Just one of every four Florida voters cast ballots in the primary elections for governor. The other 10 million voters sat it out or were shut out because they are not Republicans or Democrats. As a result, there is no centrist on the November ballot who offers broad appeal in a sharply divided state. But there is one candidate who could reset priorities, rebalance government and check the Florida Legislature’s worst impulses: Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum.
Gillum, 39, came from behind for a stunning win in the Democratic primary with far less money and fewer television commercials than the perceived favorites. He engaged younger voters and motivated progressives with talk of promoting Medicare for all, abolishing the immigration enforcement agency and impeaching President Donald Trump. None of those liberal rallying cries have anything to do with being governor, but they helped energize enough Democrats for Gillum to win in urban areas such as Tampa, Miami and Jacksonville.
There is more to Gillum than those campaign lines. His personal story is particularly inspirational. He grew up poor in Miami and Gainesville as one of seven children; his father worked construction and his mother drove a school bus. He remembers receiving medical care from a health clinic bus when it visited his Miami neighborhood, and he was the first in his family to graduate high school and college. He graduated from Florida A&M University, and he was elected to the Tallahassee City Commission at 23 and became mayor four years ago. Now Gillum could become Florida’s first African-American governor.
While Republicans label Gillum as an extremist, he is nothing of the sort. He supports providing health care to hundreds of thousands of low-income Floridians by accepting federal money to expand Medicaid as 34 other states have done, including some with Republican governors. He wants bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, which most Florida voters support. He wants to invest more in public education, raise teacher salaries and de-emphasize high stakes testing. These are hardly radical positions.
Ron DeSantis served three terms in Congress without distinction, and he won the Republican primary for governor over a more qualified opponent with little more than Trump’s endorsement and constant appearances on Fox News. He has an impressive resume with Ivy League degrees and service in Iraq as a Navy lawyer. But DeSantis spent the primary campaign talking about federal issues and has superficial knowledge of state issues.
DeSantis, 40, would not bring change to Tallahassee. He voted regularly in Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and he opposes Medicaid expansion. Like most Republican state legislators, he also opposes sensible gun controls. His simplistic proposal to spend 80 percent of state education dollars in the classroom reflects a lack of understanding of state budgeting. And he would embrace the Legislature’s yearslong effort to siphon money away from traditional public schools and direct it toward private schools and charters.
To his credit, DeSantis supports some sensible environmental policies. He was one of the few members of Florida’s congressional delegation to oppose government supports for the sugar industry. Like Gillum, he supports a ban on fracking and construction of the reservoir the Legislature already has approved to store and clean water before it reaches the Everglades.
But DeSantis’ vow to protect Florida’s coasts from offshore drilling is suspect. His campaign won’t say whether DeSantis supports the current drilling moratorium’s boundaries, or if he supports extending the ban beyond 2022. And don’t expect DeSantis to restore severe spending cuts to water management districts or the Department of Environmental Protection.
DeSantis’ connection to controversies involving race also is disconcerting. The incidents range from campaign contributors and supporters who have made racist remarks to DeSantis’ appearances at conferences organized by an activist with a history of racially charged positions. DeSantis has generally denounced such remarks, but his suggestion that Gillum would erode the economic success of the state and “monkey this up” was clumsy and insensitive.
Gillum also has a cloud hanging over him. A lengthy federal investigation of Tallahassee city government involving one of his former friends remains open. Gillum denies any wrongdoing and offers reasonable explanations about publicly reported trips and expenditures. But it’s unfortunate the investigation has not provided clarity before voters started casting their ballots.
Ultimately, this race should be about whether voters are satisfied with the direction of state government that has been under Republican control for two decades. Florida ranks 36th in per-student spending, and the average teacher’s salary is nearly $10,000 below the national average. The state ranks at the bottom in mental health spending and at the top for costs for property insurance and car insurance. The transportation strategy is based on building more toll lanes.
Gillum would have difficulty convincing the Legislature to deliver on some of his key campaign pledges. The Republican leaders will not embrace raising the corporate income tax to generate more money for public schools. They will not rush to expand Medicaid, raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour or legalize and tax recreational marijuana.
Yet an engaged Democratic governor could build bipartisan support for important state priorities. Both Republican and Democratic candidates for the Legislature are talking about increasing spending on public education, overhauling the criminal justice system and improving transportation. They also are talking about investing in vocational training and developing a work force for a changing economy. Gillum is prepared to work on all of those challenges.
The Democrat’s biggest contribution, though, would be acting as a brake on a brazen, arrogant Legislature. As governor, he could set spending priorities. He could veto state budgets that starve public education or divert money from affordable housing and environmental preservation. He could insist on spending more on mental health and less on corporate welfare.
Unlike DeSantis, Gillum also would block the Legislature’s attacks on individual rights from becoming law. He would veto new restrictions on abortion, attempts to make it harder to vote and punitive measures aimed at the poor. He also could reject the Legislature’s efforts that would erode the power of local governments and increase health care costs under the guise of promoting free markets.
It’s time to reset Florida’s state government after two decades of Republican control. Gillum’s upstart campaign energizes younger voters, and he offers new energy and a fresh approach. For governor of Florida, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Andrew Gillum.