How Andrew Gillum lost Florida’s governor’s race

Revelation from a former ally days before Election Day appeared to damage the Tallahassee mayor just enough to undercut Gillum’s campaign-trail claims that he was not under investigation by the FBI
OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times 
Florida Gubernatorial Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum gives a campaign speech at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida, on Thursday, October 25, 2018.
OCTAVIO JONES | Times Florida Gubernatorial Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum gives a campaign speech at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida, on Thursday, October 25, 2018.
Published Nov. 7, 2018|Updated Nov. 7, 2018

It would be another 30 months before he'd know it, but Andrew Gillum's campaign for Florida governor was over before it even began, killed in the spring of 2016 by poisoned filet mignon, twice-baked sweet potatoes and Southern-style strawberry shortcake.

In the two-story All Saints apartment of Tallahassee lobbyist Adam Corey, Gillum, the mayor of the city, welcomed a few dozen consultants, businessmen and supporters to the first fundraiser for a political committee that would go on to fuel his as-yet announced statewide run. The $37,400 haul was modest, all things considered. People who attended barely remember the scene. But the food and spirits, prepared and provided by Corey's 101 Restaurant and Mint Lounge and billed to out-of-town developer Mike Miller, would prove memorable.

The quiet event remained unremarkable for more than two years. And it could have been nothing more than a footnote in the historic campaign of Florida's would-be first African-American governor had Corey not turned on Gillum, his former friend, in the fallout of an FBI investigation. Just days before Tuesday's election, Corey dumped emails appearing to show that Miller — now known to be an undercover agent — had been sent a bill (and a "thank you" note) for the catering.

Heaped onto a growing pile of baggage, the revelation appeared to damage the Tallahassee mayor just enough to undercut Gillum's campaign-trail claims that he was not under investigation by the FBI as the federal authority spent months seeking out corruption in Florida's capital city. Already sputtering from emails and text messages that showed he took a Manhattan boat ride with Miller and Corey in New York in August of 2016 and went to a Broadway showing of "Hamilton" on a ticket purchased by Miller, Gillum's campaign lost its rudder and stalled just shy of the finish line.

"If he loses, it will be because of the positions he had to take in the primary," said a source familiar with Gillum's campaign. "And it will be the FBI stuff."

The FBI's interest in Tallahassee — which seemed to revolve around the activities of a public redevelopment agency — was especially damaging to Gillum because his campaign was based so heavily on his personality, life story and charm. For more than a year, Gillum was his campaign's greatest asset, using his gift of gab to sell voters on a liberal agenda in a moderate state.

In the primary election, when he scraped by with a shoestring budget and a bare-bones team, Gillum's campaign was based heavily around him. While former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine could spend millions on TV commercials and Gwen Graham could tap into a sprawling network based around her family's decades of politicking in Florida, Gillum was forced to survive by winning voters and donors across the state and outworking his opponents.

"We put him on the road all the time," said a person familiar with the campaign. "If there were voters to talk to, or if there was money to be raised, he was there."

After Gillum won the primary, his campaign held focus groups to test just how damaging the coming attacks on the FBI investigation would be. His Democratic opponents never raised the issue, so Gillum's team gathered voters to hear about details of the probe and then watch recorded interviews of Gillum defending himself. The outcome: voters had questions, but felt reassured when they heard Gillum's explanations.

It was a media distraction, at best, his campaign always believed. "It helped that he had the truth on his side," said one insider.

But Gillum's campaign appeared to have a blind spot. Gillum was already walking a tightrope — selling the nation's largest swing state on a liberal agenda he adopted in the primary. Not only were they wrong about his ability to rally Democrats enough to overcome a historical midterm malaise and capitalize on anti-Trump sentiment, they were wrong about the liability posed by the FBI investigation.

A loss was "not even possible," senior Gillum adviser Sharon Lettman-Hicks said Monday. "The light switch on the entire power grid in the state would have to go out for a chance of anything" other than a Gillum victory.

But Ron DeSantis, the GOP nominee — and now the next governor of Florida — hammered Gillum from the first minutes of the campaign and never stopped swinging. In just about every interview with reporters, he attacked Gillum as a "corrupt" mayor and cast him as a socialist who would take Florida's purring economy and drive it into the ground. Controversially, DeSantis also said the morning after the primary elections that voters shouldn't "monkey this up" by electing Gillum, a remark the Tallahassee mayor and many others believed was an attempt to make the race all about his race.

Then, the week that Hurricane Michael hit North Florida, DeSantis and the Republican Party of Florida released a devastating commercial that claimed Gillum was "running from the FBI," and suggested that trips he'd taken to Costa Rica with lobbyist friends and to New York with FBI agents were "illegal." Gillum's campaign sent cease-and-desist letters to every TV station in the state.

They were unsuccessful pulling the ad off the air. As weary Panhandle residents watched TV for news of the approaching hurricane, they saw Gillum, calm, collected and reassuring — and then on commercial breaks they saw Gillum, appearing ominous and unreliable.

The attack helped DeSantis paint Gillum as untrustworthy. At a rally with DeSantis in Estero on Halloween, President Donald Trump painted a dystopian picture of what would happen to Florida were Gillum elected, warning of overrun borders, heroin flooding the streets and an economy spiraling into inflation like Venezuela.

"I'm the only guy that can credibly say I'm not under investigation for corruption," DeSantis told a raucous crowd, pivoting to Gillum's desire to impeach Trump. "This is a guy that took bribes from an undercover FBI agent, took money from a lobbyist, did favors for a lobbyist. Maybe we should impeach Gillum as mayor of Tallahassee."

"Lock him up!" they yelled.

Gillum's team seemed to hope that the scandal would fade. But instead, Corey — a man whom Gillum once called "brother" in text messages, only to sever ties after he was named in an FBI subpoena — began releasing damaging emails and texts as early voting started. Ironically, Corey, who was a constant presence in Tallahassee politics and in Gillum's life, was never around his campaign for governor until the end, when he seemed to try to tank it.

Gillum's campaign believed Corey was coordinating with Florida Republicans. They noted that Corey's attorney, Chris Kise, once served on Gov. Rick Scott's 2010 transition team. DeSantis, in the opponents' first debate before the documents were released, appeared to try and set a trap, questioning Gillum about his "Hamilton" ticket like a prosecutor. In their final debate, after emails and texts had come out, DeSantis called Gillum a liar.

"This politics thing is not easy. People judge you," Gillum said in late October after Corey released the documents, speaking to an audience at a Plantation synagogue. "They make assumptions about you. In this process, you watch in some ways your entire life's body of work turned upside down such to the point that you almost don't recognize yourself in what you see."

It was shades of Decision 2016, when Hillary Clinton led Trump all the way until election day and then collapsed beneath the weight of a James Comey FBI probe. On Tuesday, after Gillum led in just about every poll, the bottom gave out on his campaign for governor.

And in Florida, the phrase "But her emails…" may be replaced by, "But his 'Hamilton' ticket."

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau reporter Elizabeth Koh contributed to this story.