Bernie Sanders: Andrew Gillum can politically transform Florida

Friday's Tampa rally, which drew at least 1,000 people, exposed a conundrum for Democrats: Stay blue and true with a progressive, or play it safe and go with a centrist.
Bernie Sanders spoke at a campaign event for Andrew Gillum for governor on Friday in Tampa. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Bernie Sanders spoke at a campaign event for Andrew Gillum for governor on Friday in Tampa. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Aug. 17, 2018|Updated Aug. 17, 2018

TAMPA — The Bernie Sanders revolution came to Tampa Bay to help elect Andrew Gillum as the first unabashedly liberal governor in Florida history.

"Right here in Florida, you have the opportunity to not only transform this state politically by electing a strong progressive but you have an opportunity to send a message that will be heard all over the country," the Vermont Senator and unexpectedly formidable 2016 presidential contender declared to an overflow crowd of at least 1,000 people at Tampa's Armature Works.

The rally, two weeks before voters pick their nominees for governor, underscored a never-ending debate within the Democratic Party:

Should loyal Democrats back a true, blue progressive who can excite voters and motivate people who rarely vote?

Or are they more likely to win with centrist candidates who don't turn off swing voters wary of supporting someone perceived as too liberal.

Bernie Sanders and Andrew Gillum cheer after Sanders spoke at a Friday campaign event for Gillum for governor at Armature Works. [MONICA HERNDON | Tampa Bay Times]
Bernie Sanders and Andrew Gillum cheer after Sanders spoke at a Friday campaign event for Gillum for governor at Armature Works. [MONICA HERNDON | Tampa Bay Times]
“That’s what they said about Bernie, that he was too far to the left. The lesson may be that we should vote with our hearts more often,” said Kay Howell, a retired state worker holding a “Vote as if your life depends on it!” sign.

She voted for Hillary Clinton over Sanders in 2016, but in hindsight, she thinks Sanders would have been a stronger candidate against Donald Trump. Now she is still undecided between the proudly liberal and charismatic Tallahassee Mayor Gillum and Gwen Graham, who often reminds voters that she won over Republicans and moderate voters when she won her conservative north Florida congressional seat in 2014.

"Centrism, which is really right of center, has given us nothing — nothing," said Alex Symington, a semi-retired gardener from St. Petersburg. "We've tried that route and it hasn't worked. Let's try something different."

RELATED COVERAGE: Bernie Sanders draws a crowd for Andrew Gillum in Tampa

Indeed, Democrats have lost the last five governors races, mostly fielding cautious and conventional centrists from Tampa Bay — Bill McBride, Jim Davis, Alex Sink, and Charlie Crist. Between that track record and Trump's upset defeat of Clinton, the divide between the Democratic establishment and the liberal base is especially sharp this year.

"Progressives get ridiculed and stomped on in party primaries, but once the general election rolls around values-based left-leaning voters are expected to compromise and support the candidate with a D next to their names.

When the Democrat inevitably loses the General Election as 21 of the last 22 statewide candidates not named Bill Nelson have, progressives are blamed for depressing turnout or not enthusiastically backing the nominee," liberal Florida activist Kartik Krishnaiyer fumed earlier this week on his blog, The Florida Squeeze.

"Some of the people in this race for governor believe we've got to run as Republican flight in order to win Florida ….Our voters are going to stay home if they have choose between someone pretending to be a Republican and someone who is a real Republican," Gillum, 39, said Friday.

An African-American, the only non-millionaire in the race, and consistently the Democrat who can fire up crowds, Gillum contends he is best equipped to motivate infrequent voters who often stay at home in midterm elections.

The counter argument is that the Democratic base already is fired up by President Trump and Rick Scott. Polls consistently show Trump's support among college-educated women has fallen since his election, giving Democrats a prime opportunity to win over disaffected Republican women and moderate independents. Democrats lost the last two gubernatorial campaigns by about 1 percentage point, so it would not take much.

But someone perceived as too liberal — say a Tallahassee mayor who in a recent forum declined to say whether he considers himself a capitalist or a socialist — would turn them off, the thinking goes.

"You have to do both, and you have to do it authentically," Democratic pollster David Beattie said of the debate over statewide candidates focusing on swing voters or energizing the base. "Florida is a 50/50 state, which means you can't ignore one and win with the other."

Sanders, 76, has had an uneven track record in terms of his endorsed progressives going on to win Democratic primaries, but he told the boisterous Tampa crowd that a progressive agenda is a mainstream agenda.

"I have the radical idea that in Florida and throughout this country we need a government that represents all of us, not the 1 percent," said Sanders, periodically drawing chants of Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!

"Andrew and I are going to help lead the country on Medicare for all," he said.

"Andrew understands that instead of giving tax breaks to millionaires and large corporations, we're going to invest in our children when we invest in public education. Andrew understands that democracy means one person, one vote — not billionaires buying elections."

Inside the hall, Danielle Quina, 29, was just a few rows back from the stage. Sporting a blue Gillum shirt and matching campaign sign, the self-described "huge progressive" attends Florida Gulf Coast University.

Quina has supported Gillum since she first researched the gubernatorial candidates shortly after he entered the race. "He's the only one speaking about detailed reforms and social justice for people," Quina said.

For her, Sanders' endorsement was the "icing on the cake." Quina was a Sanders supporter in the 2016 Democratic primary, and when he lost out she took her vote to third-party candidate Jill Stein. It's a move she'll consider repeating in this year's governor's race if Gillum does not win the nomination.

Winter Park businessman Chris King is the only other candidate that interests her, she said, as he has an entrepreneurial background and she agrees with his values. The other candidates are too aligned with the establishment.

"I don't want to be complicit in policies that I don't agree with," she said, explaining she does not align herself with the "tribalism of parties." Quina said she appreciates the authenticity of Sanders and Gillum.

The mayor's campaign has been hampered by the shadow of an ongoing FBI corruption investigation into Tallahassee City Hall, but even as he lags in campaign money he remains a favorite among the party's activist base as well as billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer and liberal celebrities from Jane Fonda to Norman Lear.

Gillum said Sanders' endorsement should compensate for the limited money he has had for TV ads.

"It's no secret we haven't won the money war," he said. "It's prohibited us from getting on their TV screens…It's a way to get my candidacy into the mix and the news," especially with people who might still be unaware he is a candidate.

Gillum added Sanders' camp reached out to him, after he completed a questionnaire for Our Revolution and received the endorsement of the group. We "got outreach from Sen. Sanders' office… we didn't actually reach out to them, they reached out to us."

After meeting with some of his advisors, he had a phone call with Sanders, and two weeks after that, Sanders called back: "I'd like to help."

Having a high-profile surrogate come to the state like this and spend a day "campaigning across the (Interstate-4) corridor with me… the timing couldn't be any better," he said.

Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau staff writer Elizabeth Koh and Times staff writer Bre Bradham contributed to this report.