In the 399 years that Black people have been in this country, only a handful of African Americans have been elected governor of a state.
2018 could be a watershed.
On Nov. 6, three African Americans are vying to be elected governors of their respective states: Stacey Abrams, who would be the first-ever female governor in Georgia; Ben Jealous in Maryland, and Andrew Gillum in Florida.
During the primary season, vaunted “experts” and prognosticators pegged the Florida race wrong. Polls proved to be wildly inaccurate and the numbers completely misread how well Gillum, Tallahassee’s mayor, would eventually fare in the primary. He won.
A part of the surprise result has to do with the polls themselves, but a larger issue is that pollsters very rarely bother to take the pulse of African Americans. So the enthusiasm and support that Gillum has among Black voters – who make up 33 percent of the Democratic base in Florida – flew under the radar.
There’s a particular type of energy Gillum’s race has ignited. Call it hope, genuine exhilaration and anticipation in African-American circles that a man, a Black man who grew up hard, who knows what it’s like to face deprivation and poverty, and someone who has struggled and persevered against the odds, could become Florida’s next governor.
Gillum, 39, is a rising star in Democratic political circles. He spoke at the 2016 Democratic National Convention and was on Hillary Clinton’s short list for vice president. A who’s who of politicos and celebs support, endorse or have contributed to Gillum’s campaign.
In September, he was lauded and feted at the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington, D.C., along with Abrams, a lawyer, businesswoman, politician and novelist, and Jealous, a civil rights leader and former president of the national NAACP.
Florida, like the rest of the country, is fractious — bubbling over with anger and deeply divided along jagged partisan lines. But it is perhaps the most important swing state in the country.
Gillum, Abrams, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Beto O’Rourke, Paulette Jordan, and Ilhan Omar have energized Dems in ways not seen in recent times.
Animated by Donald Trump himself, an alleged sexual abuser and a crass sexist and misogynist, as well as his agenda that is plundering resources needed by ordinary Americans, the Progressives are fighting for quality healthcare, a clean environment, decent jobs, and effective and sensible counter-measures to climate change — critical to states such as Florida.
This new crop of politicians is saving establishment Democrats from themselves.
For the past 20 years, Democratic leaders in Florida have chosen annoyingly mild, reductionist, milquetoast candidates who were a milder version of the Republicans they were running against.
And while Republicans fought with bare-knuckle, no-holds-barred abandon, Democrats looked confused, were too civil and hopelessly inclined to bring a stone to a gunfight.
But this year is different.
The progressive-fueled resistance is angry, frustrated and unafraid to stand up to the bullying, lies and bluster of the other side. They act as if there’s something to fight for. And there is.
New Jersey U.S. Sen. Cory Booker recently said that these midterm elections are the most consequential in his lifetime. He is not alone in thinking that.
The Trumpian/Republican narrative is a cheerless dystopian view of an America of white victimhood, where whites are under siege from marauding Black and Brown immigrant hordes who are taking their jobs, killing innocents and siphoning off resources they don’t deserve.
The administration harbors a deep hostility towards immigrants and Muslims, and equal amounts of antipathy towards women, Black and Brown people and members of the LGBTQ community.
It is enacting policies designed to drag the country back to the turn of the last century. Republican control of all branches of the federal government means unfettered power to erase, reverse or significantly alter women’s reproductive rights, more than five decades of hard-won Civil Rights gains and a measure of parity for women, while reintroducing the failed War on Drugs and mass incarceration.
Meanwhile, Progressives, Millennials and Liberals advocate their vision of a country of fairness; equality; quality healthcare; space for ethnic, cultural, gender and sexual diversity; a woman’s right to choose; an environment where Black people aren’t routinely brutalized and murdered by rogue cops; a living wage, decent salaries and benefits for workers; strong unions and humane working conditions for employees.
Nationally, a confluence of factors, including a surge of political grassroots activism, resistance to the odious policies emanating from the White House and record numbers of women – particularly Black women and women of color – has resulted in these groups and individuals not just mobilizing and organizing but also running for office. This groundswell has changed the face of the election landscape.
An added element is that sexual assault survivors and other women are incensed by the way Republicans handled the Brett Kavanaugh nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the hostility and dismissiveness with which a gang of old white men dealt with women who accused the newly seated Associate Justice of sexual assault and sexual misconduct.
Many are promising to punish Republicans on November 6.
After 20 years of Republican control, Florida is poised, ripe for change. Gov. Rick Scott has piled up a dubious record over the past eight years, particularly in the areas of the environment, education and healthcare.
He loosened a raft of environmental regulations directly tied to the poisoning of the waters off Florida and the explosion of red tide and an algae bloom which has killed unknown numbers of fish and sea life.
He has routinely short-changed public education by siphoning off money for traditional schools and dumping it into school voucher programs and public charter schools run by private groups. As it relates to healthcare, Florida is considerably worse off than when Scott slid into office.
Sun Sentinel columnist Randy Schultz argues that the main reason for Florida’s poor performance is that Scott has refused to expand Medicaid as allowed under the Affordable Care Act. Intense opposition by Republicans to former President Barack Obama, and an aversion to the ACA, has fueled Scott’s unwillingness to accept billions of federal dollars to cover the costs of what is now 4.2 million uninsured people.
Gillum’s attempt to become Florida’s next governor has been overshadowed by an FBI investigation into city government. Although the Tallahassee mayor has said the FBI assured him he has not been the focus of the investigation, his opponent, former Congressman Ron DeSantis, has hammered Gillum with accusations of being corrupt, all of which Gillum has denied.
The issue of race has been the proverbial elephant in the room, with DeSantis not missing an opportunity to use Gillum’s color and ethnicity to scare off voters. Meanwhile, Gillum accuses the DeSantis campaign of highlighting the corruption investigation to reinforce negative stereotypes about Black men.
DeSantis, 40, has run a racialized, some call racist, campaign, saying on the first day out of the box that Floridians shouldn’t vote for Gillum and allow him to “monkey up” the state.
He claimed that race had no bearing on his use of the term and he has forcefully asserted several times that he will not bow down to the altar of political correctness or allow the media to smear him. To date, a Neo-Nazi group has distributed two sets of robocalls on DeSantis’s behalf, and DeSantis has scrambled to distance himself from the hate group.
In the final gubernatorial debate, the moderator pressed DeSantis on his tactics, which he denied, to which Gillum responded:
“Well, let me first say, my grandmother used to say that a hit dog will holler, and it hollered through this room. Mr. DeSantis, first of all, he has Neo-Nazis helping him throughout the state, has spoken at racist conferences, accepted a contribution and would not return it, from someone who referred to the former president of the US a Muslim N.I.G.G.E.R. When asked to return that money he said no. He’s using the money to now fund negative ads. I’m not saying Mr. DeSantis is a racist, I’m simply saying the racists believe he’s a racist …”
One of Gillum’s campaign promises is to expand Medicaid coverage, although he won’t be able to do it without support from the Republican-dominated state Legislature. But if one or both of the state houses changes hands after the midterms, Gillum has an outside chance of reversing the tide.
Gillum also champions greater access to healthcare, a $15 minimum wage, and allocating more money to higher education and worker training. He supports a $1 billion investment in public schools that would be financed, in part, by increasing the corporate income tax and legalizing and taxing marijuana.
He wants to overhaul the state’s minimum sentencing guidelines and reform Florida’s bail system, which disproportionately affects poor defendants by having them languish in jail because they lack the money to pay for excessive cash bails.
Nov. 6 will be a collision of a vision of the past – as voiced by DeSantis, a Trump-endorsed Ivy League acolyte of the president – and the vision of the future envisioned by Gillum.
Gillum is regarded as the person who can help ordinary Floridians, of all colors and stripes, know that they finally have someone in their corner who’s more interested in bolstering the fortunes of ordinary folks than feathering the nests of corporations, lobbyists and the 1%.