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Andrew Gillum and Donald Trump energize black voters

Highly motivated and energized black voters who could add tens of thousands of votes to the tally Democratic candidates usually see in off-year elections.
Power Circle Barber Roderick Stokes is supporting gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum in November's general election in Tampa, Florida. "He's more what we need in Florida right now," said Stokes. "Gillum is in touch with the people." "It's time for a Democrat to be in office." (OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times )
Power Circle Barber Roderick Stokes is supporting gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum in November's general election in Tampa, Florida. "He's more what we need in Florida right now," said Stokes. "Gillum is in touch with the people." "It's time for a Democrat to be in office." (OCTAVIO JONES | Times )
Published Oct. 26, 2018
Updated Oct. 26, 2018

TAMPA — Inside the Power Circle barber shop, Roderick Stokes paused from cutting a customer's hair to talk about how he's never heard black voters talk about politics as much as this year.

"When Ron DeSantis made that monkey comment about (Andrew) Gillum, that was the main topic in the barber shop for a long time," he said.
A couple miles away at Beulah Baptist Institutional, church trustee Lester Pelemon recounted going to see a women's choir performance at another black church a few days earlier.

"That's all those kids were talking about, Andrew Gillum and the election," said Pelemon, a retiree. "We're beating the bushes for him."

Lester Pelemon a volunteer at Beulah Baptist Institutional Church is a fervent supporter of gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum who believes the candidate can win the general election in November. (OCTAVIO JONES | Times)
Lester Pelemon a volunteer at Beulah Baptist Institutional Church is a fervent supporter of gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum who believes the candidate can win the general election in November. (OCTAVIO JONES | Times)

Church administrator Carolyn Osborn chimed in. "He's been campaigning the right way — going around to cities and rural areas talking to people about issues like health care. He started with nothing, nobody thinking he could win, and he did."

Widespread conversations like these about Florida's first black gubernatorial nominee point to a prospect never before seen in a midterm election: Highly motivated and energized black voters who could add tens of thousands of votes to the tally Democratic candidates usually see in off-year elections.

Nothing is certain 10 days out from Election Day, but the evidence is more than anecdotal that Gillum is firing up black voters. So is President Donald Trump.

• • •

Just look at the August primary results in Hillsborough County, home to Tampa Bay's biggest black population.

In the 2010 primary, just 14 percent of registered black Democrats cast votes. In 2014, 18 percent did. In August, voter turnout among black Democrats jumped to a whopping 32 percent — higher than other Democrats.

"The energy and enthusiasm is a little different than we had during the Obama years," said Tampa resident Lydia Hudson, who leads the Democratic Black Caucus of Florida. "Obama was very motivational, but now there is so much division and hate, mostly coming from the leader of our country. People are saying, 'I don't like the way this country is going. I'm not seeing a positive change in my life.' "

Overall turnout among Florida voters is much lower in non-presidential elections (51 percent in 2014 versus 75 percent in 2016), and Democratic turnout tends to be significantly lower than Republican turnout. Black voters, overwhelmingly Democratic, turn out at even lower rates in midterms.

Gillum's upset primary victory over Gwen Graham and three other major candidates stemmed from his strength in Florida counties with the largest black populations, such as Duval, Orange, Broward, Miami-Dade and Hillsborough.

In Tampa Bay, 15 percent of Hillsborough's electorate is black and 8 percent of Pinellas' is. Gillum won Hillsborough by nearly 6 percentage points, and Graham won Pinellas by 16.

Black voter turnout could be decisive this year, since the vote is so overwhelmingly Democratic — 85 percent went for Democratic nominee Charlie Crist in 2014, according to exit polls.

A 2 percentage-point increase in black turnout overall would mean roughly 34,000 more voters — more than half of Rick Scott's margin of victory four years ago.

Nearly 8 in 10 black voters are registered Democrat, and fewer than 4 percent Republican. The remainder are registered to neither major party, and at least one black Republican activist sees those as ripe for the GOP.

"Both sides are doing a poor, poor job reaching out to the (independent black) voters, who I think will decide this election," said George Farrell, chairman of the BlakPac political committee and part-time Pinellas County resident.

"The real wedge issue for black voters is education," he said, suggesting that Gillum's hostility to school vouchers for private schools could turn off many black parents who use them.

• • •

At the Open Cafe in East Tampa, hair stylist Sabrina Colas said she's paying attention to this year's state election in a way she hasn't before.

"There are a lot of people who don't think it's important to vote, but we were thinking that nobody's going to do anything they campaign on," she said. "Gillum is different. He seems to be that leader who represents the majority so you think, 'Well, we can vote for someone who really could make a difference and who you feel comfortable with.' "

Diners were unanimous that black turnout would increase this year, but at least as many attributed it to President Trump.

Florence Gainer, left, a volunteer at the Open Cafe helps serve lunch plates to patrons in Tampa. Gainer is a supporter of gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum. (OCTAVIO JONES | Times)
Florence Gainer, left, a volunteer at the Open Cafe helps serve lunch plates to patrons in Tampa. Gainer is a supporter of gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum. (OCTAVIO JONES | Times)

"One of my parishioners said to me, 'Are you going to vote Gillum, who supports same-sex marriage?' " said Florence Gainer, 64, working behind the cash register. "I love the Lord, I'm saved. But there are issues other than abortion and same-sex marriage. Racism is a sin, too, and Trump is a racist and a sexist, and you're going to vote for people he endorses? The way we're treating these immigrants trying to come in, putting their children in cages? That's not making America great."

The voters consistently spoke of Gillum enthusiastically, but almost no one brought up Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, who's facing a tough re-election challenge from Gov. Rick Scott.

"I'm sorry Nelson is the way he is — he's an older gentleman and he's been there a long time — but that's all we've got right now on the blue ticket," Gainer said.

James Cole who’s a fervent supporter of gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum expresses the importance of the black vote during the general election in November at the Open Cafe in Tampa. (OCTAVIO JONES | Times)
James Cole who’s a fervent supporter of gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum expresses the importance of the black vote during the general election in November at the Open Cafe in Tampa. (OCTAVIO JONES | Times)

James Cole, a 47-year-old office manager and Gillum campaign volunteer, shrugged off allegations about an FBI corruption investigation.

"If anything I think it will make people work harder, if that's possible, to elect Andrew Gillum," Cole said. "Accusations against African-Americans are nothing new to us as a community. We know what it's like to have the legal finger being (wrongly) pointed at us."

Issues, at least as much as personalities, are driving enthusiasm, many black voters said. People repeatedly mentioned health care, school funding and the proposed constitutional amendment that would restore voting rights to many felons who have completed their sentences.

"There's a real feeling of consequence if this election goes the other way — voting rights, health care," said Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch. "All these things are at stake, and they have a disproportionate impact on the black community."

Corey Givens, Jr., a 26-year-old president of the St. Petersburg Poor People's Campaign, said even younger voters are engaged and that Republican talk of a booming Florida economy rings hollow.

"What I'm finding when I talk to members of my church of my generation is they're concerned that there are no jobs out there for us that pay what we have to pay back in student loans," he said. "There aren't enough homes out there that we can afford to buy making what we make."

Voters are so tuned in, he said, that record black turnout is likely this midterm election.

More than 2 million Floridians already have cast mail and in-person votes, for a total turnout of more than 15 percent, according to a Florida Chamber of Commerce analysis. Black turnout so far is 9 percent.

In the past two midterms, black turnout was close to 42 percent, according to University of Florida professor Daniel Smith, significantly lower than turnout overall.

"There's definitely more interest than four years ago. Charlie Crist had a relationship with black folks, but there's a lot more excitement about Gillum," Pastor Charles Davis said at the Open Cafe. "A lot of people are involved this year that haven't been before. They've been motivated by what's going on. Trump is a big part. Most black folks see this as an opportunity to send message."

Gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum campaign commercial airs on a television at the Open Cafe in the Jackson Heights neighborhood in Tampa. (OCTAVIO JONES | Times)
Gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum campaign commercial airs on a television at the Open Cafe in the Jackson Heights neighborhood in Tampa. (OCTAVIO JONES | Times)