominent names Floridians likely already know.

“I recognize this is more than a notion — to be on this journey,” Gillum said, when one Tiger Bay Club member bluntly asked Gillum if he’d settle for being just lieutenant governor.

“I don’t have a famous last name and I cannot stroke my own check to become the next governor of the state of Florida,” he said in an apparent reference to his Democratic primary opponents: former Tallahassee U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham — the daughter of Bob Graham, who is a former U.S. senator and Florida governor — and Orlando businessman Chris King, who this spring put $1 million of his own money into his campaign.

Gillum added: “I’m going to have to do this the old-fashioned way — that means going around, that means talking to people, that means asking people for their support, for their investment, for their belief that we can actually do it different.”

“If I become the Democratic nominee for governor, which I’m going to fight hard to accomplish, I believe I can go on and win this race. ... So, I’m running for governor,” he said, drawing applause from the room.

Gillum — who’s viewed as a rising star in the Democratic Party and who spoke at the Democratic National Convention last summer — is trying to build up his name recognition across Florida as the 2018 race heats up.

He was the first major candidate to officially dive in, declaring March 1. If elected, Gillum, 37, would be the first African-American governor in Florida history and among the youngest to serve.

The Democratic primary field could grow in the coming months, since Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and Orlando trial attorney John Morgan are also considering bids.

Among Republicans, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam recently launched a campaign and he’s likely to face a competitive group that could include House Speaker Richard Corcoran of Land O’Lakes, Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala of Clearwater, and U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of Ponte Vedra Beach.

Gillum acknowledged “there is some learning on the job” if he were to be elected to statewide office, but he said, among Democrats, he is “the candidate that has the longest résumé in public policy-making across a range of issues.” He has been in local government since he was elected at age 23 to the Tallahassee City Commission in 2003.

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, a Democrat and gun safety advocate, says policy-makers need to make gun laws based on "the merits of what makes sense."

Delivering a traditional stump-style speech, he laid out a broad platform of statewide priorities that include addressing the effects of climate change in Florida, enhancing public education and job training programs and raising the incomes and standard of living for working- and middle-class Floridians.

When it came to Republican governance of the state, Gillum specifically took shots at Putnam, Corcoran and current Republican Gov. Rick Scott.

“I’m in this race because of who loses when we don’t win elections,” Gillum said, seemingly in reference to Democrats. “People are terrified of the state of affairs — and although we get great press releases and good news about what’s going on, underneath the surface people are really struggling and trying to find their way, not only in this state but in this country, for themselves and also for their children.

“I believe firmly that working people in this state deserve a voice, too,” he said.

In recent months, Latvala and Morgan have also addressed the Capital Tiger Bay Club. Although it’s in his hometown, the last time Gillum addressed the group was when he first ran to be a city commissioner 14 years ago.

Club members on Wednesday grilled Gillum with some questions critical of his decision-making and his ability to win.

Shortly after he was asked if he’d accept being lieutenant governor, another member pointedly asked Gillum why he hadn’t resigned in the wake of a scandal that rocked his campaign at its launch, when he was found to have used city resources in laying the foundation for his gubernatorial bid.

Gillum described the use of city email to conduct political business as “human error,” and noted that he reimbursed Tallahassee taxpayers $5,000 for the cost of a communications software he used “to maintain contact” with supporters and constituents.

“I’ve apologized and expressed regret for the part our office and my staff had in it, and I take full responsibility going forward,” Gillum said. “You all know there is an inquiry at the sheriff’s department and I hope that will be wrapped up soon. I don’t expect this issue will go away; it’s now in the political fray. ... But I think people have been fooled once by a fake email scandal and they’re not going to be fooled again.”

“I wish when I’m in public I could switch hats,” Gillum also said, noting the inextricable role as both politician and elected official.

Kristen M. Clark: 850-222-3095, kclark@miamiherald.com, @ByKristenMClark

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