Gwen Graham was a Democratic star in 2015, one of the party’s lone bright spots after winning her congressional race the previous year.
She could have chosen anyone to be her guest at President Barack Obama’s next-to-last State of the Union address.
She picked Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum.
Only four years later, that invite seems quaint. Tallahassee’s top two politicians now find themselves diametrically opposed in a battle for the soul of Florida’s Democratic Party.
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Graham is the centrist candidate hoping to capitalize on a trend of other successful women candidates around the country. Gillum is the Bernie Sanders-endorsed liberal hoping to ride a progressive wave that will return the party to the base.
For all the attention on Jeff Greene and Philip Levine, the self-financed South Florida rich guys running for the Democratic nomination for governor, it has been Gillum and Graham who have pushed the party’s narrative in opposite directions.
Their face-off also symbolizes the split nationwide between the Democratic Party’s grassroots and establishment, a stark choice that has divided their hometown.
“It’s like trying to pick between two cousins,” said state Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, who has not endorsed anyone in the race.
Gillum has seen a late surge thanks to Democrats who fear nominating yet another centrist after two decades of failures. He has campaigned advocating for “Medicare for all,” impeaching President Donald Trump and the full legalization of marijuana.
“Centrism, which is really right of center, has given us nothing — nothing,” Alex Symington, a semi-retired gardener from St. Petersburg, told the Herald/Times at a Sanders rally for Gillum last week. “We’ve tried that route and it hasn’t worked. Let’s try something different.”
Graham ran for Congress touting the “North Florida way,” a kind of rejection of party-line politics, and Gillum and others have criticized Graham for siding with Republicans on key votes in Congress. She has a milder position than Gillum on healthcare and supports decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana instead of making it legal.
Her supporters assert she’s more a pragmatist than centrist and that she’s consistently left on issues like abortion and school funding.
“I think she represents the breadth of views in our party,” said Democratic strategist Steve Schale, who worked on her congressional campaign. “Gwen’s not trying to run to represent a wing of the Democratic Party.”
The campaigns have clashed repeatedly in ways that have perplexed Graham.
“I do know — I believe — that Andrew’s better than this,” Graham told the Herald/Times in May, after a secret money group backing Gillum began airing ads accusing her of not being liberal enough. “And I don’t know where the direction’s coming from. I don’t know what’s driving this. I don’t understand it.”
Campaigning together for Dean
If not for the ill-fated presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, the two former allies may never have crossed each other.
They had met about 14 years ago when they supported the presidential campaign of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.
Dean’s presidential run in 2003 and 2004 was strongly based on his opposition to the recent invasion of Iraq, a sentiment that Graham — and her father, who voted against it — shared.
After her father dropped out of the presidential race, she joined Dean’s campaign as a national surrogate, crisscrossing the country and gathering supporters. Gillum was then a recently elected Tallahassee city councilman, fresh out of Florida A&M University, and a volunteer on Dean’s campaign.
“Of course I knew of her as the senator’s daughter — the governor’s daughter,” Gillum said.
In the decade afterward, Gillum and Graham mostly moved in different circles. Gillum was deeply entrenched in city politics. Graham was invested in her job with the Leon County School District as director of employee relations and was known more for her ties to state politics, partly because of her then-husband, Mark Logan, who was a lobbyist for several years.
“Before she ran for Congress, I’m not sure I even had an opportunity to meet Gwen and get to know her,” said City Commissioner Curtis Richardson. “I’ve been in public office for 20 years and have been involved in the commission [and] prior to her run for Congress, I just never saw a lot of community involvement on Gwen’s part.”
Over the years, Gillum would get to know Graham better during her work at the school district. When she chose to make a long-shot run at Congress in 2014, going up against a Republican incumbent, she reached out to Gillum.
“She asked for my help. I was happy to offer it,” Gillum said. “I worked on the campaign and supported her and wanted very much to see her there.”
When she won, it was Gillum who swore her in at a ceremony in Tallahassee City Hall.
She returned the favors by inviting him to her first State of the Union address.
From there, their own careers and trajectories within the party would pull them apart.
Plans had to change in 2016
After Gillum was given a coveted spot speaking at the Democratic National Convention in 2016, observers were certain Clinton would tap him for some job at a federal agency after she won.
“His bags were packed, and he was heading up there,” said Screven Watson, a Democratic strategist in Tallahassee. “That election night forced some re-evaluation and put them on this path to collide.”
By then, Graham was already assumed to be running for governor. Even before Gillum could make a decision, she sat down with the mayor to talk about it.
“The congresswoman laid out to me why she thought she had a strong case,” Gillum said last week. “More than anything she wanted me to know that whatever I decided, it wouldn’t diminish her opinion of me.”
When Gillum decided to run, it caused many in Tallahassee to fear for the worst.
“I had some concerns at first. I thought, well, there was going to be bad blood at the end,” Watson said. “These two have a lot of overlapping friends. They have a lot of overlapping support.”
Gillum quickly used Graham’s centrism to portray himself as the liberal candidate, blasting her for votes she took in Congress and refusing to denounce a super PAC with unknown donors that has gone after Graham.
Graham, who has tried to publicly run a positive campaign, was forced to respond.
“I am disgusted that Andrew Gillum would allow a secret-money group to run a false attack against a fellow Democrat,” Graham said in a statement released by her campaign in May.
But although Gillum has routinely polled in fourth place among five Democrats running for governor, his embrace of the left wing of the party earned him valuable stump speeches by Sanders last week.
Despite their placement on opposite ends of the party spectrum, Gillum and Graham remain friendly.
Gillum says they still occasionally text each other, and when they meet privately on the campaign trail, the candidates and their campaigns are cordial to each other.
Gillum said the attacks on Graham have not been personal.
“Personally the congresswoman and I are fine,” he said. “My issues with her are her voting record.”
Both Graham and other Democrats in Tallahassee believe they’ll make up sooner than their other opponents, regardless of who wins.
“We were friends before,” Graham said. “And we’ll be friends after.”