State Politics

Can Florida back a progressive candidate for governor? Bernie Sanders says yes.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, left, and Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Andrew Gillum fire up a crowd of about 1,000 during a campaign rally on Friday, Aug. 17, 2018, in Tampa.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, left, and Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Andrew Gillum fire up a crowd of about 1,000 during a campaign rally on Friday, Aug. 17, 2018, in Tampa. AP

The Bernie Sanders revolution came to Tampa Bay to help elect Andrew Gillum as the first unabashedly liberal governor in Florida history.

“You have the opportunity to not only transform this state politically by electing a strong progressive, but you have an opportunity to send a message that will be heard all over the country,” the Vermont senator and unexpectedly formidable 2016 presidential contender declared to an overflow crowd of at least 1,000 people at Tampa’s Armature Works.

The rally, less than two weeks before voters pick their nominees for governor, underscored a never-ending debate within the Democratic Party:

Should loyal Democrats back a true, blue progressive who can excite voters and motivate people who rarely vote?

Or are they more likely to win with centrist candidates who don’t turn off swing voters wary of supporting someone perceived as too liberal.

“That’s what they said about Bernie — that he was too far to the left. The lesson may be that we should vote with our hearts more often,” said Kay Howell, a retired state worker holding a “Vote as if your life depends on it!” sign.

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U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, speaks for Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Andrew Gillum during a campaign stop for Gillum Friday, Aug. 17, 2018, in Tampa. Chris O'Meara AP

She voted for Hillary Clinton over Sanders in 2016, but in hindsight, she said Sanders would have been a stronger candidate against Donald Trump. Now she is still undecided between the liberal and charismatic Tallahassee Mayor Gillum and Gwen Graham, who often reminds voters that she won over Republicans and moderates when she won her conservative North Florida congressional seat in 2014.

“Centrism, which is really right of center, has given us nothing — nothing,” said Alex Symington, a semi-retired gardener from St. Petersburg. “We’ve tried that route and it hasn’t worked. Let’s try something different.”

Indeed, Democrats have lost the last five gubernatorial races, mostly fielding cautious and conventional centrists from Tampa Bay — Bill McBride, Jim Davis, Alex Sink and Charlie Crist. Between that track record and Trump’s upset defeat of Clinton, the divide between the Democratic establishment and the liberal base is especially sharp this year.

“Some of the people in this race for governor believe we’ve got to run as Republican flight in order to win Florida. … Our voters are going to stay home if they have to choose between someone pretending to be a Republican and someone who is a real Republican,” Gillum, 39, said Friday.

An African American, the only non-millionaire in the race, and consistently the lone Democrat who can fire up crowds, Gillum contends he is best equipped to motivate infrequent voters who often stay at home in midterm elections.

Sanders, 76, has had an uneven track record in terms of his endorsed progressives going on to win Democratic primaries, but he told the boisterous Tampa crowd that a progressive agenda is a mainstream agenda.

“I have the radical idea that in Florida and throughout this country we need a government that represents all of us, not the 1 percent,” said Sanders, periodically drawing chants of Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!

“Andrew understands that instead of giving tax breaks to millionaires and large corporations, we’re going to invest in our children when we invest in public education. Andrew understands that democracy means one person, one vote — not billionaires buying elections.”

Inside the hall, Danielle Quina, 29, was just a few rows back from the stage. Sporting a blue Gillum shirt and matching campaign sign, the self-described “huge progressive” attends Florida Gulf Coast University.

Quina has supported Gillum since she first researched the gubernatorial candidates shortly after he entered the race. “He’s the only one speaking about detailed reforms and social justice for people,” Quina said.

For her, Sanders’ endorsement was the “icing on the cake.” Quina was a Sanders supporter in the 2016 Democratic party, and when he lost out she took her vote to third-party candidate Jill Stein. It’s a move she’ll consider repeating in this year’s governor’s race if Gillum does not win the nomination.

Gillum and Sanders also made a joint appearance in Orlando on Friday afternoon, where a smaller crowd of a few hundred gathered in the lobby of the University of Central Florida’s CFE Arena to see them campaign together.

Several wore shirts calling for a Sanders 2020 run, and the Vermont senator drew some of the largest cheers as he listed the positions he and Gillum shared. Both called on the predominantly college-age crowd to outperform expectations of low turnout and said a Gillum victory would signal how progressive candidates could win across the country.

“People vote. Money doesn’t,” Gillum said. “If you vote, we can win.”

Some attendees credited Sanders with bringing them into the Democratic fold and cast Gillum’s candidacy as an extension of his platform.

“I wanted to feel the party actually has everyone’s interest at heart. I didn’t see that till Sanders,” said Chris Culverwell, 35, who was unaffiliated with a party until Sanders’ 2016 run. He said he intended to continue voting as a Democrat so long as he continues to see progressives on the ballot.

Gillum’s campaign has been hampered by the shadow of an ongoing FBI corruption investigation into Tallahassee City Hall, but even as he lags in campaign money, he remains a favorite among the party’s activist base as well as billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer and liberal celebrities including Jane Fonda and Norman Lear.

But overall, Gillum says, that lack of money compared to the Democratic field has hurt him.

“It’s no secret we haven’t won the money war,” he said. “It’s prohibited us from getting on their TV screens.”

That’s why Sanders’ endorsement is such a jolt for his campaign as the Aug. 28 primary approaches.

The support from Sanders is “a way to get my candidacy into the mix and the news,” Gillum said, especially with those who are still unaware he’s running.

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau staff writer Elizabeth Koh contributed to this report.

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