Former mayor of Tallahassee and 2018 Democratic nominee for governor of Florida Andrew Gillum visited the University on Nov. 13. Gillum, who now serves as chair of the voter registration organization Forward Florida Action, visited as part of the Woodrow Wilson School’s Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundation Leadership through Mentorship Program. The Daily Princetonian sat down with Gillum to discuss the present state of Florida politics, his 2018 run for governor, and the upcoming 2020 presidential election.
The Daily Princetonian: In March, you launched a voter registration effort in Florida. So, how successful has Forward Florida Action been thus far?
Andrew Gillum: Yes. So, Forward Florida Action is our C4 [organization] that we began. On day one, we weren't 100 percent sure how we were going to get to the goal of registering and reengaging a million voters, but we knew we had to do it differently than how organizing had been done in our state before. The truth is, is that Florida does a terrible job on the Democratic side organizing outside of major election cycles. Republicans, however, organize inside and outside of election cycles.
So what our strategy ... is that, you know, we want to invest early on in registration, or reengagement. And when I say reengagement, I mean people who were registered to vote in ’16 and did not show up at the polls — right — nationally, six million people. In Florida, there are four million eligible, registered people in my state who we got to go out there and get registered, not to mention reengage. And so we're extremely proud of the coalition that we built, and I'm really excited, frankly, about our ability to reach our goal by November 2020.
DP: Last month you tweeted that many of your friends running to beat Trump call you often about how to win Florida. So what do you tell them when they ask you that?
AG: Precisely what we're doing ... We have to invest now. We have to invest early.
And my response to them is, ‘Look, you think you're going to be the Democratic nominee. This work will be to your benefit if you become the Democratic nominee.’ Republicans in my state build a strategy to win, regardless of who the nominee is. They didn't want Trump, they got Trump. They didn't want [incumbent Governor] Ron DeSantis, establishment Republican Party, but they got him. And they organize around the clock, 365 days, sleeping in shifts in order to deliver a win. Democrats have got to exercise the same discipline in muscle …
If you're serious about winning this state, we’ve got to make the investment now. It boggles the mind how I hear and see and read people saying that Florida is now lost for Democrats. We got closer in the race for governor than any Democrat had in 24 years — 0.4 percent difference, 30,000 votes, at eight-and-a-half million votes cast.
How in the world do you conclude that the biggest swing state in the country, the one state that could deny Donald Trump the presidency, is a state you give up on? That doesn't make sense.
DP: And so that tweet I referred to was in response to reports that you were sort of “talking” to the Warren campaign and reports in general about rumors that some campaigns might consider you [to be] a vice presidential nominee. So, I guess, first, do you have any favorites among the 2020 candidates?
AG: I like a lot of them, and I'm friends with a lot of them, and I talked to a lot of them.
And I have not talked to anybody about being vice president. I think if someone were to broach that conversation with me, I would say it is premature. You need to win the primary that you're in first and then, you know, move to the next step of someone selecting the vice president. My job is to invest in Florida and help to build our state to win.
DP: In January, you joined CNN as a political commentator … I know some have said that having political commentators or pundits argue on screen, in a way, can treat politics as a sport, giving megaphones to people who don't deserve them, creating false equivalencies, or just being polarizing in general. So, I guess, what do you think about the existence of [the] position that you have?
AG: Well, I will tell you, I was very reticent to do TV. After the race, I was reached out to by almost every cable — not Fox — to consider doing this, and I was resistant, originally. And I will tell you that I’m growing into the role — it is not something that you are comfortable with on day one. And I will tell you, I try to consciously, when I am talking about whatever the subject matter may be, to make it as plain as I can, to reflect what is, I think, an everyday person’s experience, you know?
As one of my political mentors used to say, ‘Put the cookies on the bottom shelf, so everybody can reach in.’ And his point with that saying is, ‘Look, you talk highfalutin about politics and then you leave, you know, the average person who needs to be brought along on these issues behind.’ And so I try to be honest, I try to be direct, I try to be persuasive when I have to make an argument — but, most of all, real.
DP: So, one moment from your 2018 election that garnered a lot of national attention was when after hours after you became the first African-American gubernatorial nominee, Ron DeSantis made the comments about …
AG: ‘Monkeying the state up.’
DP: Yeah, exactly. And so, I guess, how did race and issues of race relations play into your campaign in 2018, and how do you see them playing out now on a national scale?
AG: Unfortunately, we had, you know, barely finished celebrating the win the night before, before the phones just lit up. And that comment by DeSantis was the shot over the bow of, frankly, what was to come for the next two months. I mean, he had supporters who were, you know, donors, fundraising hosts who were overtly, you know, sort of nationalist. For me ... I try not to internalize too much of the insult. I know it's a campaign, and I know those things can happen. But I do know that it was intended to gin up a particular part of his base.
It was very much reminiscent of the Trump campaign. Donald Trump came to the state three times, called me a criminal, the most corrupt mayor in Florida of the highest crime city, in spite of the fact that my city had, under my leadership, experienced historic decline [in crime] year over year. But none of that mattered … They had decided that I was a socialist, corrupt, I don’t know, “monkeying it up” candidate, and that was going to be sufficient for moving their base.
DP: So, now that we’re about a year into Ron DeSantis’ term, how has his tenure as governor compared to what you initially expected on election day? And how does it compare to Rick Scott’s?
AG: Well, I tell you, his folks learned very quickly that if you want to stay in politics in the state of Florida, you’re going to have to do some populist things that bring more people back into the fold. So he announced plans around an environmental portfolio that he was going to be leading on, rolled back a ton of Rick Scott appointees — and I tell you, if you want to satisfy Democrats in the state of Florida, you undo something that Scott did, you know? Really unpopular governor in the state of Florida …
Even though I could see that it was clearly a power struggle — I mean, Rick Scott stacked a bunch of these things before he went off — the average person saw it as a breath of fresh air. I think from that standpoint, they were smart. But the truth is, is that from a public policy standpoint, what they actually did is a different story. I mean, one of his first steps was appointing, you know, a big charter school advocate as the Secretary of Education, somebody who didn't really believe in the public education system, right, which will cause lasting damage in the state of Florida, the public infrastructure of our state. The fact that he … made appointments of young conservative justices who will be on the bench for a very, very long time with strong conservative ideological bands of which I disagree with ...
I would separate what some of the superficial gestures have been from what the public policy is. The governor signing into law a poll tax for 1.4 million returning citizens is unconscionable. Yet they did it, and they did it to preserve power.
DP: Right now, a lot of the general conversation … is revolving around impeachment. You've been vocal about impeachment for quite a while, so how do you feel about where the discussion is now?
AG: Well, I tell you, I held out hope that the Republicans would treat this seriously, as seriously as the charges would dictate, but it is clear to me that people have moved to their partisan corners.
I am not optimistic that the Senate will remove the President, although I do believe that he will be impeached. And I have to tell you, I believe that it is critical that this President be held accountable for these atrocious actions. If he is not going to be removed, history should reflect that this was an intolerable act by a president of the United States, period.
I don't know how we can claim a higher moral ground in the future if we let this President conduct himself in such an unpatriotic manner, and corrupt manner, and in any way claim a high moral ground. We can't do that … I also think by and large that the residue of this will be far out of the mind of voters by the time we get to the November election.
DP: And with a lot of the national attention surrounding impeachment right now, what’s, sort of, another issue that you think should be getting talked about?
AG: Man, there’s so many.
Because a lot of my work is around voting, House Resolution One — that Speaker Pelosi sponsored — was a comprehensive reform bill on elections, and voting integrity, and an effort to restore Section Five of the Voting Rights Act. That's critical. I know it feels a little in the weeds, but it is consequential to our democracy, the integrity of our elections. People don't have faith that our elections, by and large, are being run fairly … so we’ve got to address that.
Infrastructure is an important piece. Health care, which has consumed a lot of, you know, time and attention, sometimes unproductively in my opinion, should continue to be a theme for Democratic candidates. And … I know some take issue with this, but I think the conversation around economic inequality — the structures of our country fundamentally being broken when it comes to helping all Americans achieve the American Dream and the ideas around what we can do about that — I think is a very, very critical conversation.
And I think it's particularly one that's potent for younger voters, who, for the first time in our history, would be the largest voting bloc should they vote at their strength.
DP: Which of those issues do you think candidates should be emphasizing when they’re campaigning in Florida?
AG: Well, climate change is a real deal in Florida, so that's going to be important for voters in my state. I also believe that health care is going to be important for voters that are sick. Whether you have it or not, in the state of Florida, and frankly around the country, when your premiums are increasing year over year over year, where Republicans are attempting to usher in the ability for insurance companies to yet again deny you coverage based off of preexisting conditions … We need a candidate who is going to speak to what can be done, if they were to be elected President, to help alleviate the unfair burden that saddles far too many families who are terrified of getting sick.
DP: You were the mayor of Tallahassee, obviously the state capital. So, is there anything going on right now in the Florida state legislatures that you think is of particular importance or interest?
AG: Well, thankfully, the legislature is out of session. They're doing their [work] in committees.
But I will tell you, Amendment Four — which was a constitutional amendment that was passed in 2018, which automatically restored voting rights to returning citizens — obviously faced Republican roadblocks to implementation. And a federal judge has come down with a very, very strong opinion. He didn’t use the words poll tax, but a clear read of the opinion will show that he chastised the governor and the Republican legislature and has admonished them to correct the mistakes of the last session, or he will.
That is imperative and it will have, in my opinion, a tremendous impact on the state of Florida in the presidential election, especially when you consider that my state is a state that Democrats lost, in my case, me, by 30,000 votes.
DP: What kinds of voters in Florida specifically do you think can make the difference because of how close the margin was?
First of all, obviously, I should say “all voters.” We want to move as many voters as we can to the polls. But migration into the state of Florida is, for the first time in 2018, majority Puerto Rican and international. Those numbers are more than the 49 states combined, right? So this emerging American electorate, which is more black and more brown, is going to be critical, in my opinion, to any Democrat winning the state of Florida.
It’s one of the reasons why I've been trying to sound the alarm on this “socialism” attack, because it is one that has acute meaning for Latinos in my state, many of [whom] have fled the Maduro, and the Ortega, and the Castro regimes — murderous, authoritarian regimes — where socialism means something very, very different in those places.
And the Republicans are really keen. They don't care who the nominee is, they're running against socialism, and they are going to paint every Democrat as a socialist. And so we have to take some of the sting out of that word, and, quite frankly, call the Republicans out for what is in my opinion an insult to all of our intelligence, that they will use the murderous and dangerous regimes of Venezuela, and Cuba, and others as a foil to gain political power … especially when their public policy does not match their rhetoric.
The President refused to extend temporary protective status for Venezuelans. We are exporting or rejecting Venezuelans out of the United States at record rates right now. So he saber-rattles on one hand against Maduro, and then on the other hand, he placates his nationalist base by saying, ‘We're not going to allow Latin Americans into the United States.’ Shame.
DP: Sort of a similar thing. You said Republicans are using the word ‘socialism’ in a politicized way. One thing, especially in South Florida with a very large Jewish community, there’s a similar sort of thing going on with ‘anti-Semitic’ being thrown around at certain progressive Democrats. I guess, what do you make of all that?
AG: I mean, look, I think we have to do the difficult work of making clear our positions to the constituencies that help make up the Democratic Party and our ability to win.
I ran into some of those challenges when I was running for governor. A strong supporter of Israel — I've been there three times [and] as mayor of the city of Tallahassee, I maintained a sister city relationship with Ramat HaSharon. I didn't think I had to go down that list of credentials until the Republicans started to describe me as, you know, an anti-Semite, which is so deeply offensive to my person. Yet that was the kind of gutter politics that we had to confront.
So I think we’ve got to be very clear with the Jewish community where we stand and not allow for a minority position of some national Democrats to become the moniker for what Democrats believe.
DP: Alright, and I know we're probably nearing the end, so is there anything else you'd want to add?
AG: Just very, very happy to be here. I've never been to Princeton, New Jersey. I just left a meeting with some of the doctoral students in government, and if they are any sign of the caliber and quality of the students here, our country is in really good hands with the kind of intelligence and brilliance that's coming off this campus. I'm looking forward to the rest of my visit.