By Jim Bleyer
Events in Alabama and Tampa during the past week should give hope to Florida Democrats who have been more adept at infighting and incompetence than winning elections over the past decade.
Despite holding a slight registation edge statewide, the Florida Democratic party is looking at losing a U. S. Senate seat and a continuation of the Republican grip on the governor’s mansion if polls are to be believed.
Gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum could break that 20-year cycle and at the same time save Bill Nelson’s critical Senate seat, possibly handing Democrats a majority in the Upper House of Congress.
The Tallahassee mayor has all the ingredients of a winner: a visionary platform, name recognition, a new savvy finance chairman, and charisma. Oh, and he is African-American.
Doug Jones’ victory in Alabama gave Democrats a winning template: turning out minority voters in huge numbers, energizing Millennials, and closing the gap with college-educated white voters. Special elections in Virginia and New Jersey resulting in Democratic victories mirrored that demographic coalition.
Not as well known but every bit as indicative of what a Gillum gubernatorial candidacy would accomplish played out six days ago in Tampa when he appeared at a weekly, nonpartisan community forum usually dominated by an older, heavily Caucasian demographic.
The overflowing attendance included many first timers: Millennials, Latinos, African-Americans. Their fervor wasn’t dampened by the fact that the venue’s libertarian owner supplied fewer seats than the norm.
Gillum, an unabashed progressive, detailed his positions on transportation, education and retraining, inclusion, government advocacy of entrepreneurship and small business, jobs, and more. He calmly and unapologetically explained, in the face of a hostile questioner, his support for restoring civil rights to felons that served their sentences.
His remarks were met with enthusiastic applause; the energy didn’t end with the formal meeting as young adults surrounded the speaker outside the meeting room for conversation and photo ops. The reaction to Gillum’s appearance by USF graduate student and young progressive Tristan Pike was typical of the demographic that is key to Democratic aspirations.
”When I felt like I had the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than myself, I felt inspired to get involved in politics,” Pike explained. “As a young progressive, I think our candidates need to inspire that same feeling in their supporters and their constituents…and that’s what I see in Andrew Gillum.”
None of Gillum’s opponents in the Democratic primary would be able to come within light years of what he is capable of achieving in a general election.
Gwen Graham and Phillip Levine are old guard and come nowhere near the definition of progressive. Graham, for example, voted for fracking as a Congresswoman; Levine, as mayor of Miami Beach, praised Donald Trump. Both are attempting to reinvent themselves as left leaning to score in the Democratic primary.
The fourth declared Democratic candidate for governor, Chris King, talks like a progressive but has no track record in the public sector. He has low name recognition and his campaign has failed to gain traction.
Gillum electrifies the demographic that is vital to Democrats, especially in off-year elections. Polls say Gov. Rick Scott is in a statistical tie with incumbent Nelson. The well-financed challenger has the upward trajectory.
On his own, Nelson would be an underdog. Neither he nor Scott are dynamic but the Republicans are far better organized than Democrats in off-year races. Gillum’s top-of-the-ticket coattails would bring Nelson home and possibly give the Democrats a Senate majority.
The Florida Democratic party has been more like the Florida Aristocratic party with elitist state chairpersons like Allison Tant and Stephen Bittel. Paying lip service to neutrality in the governor’s race while quietly promoting former Gov. Bob Graham’s daughter would be another in a long history of costly unforced errors by party elders.
If Democrats had nominated fresh face Perry Thurston instead of tired warhorse George Sheldon for Attorney General in 2014, Charlie Crist would be living on Adams Street in Tallahassee.
Florida Democrats need to take a cue from events in Alabama and Tampa or they will have learned nothing and likely never will.