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Andrew Gillum looks like Democrats' best hope for governor, but will email scandal hurt him?

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum speaks at the meeting of the Tiger Bay Club at the Tucker Civic Center in Tallahassee on May 31. (Hali Tauxe/Tallahassee Democrat via AP)

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum speaks at the meeting of the Tiger Bay Club at the Tucker Civic Center in Tallahassee on May 31. (Hali Tauxe/Tallahassee Democrat via AP)

In politics, timing often trumps skill.

Marco Rubio likely would not be in the U.S. Senate had he sensibly shied from challenging then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist just as the tea party movement burst onto the scene. Jeb Bush very well might be president had he run in any year other than 2016. And Democrat Alex Sink might not have lost the governor's race to Rick Scott in 2010 but for the GOP wave that rolled across the country.

As Florida opens another campaign for governor, the timing seems ideal for a little-known Democrat named Andrew Gillum, who happens to possess plenty of political skill.

The 37-year-old mayor stands as an antidote to what has ailed Florida Democrats as they lost five consecutive gubernatorial races fielding nominees who failed to excite much of the base, let alone swing voters. At a time when President Donald Trump has the activist base of the Democratic Party more fired up than at least since the 2000 recount, Gillum might be the ideal messenger.

In contrast to the cautious, white, centrist, Tampa Bay Democrats nominated in the past four elections, Gillum is a polished, young, black man from north Florida and an unapologetic progressive.

"As the mayor of Tallahassee, Andrew Gillum has stood up to the NRA and made it clear that he will protect immigrants against the Trump administration. He has a vision for the state that includes progressive policies like a $15 minimum wage and ending discrimination against those who have been incarcerated," said Jim Dean, chairman of the grassroots-driven political action committee Democracy for America, in endorsing Gillum. "2018 can be the year Democrats take back control from Republican governors across the country, but it won't happen without progressive leaders who run on bold platforms like Andrew Gillum."

The fifth of seven children of a school bus driver mother and construction worker father in Miami, Gillum was the first in his family to attend college.

He was elected to the Tallahassee City Commission at age 23 in 2003 and mayor in 2014. Gillum was the only Florida Democrat to speak at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, and hacked emails released by Wikileaks showed Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman, John Podesta, even mentioned him as a possible running mate.

Unfortunately for Gillum's campaign, he shares another tie to Clinton: An email scandal that threatens to bog him down, just as it did her.

On the campaign trail, he can be magnetic. Talking about his upbringing, he describes how his parents would leave for work at dawn and drop him at his grandmother's house to sleep a bit longer. Before sending him off to school each morning, she would rub an olive oil cross on his forehead to bless him.

"She said, 'Boy, go to school. Mind Your teachers. Get your lesson. And one day bring it home.' She said, 'Bring it home for your little brother and your little sister who don't know what it is, bring it home. Bring it home for the boy down the street that you play with and God knows where he's going to wind up. Bring it home. Bring it home for your mama and your daddy who get up early every day to make sure that you have a roof over your head, and clothes on your back and food on the table.' "

So far, Gillum generates considerably more enthusiasm at candidate forums than the other credible candidates — frontrunner Gwen Graham, a former Tallahassee congresswoman and daughter of former Sen. Bob Graham, and businessman Chris King of Winter Park.

He has won a slew of endorsements and some notable campaign donations. Among them: Billionaire George Soros ($100,000); TV legend Norman Lear, who founded People For The American Way, where Gillum works ($50,000); Jane Fonda; U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, the Democratic U.S. House member representing Broward and Palm Beach counties; St. Petersburg City Council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman; and Democracy for America, the liberal, grassroots-driven political action committee founded more than a decade ago by Howard Dean.

"Going back to the traditional, establishment candidate is just not going to do it for the Democrats. That's what we have done for the last 20 years and we've had zero wins," said Tampa lawyer and former state Senate candidate David Singer, a Gillum supporter. "We haven't had someone this dynamic, this personable in the last several decades on the Democratic side."

His main obstacle may not be Graham, a charming and tireless campaigner herself, or even a potential run by mega-rich personal injury lawyer John Morgan. Rather, Gillum's own sloppiness ultimately could be his undoing.

PolitiFact Florida helped highlight that weakness the other day, when it ruled Mostly False a Gillum campaign claim that he has outdone his rivals in fundraising: "We're excited to have more than 7,000 contributors, the most in the race, raising money."

Not even close. Eliminating people who donated multiple times, Gillum has fewer than 5,400 donors.

This would be a minor point, except that Gillum already is under attack, and investigation, for cutting corners — and potentially breaking the law — with a city-purchased email system that blasted out campaign-related emails. The controversy surfaced just as he announced for governor early this year, and Gillum paid the city back for the software. The Leon County Sheriff's Office is investigating the matter.

"It's a pattern with Andrew Gillum," said Barry Edwards, a St. Petersburg-based Democratic consultant who helped Graham raise money for her congressional campaign. "His entire record being disclosed is always one of hyperbole, or obfuscation and, 'Aw shucks, we made an innocent mistake.' "

The Tallahassee Democrat has been aggressively digging into Gillum's emails and found examples of political matters overlapping with official duties. That's hardly unusual with elected officials, but in the aftermath of Clinton's email fiasco, many Democrats fear Gillum could be crushed with TV ads about another "email scandal."

At a recent Tiger Bay luncheon in Tallahassee, Gillum acknowledged the issue won't go away even if the Sheriff's Office finds no wrongdoing.

"People who were fooled once by a fake email scam won't be fooled again," said Gillum, who declined an interview request for this column.

Former Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant is an avid Gillum supporter who sees the email controversy as blown way out of proportion. Buying an email management system that a few political emails wound up in is a far cry from allegedly mishandling national security information, said Tant.

She has known Gillum at least 15 years and said his authenticity and life story set him apart.

"What you see with him is what you get. His values are really genuine," she said. "He has lived a lot of his life in a way that not a lot of Floridians, or frankly not many Americans, have lived. He truly understands the challenges that a lot of working families face."

Contact Adam C. Smith asmith@tampabay.com. Follow @adamsmithtimes.

Andrew Gillum looks like Democrats' best hope for governor, but will email scandal hurt him? 06/16/17 [Last modified: Friday, June 16, 2017 1:48pm]
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