Florida, home to the stand-your-ground laws that arguably have led to the unjust killings of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, has Black excellence on the ballot this Tuesday. Tallahassee Mayor and Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Andrew Gillum is running a campaign message built on one fundamental principle: The people.
The Florida A&M University alumnus hopes to bring in a new era of politics for the swing state, with strategies for expanding Medicaid, investing in green energy and correcting the Sunshine State's failed criminal justice system. While still obtaining his undergraduate degree, Gillum served as the president of the student body, and served the community of Black scholars attending Florida A&M University by organizing around change. As the first in his family to attend college, he protested in resistance of Jeb Bush’s attempts to end affirmative action. He then went on to become the youngest person ever elected into the Tallahassee City Commission. During his time as mayor, his administration effectively implemented a sentencing reform program. Now in the race for governor of Florida, Gillum hopes to make history yet again by becoming the state’s first Black governor. If elected, he intends to pilot a similar sentencing reform program statewide.
After winning the Democratic primary, Gillum and his team have left it all on field, putting their trust in voters. He is running against Trump-endorsed Republican nominee Ron DeSantis in a tight race. A recent poll conducted by the New York Times shows DeSantis leading with a 5 percent advantage. However, Gillum is maintaining focus on turning out voters.
“Polls don’t vote, people do,” Gillum said in an interview with MSNBC.
Blavity Politics joined the Andrew Gillum on the campaign trail to discuss his journey from an HBCU college student to Florida’s top of the ticket:
Blavity: As a FAMU alumnus, what are some of the things you still carry with you from your days as a student?
Gillum: I think it’s a pretty typical experience for all HBCU students. I mean, I’ll never forget those long financial aid lines, and I’ll never forget some of the coping mechanisms we came up with, which were frankly "what doesn’t kill us make us stronger." We felt as students we didn’t always have the resources we needed. We weren’t always treated as fairly as we felt we should have been in the larger, higher-education funding structure in Florida, but we were extremely resilient.
At FAMU — of the things that probably challenged me the most — was the fact that, in high school, I was one of the only Black guys at the top of class. But when I got to FAMU, it seemed everyone had that background and experience. Everybody was a leader at their respective schools. So you really were surrounded by Black excellence, which forced you to sharpen yourself. Even as I have emerged as a supervisor and someone who hires people to do work, I always take a special interest in people that attended HBCUs, because I know what their made of. If you came through that [the HBCU experience], there probably isn’t a lemon you can’t turn into lemonade.
Blavity: What was your experience like at FAMU, overall? What are your thoughts on HBCUs today?
Gillum: First of all, you know if I had a magic wand, I would end this conversation permanently around whether or not HBCUs are relevant or not — I think unequivocally that they are relevant. Florida’s Black middle class would not exist were it not for FAMU or [Bethune-Cookman University], which serves to produce, at least in FAMU’s case, the highest number of bachelor's, master's and doctoral degree holders, who are Black, on a single campus. HBCUs have a special and unique mission. We have to keep them on target for that mission. But we also have to resource those institutions, so that they can do the jobs that they’re there to do.
Anyone who thinks HBC’s handicap students of color because they matriculate a homogeneous environment, clearly hasn’t spent a day on an HBCU campus. It’s an extremely different experience, and people bring a diverse set of experiences with them. We’re cultivated to perform well in every environment, and it comes out on full display when we enter into our professions — and rise to the top, often.
Blavity: When was the last time you attended homecoming. If elected, would you attend one as governor?
Gillum: Absolutely, I would! I’m a rattler through and through, and I love my institution. I credit it with who I am today; I would not be the mayor of Tallahassee or the Democratic nominee for governor, had it not been for FAMU.
Not only will they have me as a regular at university events, but they will also find me as a friend in the governor’s office, who understands their unique mission and purpose, and will do everything that I can to make sure that they are resourced at the level that they deserve to be.
Blavity: For those who feel like college is a waste of time, what would you say to convince them otherwise?
Gillum: Well I would hope that anyone who draws that conclusion would draw it from an informed place. I am not one who believes that everyone has to go to a university. I think there are people who, in some cases, might do well at community college, and might do well at starting their own business.
But certainly for anyone who wants to attend an university, I would throw my lot in any day with an HBCU, because I know what those graduates are made of. I know the grit that they have to develop in order to succeed. You’re no longer the exception — you are now apart of a community of exceptional people, and you’ve got to rise to the top at the best of your ability. Those who can do that certainly can handle the mediocrity that comes out of some other places, who they will ultimately be competing with.
Blavity: You once organized a student march in response to former-Governor Jeb Bush’s anti-affirmative action attempts. What did you find most exciting about organizing in college?
Gillum: I was a student when we organized that protest. You know FAMU had very unique role; [any time] anything happened in the state of Florida that impacted Black people, people always looked first to FAMU to be the immediate respondent. We were always expected to be the conscious and the voice.
As student body president, I leaned heavily into that role. I didn’t necessarily need affirmative action, because I was already in school. But we had a responsibility for the people coming after us. We didn’t know what our siblings or relatives might do as it relates to college, but we certainly didn’t want to see the rug pulled up from those coming behind us. So we played a unique activist role, frankly because of where we were situated — we were right in front the state capitol. People expected FAMU students to respond any time the Black community had something at stake.
Blavity: What made you want to be a political science major? What’s your advice to other students who are political science majors who may feel like it’s a grim time to go into that type of study?
Gillum: I think first of all, we need a more civically educated student. I take being in the academy very seriously. You ought to want to be more curious, you ought to want to test every hypothesis. You ought to be less quick to form judgement, because education is supposed to expand your mind and your horizon.
For those that want to go into political science, I would simply say become a master in your field — not just in the classroom, but outside the classroom where you can get real practical experience. Go and intern. Study how the process works. Spend some time on a campaign or in a government body, so that you can get practice in the field that you want to enter.
I wouldn't encourage anybody to pick up that major just because they want to become an elected official. In fact, when I picked it up, I thought I wanted to work in the Department of State; I thought I’d be a foreign service officer. It just so happened that God would stir me another way. Now I’m practicing diplomacy in a whole other realm, but it was never my intention in studying political science to run for office. I wanted to expand [diplomacy], and I wanted to master it in practice.
Blavity: As mayor of Tallahassee, you worked on restorative justice alternatives to prison incarceration for juveniles. As governor, would you expand this approach statewide?
Gillum: Absolutely. I mean, it makes all the sense in the world.
Right now, we are throwing good money after bad, through a criminal justice system that has yet to be updated. The best way you control a crime rate in a community is:
1. Reduce the number of people going into the criminal justice system in the first place.
2. And for those who have entered into the system, most effectively reduce the number of people reoffending.
The reason why we started our restorative justice program is because we were tired of seeing people, who [had] made a bad decision be penalized, and have the rest of their lives sort of shortcut.
You know, unless there is something that interrupts that behavior, those individuals only go deeper and deeper into the criminal justice system, because society at large only removes more and more options from them. You get a record, you can’t get a job. You can’t get a job, you can’t earn a wage. You can’t earn a wage, you find the crevasses. People that have needs — like food, water and shelter — are going to get it one way or another. I’m not condoning it; I’m just stating it for what it is. So if you can reduce the urge and need for people to reoffend by putting them on a track where they can make a meaningful life for themselves through a second chance, then I’ll take that as an option any day of the week.
So with our program, instead of young people having to go in front of a judge and jury and being told that they committed a crime against the state of Florida, they'd go before community justice panels. They'd hear from their neighbors, victims and/or the victims families [about] how their actions impacted the community. At the state level, four out of 10 reoffend. For us [Tallahassee], fewer than one-tenth actually go on to reoffend. So it’s smart justice. When you find that kind of an outcome, it ought to be our mission to scale that up statewide.
Blavity: If you’re elected governor, what are some of the things you want to focus on your first year?
Gillum: The first thing we have to do when we win is expand Medicaid. [Florida] has 800,000 who deserve access to health care. Those 800,00 people will have access when we expand Medicaid, and that access to health care will allow them to take care of their families. And it will also have to affect reducing the cost of health care for everybody. So my number-one priority is expanding Medicaid.
I will also have the responsibility of appointing three new justices to the state Supreme Court, when we win this race. That’s going to be an important job, because it will shape the next 30 years of the Court, and will also play an important role in the redistricting in my state.
Blavity: Florida has already been greatly affected by climate change. What will you do as governor to address that?
Gillum: When we win this race, I’m going to be a governor that believes in science, and will bring that best science to the table to help us build a more resilient state. Right now, we have a climate denier in our governor's mansion, and the Republicans are running a candidate who is a climate denier.
One of the things we have to be sure to accomplish is building the state of Florida to be more resilient in the face of climate change. There are elements that we are not going to be able to turn back, but I’m interested in the kind of future innovations around carbon extraction from the environment. There are already technologies that are being piloted out there that can work to exact carbon from the climate, and repurpose that carbon for other materials. There’s already a lot of strong research around this, and we just have to put it in real practice.
But also in the state of Florida, we’re [referred to as] the "Sunshine State." We ought to double-down on that title, and become a state where we lead the rest of the nation in solar energy production. Right now, we are the back of pack state in that category, and I believe we have a chance to do better. But it’s going to require us to have a governor who believes in science and who is prepared to take the necessary steps to invest in next-generation energy.
Early voting in Florida has already surpassed turn out from 2014 midterms despite voter suppression tactics that target minority voters throughout the state. From his overwhelming support and admiration of HBCUs to his efforts in correcting the state’s failed criminal justice system, it's clear that Gillum is a candidate who understands and cares to aid disenfranchised communities.
As the final days of the midterm election nears, the rest of the nation will watch how the battle for the culture measures up against the conservative desire to maintain the power grid in the South evolves. Will Florida elect its first Black governor? Tune in and turn out on November 6 to find out!
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