TAMPA – With early voting set to begin statewide this weekend, the patron saint of the progressive movement – Bernie Sanders – came to Florida on Friday to make the case for Andrew Gillum as the next governor of the Sunshine State.
The former presidential candidate and U.S. Senator from Vermont had a message for those who have been disaffected by the politics of Tallahassee for years, if not decades.
“You cannot sit back and complain and moan and groan. You gotta get involved in the political process. You gotta work with Andrew to transform this state,” Sanders said to a cheering crowd.
An estimated 1,000 people came to see Sanders and Tallahassee Mayor Gillum at the Armature Works building just north of downtown Tampa. Sanders, who turns 77 next month, and Gillum, 39, represented two generations of progressives pushing for change.
It was Sanders’ first appearance in Tampa since March of 2016, when he spoke at the Florida State Fairgrounds Expo Hall in advance of the state’s Democratic presidential primary. That election didn’t go well — Sanders got smoked by Hillary Clinton by more than 30 percentage points.
Unlike the long speeches in the 2016 presidential campaign, Sanders’ speech in Tampa on Friday was 16 minutes, touching on some of his greatest hits — advocating for a $15 minimum wage, health care for all, and a call to embrace social, racial and environmental justice.
But his essential message both in Tampa and at a later event in Orlando was simple.
“Your job in the next couple of weeks, is to make sure that…people come to vote,” Sanders said. Get three or four friends or family members to get to the polls as well, he said.
Gillum hammered home the same message, hoping that his base of voters – young, progressive and people of color – can get to the polls in larger numbers compared to the turnout in past primary elections.
“If we’re serious about winning this race, we’ve got to show up like we have never shown up before. We’ve got to vote like our lives depend on it,” Gillum said.
Gillum essentially relied on his stump speech made to progressive audiences for over a year – that it was past the time to nominate a centrist Democrat (“Republican-lite” he describes them) who consistently have failed to win gubernatorial elections in Florida over the past two decades.
“The way we’re going to win this November is by giving our voters a reason to vote for something, and not just against something,” Gillum said.
He added that the only way any Democrat could defeat Republican governor candidates Ron DeSantis or Adam Putnam in the fall would be by turning out voters “who feel like they’ve been ignored, underrepresented, not reflected in politics, not reflected in the types of issues that impact regular working people.”
The crowd arrived early to wait in line for the 11 a.m. event (which began on time and ended promptly at 11:45 a.m. so Gillum and Sanders could make their 2 p.m. event in Orlando) which consisted of twenty somethings there to see Gillum, and a much older electorate with t-shirts and signs that virtually screamed that they were “Berniecrats.”
Kayla Galbraith, 23, is a Temple Terrace resident and recent graduate of University of South Florida who hopes to become a teacher. Gillum’s call to raise the starting wage for public school teachers initially attracted Galbraith to Gillum’s candidacy.
“With a teacher shortage, it seems like a logical answer to raise teacher pay to get more people in the field,” she said.
Galbraith said that while she thinks the rest of the Democratic field is “okay” (and will vote for the eventual nominee regardless) she says that “he is the most progressive and he aligns the most for me.”
Tampa resident Noah Zimmerman, 24, said he too has embraced Gillum’s candidacy because of his “progressive ideals.”
“I think we’ve been too centrist for a long time to get anything done,” Zimmerman said.
Gillum has attracted attention nationwide from stalwart liberals like Jane Fonda, George Soros and Tom Steyer, a San Francisco philanthropist who is spending more than a million dollars on Gillum’s campaign.
But in Florida, Gillum has been mired in the middle of the pack in several gubernatorial polls, so the event Friday with Sanders may be a boost for the Tallahassee mayor.
That said, “I don’t believe in polls,” declared Orlando Gudes, a former Tampa police officer running for a city council seat next year. “We just gotta get out and vote.”
“I really haven’t seen that many polls, honestly,” said Austin Levinson, 24. “I feel like this governor’s race hasn’t been as much talked about. I see a lot more coverage of the Senate race, and of the Republican side of the governor’s race.”
Susan Smith is the chairwoman of the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida, which officially endorsed Gillum in June. She says that ever since Donald Trump’s stunning electoral victory two years ago, she believes the electorate is totally unpredictable.
“I have no idea what’s going to happen,” she said after the event. “I think there’s a lot of hope out there, and when you see the people that are working at the polls for Andrew, you see how people are committed to him, and I think that energy and excitement that was in that room for him was real.”