It's a brisk Monday night in December and Andrew Gillum is standing on a small stage above a lively crowd gathered amid tiki torches on an outdoor second-floor terrace of a teachers' union headquarters overlooking Biscayne Boulevard.
The race for Florida governor was called for Republican Ron DeSantis nearly three weeks prior following a controversial recount, but the runner-up is still campaigning. In the wake of his narrow loss, Gillum continues to tour the state and country in promotion of the progressive causes that took him "within a rounding error" of becoming the governor-elect.
He is still attracting crowds. Still courting the press. And on this night, he is in Miami sounding like a man with unfinished business.
"Let us know that we still have work to do," Gillum says, riffing in seemingly one single breath through part of an 11-minute "thank you" speech that detoured onto education, wages, healthcare, the environment and guns. "Those challenges are still real today. They will be challenges for us tomorrow. Not one of us can take this election, put up our hands and walk away like the job is done. It's not done for me."
A woman shouts "2020!" Someone yells "Run for president!"
Despite losing by 33,000 votes to Republican governor-elect Ron DeSantis, Gillum's post-script campaign is still going strong even now, a full two years after he first sat in the home of then Florida Democratic Party chairwoman Alison Tant to discuss a dark-horse run for governor.
He is, for the first time since his days in college, without a political position, having stepped down as the mayor of Tallahassee last month due to term limits. And he is without a political organization to represent after giving up his longtime job with People for the American Way in order to launch his gubernatorial campaign.
But the framework of Gillum's campaign apparatus still exists, and he still has access to a network of thousands of volunteers and staffers who helped him become a national figure for Democrats during the 2018 midterms. Meanwhile, his state political committee continues to raise small-dollar donations. And he continues to generate buzz despite grousing among some Florida Democrats who believe he might have beaten DeSantis had he run a better campaign.
Still, with the 2020 presidential contest already looming, Gillum's name is now being floated among the dozens of Democrats who might challenge Donald Trump. A December meeting with Barack Obama in Washington and a report by the Associated Press of a Tuesday return to the nation's capital to speak with Democratic donors have done nothing to tamp down those rumors.
Nor has Gillum, who deflects when asked if he's considering a run.
For now, he says his only concrete plans are to continue promoting a progressive network in Florida rather than letting it atrophy and collapse. He's also taken a once-a-week teaching gig at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
"After I get a little renewal from that process, we're going together do the work that's required to transform the future of the state of Florida," Gillum told the crowd Monday at the United Teachers of Dade complex, where he laid out plans to champion new election laws, engage in field organizing and help with outreach to some 1.4 million felons whose voting rights are set to be restored next month following a state constitutional amendment.
The following are excerpts from that conversation.
You laid out a lot of what you're hoping to accomplish. In what role do you expect to accomplish those things?
As a citizen.
The elections reform stuff, but for legislation — and there may be opportunities, Democrats will be presenting a portfolio of them on Wednesday — there will be some opportunity to get some legislation up that might help to solve some of what I think are structural issues in the elections system here. There also may be in appropriate places some court battles. We have the Help America Vote Act and it recommended that people not wait longer than 30 minutes at a poll. They've got some other data around ballot placement. There's a lot of research behind some of what could potentially be done on the structural side.
On the work with felon — not just re-enfranchisement, but on the registration process as well as organizing and politicizing folks in a way that they connect their vote to something is improved in their own lives — there are 1.4 million people with the right to vote in the state who don't exercise it. Having the right to vote is not a panacea. The difficult work has to be done to organize and to civically engage people, whether they're former felons or just disaffected voters to engage in the process in a way they can believe in it. I don't think we do that work justice by only addressing it in the context of an election. I attempted it in the context of an election and It's hard work. I don't think we're going to be able to short-circuit that process. You have to put the time in. You have to find the resources to do greater and more in-depth canvassing when you talk to voters about what inspires them and what causes them to be afraid… That's what's required and I do not think right now we've done that part of the process justice."
It seems like there's a significant part of the population that looks at you, despite the loss, as the leader of the Florida Democratic Party. Do you feel that way?
No. I'm not the leader of the Democratic Party. I'm a Democrat but (Agriculture Commissioner-elect) Nikki Fried is the highest-ranking Democrat in the state and I think by default she's got an important role to play for providing leadership for the party. If there's something to do to be helpful I will be. But more important than any individual leader of the party, the only important work we'll be successful in accomplishing the engagements that have to happen between now and 2020 is with a vast grass-roots army. Yes, some paid organizing as well, but with a vast grass-roots army. I plan on using the significant organization we were able to build — yes, through the primary, but importantly through the primary, through the general election — that caused us to have about 100,000 volunteers that took action around the state. These are people who texted or phone banked or went door-to-door. That's a pretty significant group of people We've got more than 1,000 cell phone numbers able to open up communication with people directly. We've got a pretty vast email system and social media as a way of outreach as well. I don't want that to go dormant.
When you say that your role going forward is as a private citizen, you expect to be simply Andrew Gillum the college professor?
I think for the time being, I am. I know that I'm not done to elected office. There's something in me that still says I have a role to play going forward as a policy maker. In the meantime if I was sincere — and I was – about everything we talked about on the trail then losing an election can't be enough to get you to walk away. That would be half-hearted.
A lot of speculation that you might be considering a run for president in 2020. Are you?
I am only considering at this stage the role I'm going to play to help deliver Florida for whomever the Democratic nominee is going to be. I'm fully committed to that because it's the right thing to do and I presume we'll produce a really good strong contender in that process. But in my opinion it's a way to remind people that Florida is a state we've got to win.
So then you're not considering a run for president in 2020?
I am only considering right now what it means to do the difficult work of transforming our state for the Democrats.
What did you talk about when you met with President Obama?
Allegedly met with … (laughs) Good question. I don't have an answer.
Your political committee looked like it had a couple of million dollars left over after the election. Do you think spending that money would have made a difference?
I think if money could have won this election I would have spent any amount of money that I had access to and then some and encouraged more people to do more. I think we we experienced a pretty big inflow of support. Bills are still being paid that have to be paid. And if there is something left from that, I plan to put it toward doing some of the work that I think still has to happen: registration, civic engagement, and electoral reform.
Have you done any kind-of post-mortem on your loss?
We don't have the full data obviously from the secretary of state on all that happened in the process. As a candidate of course you go through the process of — I wonder if I'd spent less time in counties that weren't going to go for me and went elsewhere; If I'd accepted the endorsement from this person. I will tell you from the moment it was clear that we weren't going to be successful of course I went through that mental reckoning.
The first thing I had to do was to suspend with the idea that in a race where you lost by a rounding error — right? — that there was any one thing you could have done. I think that's foolish. I think anyone who attempts to write or speculate 'Well, that if you only had done dah dah dah it would have been, whatever.' I don't believe that anymore. I wanted to believe that originally, because it's an easier thing to have an answer. But after 8.2 million people voted and the difference is 33,000 it becomes real clear real fast that it isn't any one thing. It's a whole set of things or it's nothing at all. I think a hard number for me was seeing [U.S. Sen. Bill] Nelson with 40,000 more votes than me. I wondered, did those folks go vote for DeSantis and Nelson because they have so many things in common on the issues?
I gave it every single thing that I could as a candidate. So for that, the fact I did that as a candidate and the fact I can still recognize myself at the end of that process is heartening to me. That being said, it hurt me deeply that we didn't walk away with a win on this. It's not enough for me to say that we didn't win and therefore I'm done with the process. Now I'm trying to think, what role do I have? What responsibility do I have for the next nominee, for the next Democrat to compete in this vast and complicated state? I don't want to tell them I learned some lessons but because it didn't cause me to win it wasn't worth pursuing.
There's some electoral reform stuff we've got to do. Engagement stuff we've got to do. We've got to be in a regular conversation with voters. (Gov.) Rick Scott I think did a good job of doing that even as a sitting governor…. (Democrats) haven't had the luxury of that because we haven't had the resourcing that we need outside of election cycles to make those investments. If there's something I can do to improve that resourcing between now and 2020 I'm going to do it. Not for my benefit but for the benefit of whoever, at what level of government, is on Florida's ballot.
Have you taken a vacation yet?
Not yet but I'm looking forward to it. The funny thing is it takes time to wind down a $54 million operation. We went from $6 million in a primary where we were literally scraping by. I was literally rejoicing if we had enough money at the end of the month to pay the bills… There are consequences to that.
You have all the resources in the world you'll communicate with everybody for as long as you possibly can. Absent that you're literally going from zero to 100 sixty-plus days out from an election. Ideally if we'd done the difficult work to build the kind of infrastructure that's necessary you'd become the nominee and a whole set of infrastructure would exist for your inheritance. That's what happens when you don't have a governor who can raise for a party, a cabinet that can raise for a party, and an infrastructure that can be built and sustained over a long period of time. The results of what was or wasn't done is one we all have to shoulder as part of the process. We're not going to be able to short-circuit our way into a win.
What do you expect your role to be in Tallahassee?
I will be thoughtful in how I engage in the establishment in Tallahassee. My work is much more necessary in the field. I see my role being laboring in the field. And we'll go to Tallahassee and advocate there when our advocacy can help impact things and make a difference. But the vast set of resources we built over the course of the campaign has got to be nurtured and there's got to be maintenance and it's got to grow. And that's where my time and attention will be.