Tallahassee Mayor and Florida Gubernatorial Candidate Andrew Gillum visited Harvard.
By AIDAN FITZSIMMONS
On Monday night, former Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum visited Harvard and gave a “Fireside Chat” in the Winthrop House Junior Common Room. Gillum, a progressive Democrat, became a national sensation in 2018 when he ran a hotly-contested race for Governor of Florida. The election was closely watched by many during the 2018 election season as an indicator of a possible “Blue Wave.” He narrowly lost the election to Republican Ron DeSantis, although he withdrew his initial concession when a recount was initiated. He ultimately lost by around 0.4% of the vote.
The chat was moderated by Winthrop’s Public Service Scholar-In-Residence, Jordan Wilson, who is working on an app called Politicking which aims to inform citizens about politics from the local to the federal level. Winthrop House Faculty Dean Stephanie Robinson also oversaw the discussion, and opened the event with a laudatory biography of Gillum’s life and achievements. She cited his breadth and ability to “pivot” among a range of issues with expertise, as well as his history with a Florida A&M protest to protect affirmative action against threats posed by former governor Jeb Bush. She also cited his work on Tallahassee’s renewable energy initiatives, his fight for gun control, and his success in bringing millions of new voters into the Florida democratic process.
Wilson’s first question for Gillum was, “What do you know now that you didn’t know in 2018?” Gillum responded that he learned “how resilient I could be,” following his narrow defeat.
Responding to a question about the possible long-term impacts of his successful get-out-the-vote efforts, Gillum discussed his campaign at length. He highlighted that he was the only non-millionaire in the Democratic primary, and how shocking his underdog primary win was. His $6 million primary fundraising was dwarfed by his opponents’ combined $90 million, but, according to Gillum, his shocking upset was “all about social media and grassroots.”
As to how public perceptions and polling influenced the election, Gillum told the audience “Don’t believe ‘em.” Calling most polls at best a “lagging indicator” of what’s really happening on the ground, Gillum told the audience how his pastor used to liken the function of polling to the difference between a thermostat and a thermometer. His campaign, he said, didn’t have the money to spend on polling the way some campaigns do; however, he believes that it’s much more important to really know the people and the issues on the ground, to have firsthand experience in the work of politics. He said that as long as you are running for the right reasons, polling can only do so much.
Gillum spoke about voter disenfranchisement, an important issue in competitive states like Florida. He spoke of widespread trends in voter disenfranchisement, specifically how lame duck Republican legislatures in states like Michigan and Wisconsin have passed restrictive laws on their way out in order to make electing Democrats more difficult. He talked about how felony disenfranchisement in Florida, which was ended with the 2018 election, had kept 1.4 million voters out of the process. He talked about the purposefully discouraging bureaucratic headaches that would-be voters are often put through, the significantly longer wait times at voting locations in communities of color, and the fact that 7 out of 10 absentee ballots rejected by “signature match” rules were cast by voters of color. Voter repression was a major issue in 2018, highlighted by the narrow and suspicious defeat of Democrat Stacey Abrams in Georgia; however, the issue is also personal for Gillum— after all, his race in a state of millions came down to 32k votes, and at least 80k were not counted.
When asked his “marching orders” for progressive Harvard students, Gillum advised that students recognize that “privilege gives you a lot of responsibility,” and that “there is a lot more to be done in the project of becoming a more perfect union.” He expressed hopes that technology can be used to democratize. Most importantly, he said, we need to deal with the problem that “too many people are signing out of the system.” We have too many nonvoters, whether registered, eligible, or ineligible.
The floor was opened to questions, many of which came from Floridians. On a question about global versus national versus state versus local politics, Gillum opined that “local matters more,” but “Washington controls the psyche,” and added that he believes that local and state races, if made more accessible, could actually be an upticket driver for larger races. When asked what economic development issues mattered to him most, Gillum said that Florida has to begin with top-quality education to produce and retain talent, expand Medicaid as Florida has failed to do, and improve Florida’s transportation by moving away from asphalt. Another questioner challenged Gillum on his failure to bring rural voters into the fold. Gillum responded by arguing that he cares about them, which is why he visited every county and dealt with rural issues. However, he lamented that those voters seemed to like Trump and DeSantis even though they aren’t good for rural Floridians, in his view. Dean Robinson added in that the “big question” now is, “Okay, I don’t vote my interest, now what?”
Near the end of the talk, Gillum endorsed the idea of a national popular vote. He also gave advice to a Winthrop student, Evan Bonsall ‘19, who plans to return to his hometown and run for city commissioner, saying “be very clear about what it is you want to do.” Finally, Gillum ended the talk by declaring, “I ran the most unapologetically progressive campaign for governor in Florida history,” a line which got loud applause from the audience.
Aidan Fitzsimons (email@example.com) writes news for the Indy.