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Why Chris King is still a contender

The often-overlooked underdog for the gubernatorial race continues to impress but could use a breakout moment.
Businessman and gubernatorial candidate Chris King talks to a group of gay and lesbian Democrats in Tallahassee, Fla., on Saturday, Aug. 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Brendan Farrington) FLBF103
Businessman and gubernatorial candidate Chris King talks to a group of gay and lesbian Democrats in Tallahassee, Fla., on Saturday, Aug. 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Brendan Farrington) FLBF103
Published May 8, 2018
Updated May 8, 2018

If someone held a contest to crown the whitest man in Florida, I'd nominate Chris King, a little-known Winter Park millionaire businessman running for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

Think Opie Taylor, but with less of an edge.

Which probably is why King, 39, is so often overlooked or written off. Not only is he a political novice, but he seems so blandly conventional: solicitous smile and weatherman good looks, privileged suburban upbringing, Ivy League education, big bucks.

That just-another-politician assessment, however, is deeply flawed.

Almost no one is noticing so far — he is polling in the low single digits among Democrats — but King in key respects is the standout and most unconventional candidate in a wide-open field that includes a charismatic African-American mayor, Andrew Gillum; a woman, former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee; and a brash, multimillionaire Miami Beach entrepreneur, Philip Levine.

He consistently comes off as the best informed and most substantive candidate of the bunch, even though he is the only candidate with zero governing and political experience.

He is setting the agenda for other Democrats, including forcing discussion about Florida's growing affordable housing shortage. When King linked the health of the Everglades to special interest influence, his rivals gradually followed his lead in refusing to accept campaign money from the sugar industry.

Anybody polling within the margin of error of zero percent support after a year of campaigning is a serious longshot. Many veterans of Florida politics expected he would have dropped out of the race by now for lack of traction.
But it's too early to write him off. Not when no one has gained significant traction in the Democratic primary, and polls show more than 40 percent of likely primary voters are undecided.

King keeps impressing influential grass roots activists, money-raisers and big donors. He may not have reeled in the deep-pocketed supporters who can make or break statewide campaigns in Florida, but he has kept many of them on the sidelines.

"I think we've impressed them on the substance, and now they're saying, 'How's Chris going to pull it off?'" King said in an interview, declining to name major donors he is courting. "They're very pleased with how I match up in the general election, and now they are saying, 'But how is Chris going to get past Philip and Gwen and Andrew (in the primary)?'"

Orlando businessman Harold Mills grew a workforce management company, ZeroChaos, into a multi-billion dollar global business, Florida's largest black-owned firms and one of America's biggest.

Each of the Democratic gubernatorial candidates courted Mills, but he said King's substance and passion for policy and ideas — particularly his plans to expand technical and vocational education — blew him away. He also saw how well King connects with people at black churches.

As a Harvard undergrad, King focused on blending theology with social activism and philanthropy. He went on to start a development firm concentrating on affordable senior housing, raising money from investors looking to achieve both profits and social good.

"One of the beauties about this particular race is it's still wide open, with a whole bunch of undecided voters," said Mills, who recently became state chairman of King's campaign, stepping down as chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's Jacksonville branch so he can devote full attention to electing him governor.

"We're at a time in Florida history where we need new experiences and a new approach," Mills said. "In situations where you need a turnaround, you need a CEO not from the inside, but from the outside with new perspectives and ideas. I believe Chris is the candidate who is the most serious and solution-oriented."

Lisa Perry, a liberal activist in St. Petersburg who helped organize the women's marches after Donald Trump's election, recently signed on as King's regional campaign leader. Gillum calls himself the clear progressive choice for Florida Democrats, but Perry maintains King can claim that mantle, too.

"He's kind of flown under the radar, but once people learn about him and what his platform is, they really respond," she said. "He's got everything I've been looking for in terms of really pushing the progressive platform, but you also realize he's not as beholden to the political community."

Among King's ideas: offering student loan forgiveness to Florida students who go into critical professional fields; focusing on more affordable housing by stopping state legislators from "raiding" affordable housing; raising the minimum wage; expanding access to basic health insurance; and restoring voting rights to non-violent felons who have completed their sentences.

"I want to develop a brand where if I say something, I have double-checked it, triple-checked it, I've had an outside expert look at it, so you can take it to the bank, that every word is accurate," said King, who intends to roll out a series of policy initiatives soon.

"I want to be the big ideas candidate."

Good intentions don't make winning campaigns, of course, and King has more work than any other Democrat to win the nomination. Don't count him out.