When then-Gov. Jeb Bush proposed ending affirmative action in Florida’s universities in 2000, he found himself answering to more than a thousand angry Florida A&M University students who descended on the Capitol.
One of the students behind the protest? Andrew Gillum, then a FAMU student leader with his sights set on higher office.
Gillum and other students later met with Bush, though their effort to change his mind ultimately failed.
Activism and political skills going back to Gillum’s college career helped him become the Democratic nominee for Florida governor, observers say.
“I think FAMU really cultivated the desire for him to participate and become the public servant he would become,” said Larry Rivers, then-chair of FAMU’s Department of History, Political Science, Geography & African-American Studies.
Gillum graduated from the historically black university just minutes away from Florida State University in 2003, majoring in political science.
As a student, Gillum organized protests, urged his classmates to vote and became student government president.
Rivers remembers a young Gillum coming into his office frequently to talk about the issues of the day.
“He was a very inquisitive guy — the guy who would ask a thousand questions,” Rivers said.
To Rivers and others, Gillum seemed destined for political office.
Gillum said as much in 2000, telling the Tampa Bay Times that the organizing skills he was learning in college would help him possibly make a run for the state House or Senate.
The one thing holding him back, he feared, was being black in a political world that was overwhelmingly white.
“There’s still that glass ceiling that says, ‘You’re not going there,’ ” he told the Times during coverage of the sit-in. “You’re not going that far.”
“Unlike FSU, FAMU has seen itself as a vessel for social change, because of the civil rights movement,” said former Leon County Elections Supervisor Ion Sancho, who met Gillum when he was a college student trying to get his peers to vote. “And Andrew was steeped in that same tradition.”
Sancho, who supports Gillum for governor, said he saw back then the same skills that helped Gillum win the Democratic primary this year.
“He was an excellent organizer. He actually liked getting into the field, interacting with people, coordinating individuals,” Sancho said. “I think that’s his specialty — his ground game.”
There were signs Gillum had the political drive well before settling into college life.
“Everyone knew Andrew Gillum at Florida A&M from his second week on campus on,” said Christopher Chestnut, his childhood friend from Gainesville. “Andrew started campaigning for student senate the week before school started, since before he moved into the dorms.”
If Gillum wins the general election, he’ll have his alma mater to thank, in part.
FAMU students and alumni are excited about one of their own potentially becoming the state’s first black governor, and on Friday, several dozen crammed into a campus ballroom to discuss how to mobilize people for the election and to send tens of thousands of texts to potential voters.
Co-hosted by NextGen, an organization with billionaire backers that has poured millions into Gillum’s race, students tapped out hundreds of texts a minute through an automated messaging app, asking would-be voters about their stances on issues like Stand Your Ground and encouraging them to vote.
It was a new age get-out-the-vote effort, and several students said the text-banking brunch was the first direct political organizing event they had seen advertised on campus in years. Many said they had found out about it on Instagram.
Friends Sidney Martinez, 20, and Lex Jones, 19, said they were drawn to the event because they wanted to be more involved in politics.
“Everyone voted here for Gillum,” Martinez said.