TAMPA — Former Tallahassee mayor and Democratic nominee for governor stopped by University of South Florida on Thursday to deliver a $100,000 check to the state Democratic Party.
After the event, Gillum sat down with the Tampa Bay Times where he discussed the changes to Amendment 4, who Democrats should elect in 2020, his former rival Ron DeSantis and what is wrong with the state party.
John Morgan recently insinuated that you were sitting on campaign money and maybe saving it for your political aspirations. What is your response to that but also this idea that he floated that you can use that money to help pay the restitution of people felons so they can vote?
One, I would encourage John to use his resources to help the Florida rights restoration coalition. I’m assuming it would not even create a dent for him. We have already stated our intention here and that is with every dollar that I have and every dollar that we raise, every resource we get access to, it is going toward the effort of registering and reengaging one million voters. I don’t thin there’s a more important task between now and the election than organizing Democrats around the state and recruiting and registering more Democrats in the state. When Obama was on the ballot in 2008, Democrats had a near 700,000 registration advantage over Republicans. Ten years later when I was on the ballot, that advantage had shrank to around 250,000.
I also find it offensive that before the governor has even signed into law this (Amendment 4) legislation that we are not marshaling every effort that we can around holding him accountable for doing what 65 percent of the people in this state decided that they wanted done. Why should the people of the state of Florida, why should the amendment folks who worked on that amendment be the ones now financially responsible for now solving a problem that didn’t exist but for the Florida legislature creating it? I’d love to see Mr. Morgan dedicate a portion of the great lawyers that he has within his firm to helping to wage the legal battle that I think should ensue if the governor signs this poll tax into law. I’m mostly interested in being in partnership here. It makes no sense to be in a circular firing squad. I’m not interested in that and that doesn’t win elections. What wins elections is registering a million people and turning out as many of those folks as you can in a state that gets determined by 1 percent.
At this point, do feel like the FBI investigation is long behind you? Or are you waiting for another shoe to drop?
I’m not waiting for any shoes to drop. What I would want because I love Tallahassee — that’s the place where I’ve chosen to build my family, it’s where my children were born and where I still live, I was mayor of the city, it breaks my heart to see our community not being valued for all the great things it has or had going on. I understood running for the highest office in the state of Florida, I would have to deal with that over the course of the election. I think a lot of those attacks were unwarranted but they were what they were and the outcome was what it was. I do hope that whatever the FBI is up to that they bring it to a speedy conclusion. I think that would be in the best interest of my city, but also for the individuals involved.
Do you intend to endorse sometime in the Democratic presidential primary?
I haven’t made that decision. The decision that I’ve made is that I am going to do everything that I can, this registration being a part of it, to make Florida ready to go blue. I choose the word “ready” precisely because I don’t think this is going to be “find the nominee who is most electable and get behind that person” because I don’t think Republicans necessarily did that. I think that their process resulted in a nominee and they went to work to produce a win. While I have a lot of friends in this race for president, I like a number of them, whoever ends up becoming the Democratic nominee, I want to make sure we can deliver 29 electoral votes from Florida to that individual.
Who do you consider friends? Who have you spoken to in the last six months?
Who haven’t I? I’ve talked to a great deal of them. Many of them came in to help me. That’d be no surprise, from Sen. (Cory) Booker, to Sen. (Kamala) Harris, to Secretarry (Julian) Castro, to Sen. (Bernie) Sanders, (New York Mayor) Bill DeBlasio came in and helped, I’ve sat down with (Sen. Amy) Klobuchar. Obviously (former Vice President) Joe Biden. So I’ve met with quite a few them, and I talked to them.
The Biden visit toward the end of the race and the Sanders visit toward the end of the primary were two of the most critical moments in your race. They were huge rallies. There are a lot of people in your party, though, who feel like we’re long past electing older white men. Do you agree with that sentiment? Should Democrats be looking intentionally towards a woman or a person of color?
No, I think we should be intentionally looking toward a candidate who is going to cast a big, bold vision for where they want to take America. I don’t think we want a candidate who is going to base their candidacy on frankly getting down in the mud and fighting with Donald Trump every day. I don’t think that’s a path to victory. My grandmother used to have a saying, “When you wrestle with pigs, you both get dirty but the pig likes it.” Donald Trump is the pig in this scenario and he does incredibly well in the mud. At the end of the day, most of the voters, particularly the ones that we’re going to have to move, those who have to make choices around which bills are they going to pay ... they’re going to want to hear a candidate talking about what is they’re going to do to make my life better. I do not believe that we should discriminate a candidate simply because they’re a white male or because they are a woman or because they are young. I think what I’m going to be looking for is someone who casts a really big, bold vision and yes has the capacity to fight Donald Trump where necessary but mostly will concentrate their race on what it is they’re going to do for the people of this country.
If you were to pick out that one thing and say if we had done this as a party in 2018, we would be in Tallahassee right now, what would it be?
I think we should have done more on registration. I absolutely believe as a party we should have done better with the Latino community. We did see 2 million more people turn out to vote in a gubernatorial election than were expected. So it’s not as though people sat completely on their hands.
As someone who was one of the early backers of Amendment 4, what do you think about the conversation now among Democrats about whether or not people who are in prison should be allowed to vote?
Unfortunately, in this state we can’t even get those who are out of prison voting, right? The priority I would put on this is how do we make sure that what was passed by an overwhelming majority of people in our state gets implemented. It’s the constitution of the state of Florida. And the fact the Legislature has acted in my opinion purely politically even though the total number of the 1.4 million, there probably are more white people in that number than there are people of color, yet, the early registration numbers show us that blacks took strong advantage of the passage of Amendment 4 and I think (lawmakers) concluded, “why have an X factor at all.”
But do you think it’s silly for Democrat candidates to have that conversation, or is it a conversation worth having?
So first, if we pull back the layers of this, we know that we have tens of thousands if not millions of people who are in jails without having been convicted of a crime. There are folks who for a year maybe have been awaiting their time in court. So they have not been found guilty, they’ve been accused. I still consider this a debate that is a luxury right now for those of us in Florida when we are still dealing with a poll tax. So my recommendation to those running for president and they come into the state of Florida, talk about Amendment 4, talk about the constitution of the state of Florida and talk about why it is unconstitutional to put a poll tax on individuals as a criteria for being able to exercise a constitutional duty and responsibility. Should we have a conversation around what happens with incarcerated individuals? If folks want to have that conversation, fine.
Do you see any problems with the size of the Democratic field?
I trust the process. We had a lot of people in ‘07-’08. The field obviously began to clear after a few of the debates and the early primaries. I trust that the same thing is going to happen here. Contested races do not bother me. I was in one myself. I would betray my own personal success if I wasn’t an advocate for contested primaries. We are a very, very diverse primary. We have the most diverse presidential field in the history of the United States, both in youth and in age and in sexual orientation. We’re hitting on a lot of cylinders here. And so, whoever emerges from this race will be in my opinion the right person because the Democratic voters will have had the opportunity to kick the tires on all of them and make a choice. I’m less concerned about the who and much more concerned about the mechanics in states like Florida that are gonna be necessary to produce that person as the beneficiary of our 29 electoral votes.
The 1 million people you want to add in 2019, do you have a plan for that number or is that an aspirational goal?
We have a plan to get there. And I should say registration and re-engagement. Part of the reengagement are those individuals who haven’t voted in the previous three elections. So they may have been on the voter rolls but have basically gone defunct. We’re going to go after those individuals and bring them back into the fold. On paper, with the coalition of groups that we’ve brought together, we see a plan toward 600,000 registrations. But the registration and reengagement in total is a million.
What’s wrong with the Democratic Party in this state?
I think people have treated Florida very transactionally. I think we’re an important place for presidential elections. And then the infrastructure, the money, the resources that are really needed to build a sustained grassroots organization, they go away until the next presidential contest comes around. You can’t win a state like Florida, you cannot establish a state of political dominance like Florida, especially when you’ve got Republicans who are working overtime on suppression tactics, without full-time, year-in and year-out political organizing and engagement. We’re not going to be able to short circuit our way to a win. We’re not just going to be able to pray for that inspiring nominee who makes all of our hearts melt and that’s what will deliver us a win.
I do think we need a good strong candidate, but I think a win or a loss is going to happen in the mechanics on the ground. In a state like Florida, I firmly believe that we’ll know and have a good sense of whether we’re well positioned to win or not based on what our ground game looks like as we head into the summer months of 2020. If we’ve got real confidence in our registration and our contact with those voters and our door knocking effort, our ability to turn people out, then I’ll feel confident about us. I’m one of those people who hasn’t really gotten obsessed with this conversation about what does the nominee need to look like. Having come through a race in this state six months ago after two years on the trail, I’m more convinced now than ever that elections are won and lost in the mechanics and the candidate is an important part of those mechanics but what it looks like on the ground matters.
This session we saw nearly every Democrat vote for a massive toll road expansion (despite objections from environmentalists). There were opportunities to use legislative obstruction to stop some of these more sweeping measures from going through toward the end of session. There are a lot of Democrats in this state who would say, “With Democrats like this, who needs Republicans?” What is your reaction to the way Democrats in Tallahassee get by or get ahead by working with Republicans versus standing together as a minority?
The Democrats in the House and the Senate this session were drinking from a fire hose of a far-right conservative agenda being flushed down their throats. They had to deal with the underfunding of public education and the diversion of money away from the public school system. They had to deal with arming teachers. They had to deal with the fight around Amendment 4 and the practical nullification of Amendment 4. They had to deal with, in my opinion, probably the most conservative agenda we’ve seen in this state since Gov. Bush’s first term. That’s a lot to handle. I was actually impressed frankly in the Senate with some of the votes where the leadership was able to keep the caucus pretty much hook, line and sinker together. So I’m not really in the camp of the fact that they didn’t do a good enough job. They had a lot to combat and I think a lot of these members learned very early that the Republicans had no interest in working with them.
DeSantis came out of the gates earning a lot of good will from a lot of people with his environmental messaging. Gwen Graham gave him kudos off the bat, Bob Buckhorn and other folks were cheering the decisions he made. Do you think those Democrats were too quick to praise him before session?
I was often asked in the early days of the DeSantis administration how I thought he was doing. I had to quote my grandmother. She used to say, “The proof is not in the pudding, the proof is in the eating of the pudding.” I’m not interested in the veneer of it all, I’m interested in the substance of it. And what I know about the substance of it is this is the governor who signed into law the arming of teachers. This is the governor who indicated that he plans to sign into law the practical nullification of Amendment 4. This is a governor who refuses to tell the people who elected him to office which two countries in the state that he’s governor of was hacked. Y’all have surveyed 67 counties and not one of them said it’s them. So the proof is in the eating of the pudding. I think that it is most important what this governor does and not what he says and based on what I’ve seen so far I’m very, very disappointed in this last legislative session. It’s gotta be our job to make sure people don’t get allured by the shiny object while we’re all being jammed on the backend by the legislation that’s being signed into law.
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This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.