Hard to believe, but the Democrats have stellar candidates for Florida governor

By Mike Abrams


Four Democrats seeking the Governor’s Mansion, from left, Chris King, Gwen Graham, Philip Levine and Andrew Gillum, debated this month.
Four Democrats seeking the Governor’s Mansion, from left, Chris King, Gwen Graham, Philip Levine and Andrew Gillum, debated this month. AP

After 20 years in the wilderness, Florida Democrats are dreaming of recapturing the Governor’s Mansion in 2018. With President Trump’s historically low popularity and a recent spate of wins in special elections, including two in Florida, the optimism is justified.

However, it is important to remember Democrats could have won in 2006, 2010 and 2014 only to lose because our nominees ran unfathomably poor campaigns. Who the actual candidate is really does matter, and last week, during their first debate, we got a glimpse of the Democratic contestants. I have been critical of our past nominees, but this time Democrats have a solid and exciting field.

Any of the four credible individuals vying to be the nominee will give the Republicans fits. It is way too early to handicap this horse race, no one knows who will emerge from the Democratic primary. But we did learn some things from the debate. Here is my snapshot In no particular order:

▪ Former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham demonstrated a passion on two issues Floridians are concerned about: education and the environment. She generates warmth that contrasts with today’s toxic politics. After taking some shots from candidates Andrew Gillum and Chris King, Graham had one of the best moments of the night when she said “I see, it’s Gwen and the men.” I wouldn’t trifle with her. Graham also has the beginning of a good idea with the public option for healthcare. This is a good year to be a woman candidate, and it might serve the others well to avoid nipping at her.

▪ Mayor Andrew Gillum of Tallahassee is widely viewed as the most charismatic candidate in the campaign and he showed why in the debate. While trying to emerge from the field with a strong core of minority and younger voters, Gillum avoided pandering and hit home on issues such as school testing and expanding Medicaid.

▪ Businessman Chris King emphasized his status as an outsider while demonstrating a working knowledge of state government. He brings faith-based zeal to the issues of housing and public schools, without the hypocrisy that comes from some of the evangelicals in the other party. King’s campaign also has experienced organizers from the Enroll America network. No doubt, King would match up well if he makes it to the general.

▪ Former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine has his message down stone cold. He is a businessman who became a citizen-mayor and did something about minimum wage, sea-level rise and gun violence. Levine has already demonstrated that he is a prolific fundraiser, and his campaign team is strategic. Unlike King and Gillum, Levine also wisely avoided criticizing Graham.

OK, this is sounding like a puff piece by a Democrat. I would note when I wrote nine months before the 2016 presidentital elections that Hillary Clinton was going to lose and that it was time for Nancy Pelosi to step down, I was called everything from a sexist to a Republican. However, this field of gubernatorial candidates has promise. Given it was their first debate, they were amazingly composed. All four showed an ability to exploit voter fatigue of two decades of Republican control of state government.

They can speak knowledgeably about the two largest elements of the state budget where they think Republicans are vulnerable — education and healthcare. They spoke eloquently about voters’ concern that the growth of charter schools is compromising the quality of our public schools. Each candidate scored on parents’ fear of overtesting, violence in schools and underpaid teachers. They excoriated Republicans for refusing federal money for Medicaid expansion, depriving millions of Floridians of healthcare coverage. There is an extensive Republican record that they will poke at and test between now and the Democratic primary.

Of course, they were far from perfect, but the Democrat that survives this primary against three worthy opponents is going to be ready for prime time in the general election. On the Republican side, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, the well -respected Republican faces a bloody primary challenge from Congressman Ron DeSantis.

My money is on the Democrats to recapture the governorship this year.

Mike Abrams is former chairman of the Dade Democratic Party, a former state legislator and currently a policy adviser to Ballard Partners.