Andrew Gillum was an exceptional candidate who should stay engaged in public service

Andrew Gillum, former Democratic nominee for governor of Florida, speaks during a campaign rally in Miami at Ice Palace Films Studios on Friday, Nov. 2, 2018.
Andrew Gillum, former Democratic nominee for governor of Florida, speaks during a campaign rally in Miami at Ice Palace Films Studios on Friday, Nov. 2, 2018. Miami Herald

I woke up the day after the mid-term elections looking cockeyed at anyone in Miami whom I suspected didn’t vote the day before, especially that Uber driver that canceled on me. After the recount and lawsuits, .41% was the distance from making history by electing the first African-American governor in the Deep South. Now we have to live with this reality: We failed to actualize a rare progressive political movement for Florida.

Andrew Gillum wasn’t perfect, but he sure was exceptional.

Statewide voter turnout was historic at 62 percent, the highest in mid-term elections in 24 years. It was powered by strong conservative areas, like Sumter County, which had highest turnout in the state, at 78 percent. Other counties that exceeded a 70 percent turnout rate also are strongly conservative: Jefferson, Collier, Franklin, St. Johns and Baker counties.

South Florida, rich in Democratic voters, lagged behind. Palm Beach County ranked 41st out of the 67 counties in the voter turnout rate in the state at 61 percent; Miami-Dade was 60th at 56 percent; and Broward ranked 62nd at 54 percent. Needless to say, if South Florida has met the statewide average turnout, Gillum would have “Brung It Home”.

That’s a hard pill to swallow that in South Florida, we Democrats did not champion Gillum enough. I know so many people who poured their hearts into this campaign. A diverse team of volunteers and donors, but especially African Americans, rallied for Gillum in the primary and lifted him above the fray so he could be seen.

Gillum did his job; we didn’t do ours. Like fine wine or fine art, it’s not the artist alone that determines value. Sociologist Patricia Banks makes this point well: “Rare and unusual talent is not enough to vault an artist from obscurity to the spotlight. For art to be recognized as worthy it must have champions, such as collectors, who nudge it forward to be granted entrance into the canon.”

We should have championed him more.

Exit polls showed that the elderly delivered for Republican Ron DeSantis. Voters 65 and older made up 36 percent of the electorate, up from 25 percent in the 2014. DeSantis, and President Trump, successfully scared the elderly to the polls. Ads during Hurricane Michael when senior citizens were glued to the television were awful but effective. DeSantis’ politics of fear took a page out of a time gone by, when overtly racialized speech was in the mainstream of public discourse. We should all applaud Gillum for having the dignity of a saint after being called a “monkey” and a “criminal” and being the target of robocalls with jungle music and Sambo dialect mocking him.

Still, Democrats have a lot to be proud of. With Andrew Gillum at the top of the ticket, we flipped two congressional seats in Miami-Dade. We flipped a seat in the Florida House in Miami Lakes. We passed Amendment 4 restoring ex-felons’ right to vote. We elected an African-American judge in Broward and a Florida Cabinet member.. There were similar victories in communities around the state. Gillum and his uplifting campaign can take some of the credit for that.

Gillum showed us the positive possibilities of American “exceptionalism,” the concept that America’s democracy is created from a unique set of values and personal freedoms that make us our shared history.

In 1994, when Jeb Bush lost a a close election to Lawton Chiles, he didn’t retreat. He stayed in the public square, starting the state’s first charter school in Liberty City. Gillum, too, should remain engaged. He can show skeptics that they need not be afraid of progress.

Christopher Norwood is spokesman for the Democratic Black Caucus of Florida and a member of the Miami-Dade Democratic Executive Committee.