LAKE BUENA VISTA — It’s opening night at the Florida Democratic Party’s summer conference at Disney World and Andrew Gillum looks as if he might really be in the happiest place on earth.
The crowds are thinning and last call has come and gone, but the state party’s biggest star has stuck around to smile for group photos in the halls of the Yacht & Beach Club Convention Center and laugh with friends out on a terrace. A camera crew follows him around, capturing footage to feed his trademark hype videos.
June has not been an especially kind month to the former Tallahassee mayor. Exactly two years ago, his campaign for governor went into a temporary tailspin after news emerged that the FBI was investigating public corruption at City Hall, and he’s spent the last two weeks answering questions about a newly issued federal grand jury subpoena seeking information on his 2018 campaign.
But if there was any anxiety in Orlando from Gillum or among the grassroots, it was buried deep beneath the surface. Gillum, exhibiting his typical exuberance, hugged and schmoozed his way into a small ballroom for a personal reception to rally the troops — and clear the air.
“I want y’all to know that while we’re being compliant through whatever inquiry they may have, we are not going to be distracted!” Gillum said from a platform overlooking a crowd that cheered him on. “We’ve got a job to do.”
This is the new normal for Gillum and Florida Democrats. For two years now they have run in the same direction, toward a goal of winning the nation’s premier battleground state and away from the controversy that nips at his heels.
The FBI’s drama at Tallahassee City Hall didn’t stop Gillum from winning the Democratic primary in the race for governor and never did point strongly in his direction. But it appeared to hurt him during a general election that he lost by a margin of 0.4% — so tiny he refers to it as “a rounding error.”
This election cycle, Gillum won’t be on the ballot, but failure would have even deeper consequences. Florida Democrats probably need him more than ever to be successful if they’re going to beat Donald Trump in 2020.
“I’ll take the slings. I’ll take the arrows. I’ll take the name-calling,” he told the crowd before taking a group selfie. “I’ll take all of that so long as I know that you all are in this with me to organize this state and turn out our voters.”
Following his loss in November, Gillum kept his massive network of volunteers and activists together — much of it under a new nonprofit called Bring it Home Florida — to form the core of an ambitious voter registration movement. He announced plans in March to register “or re-engage” 1 million voters, and has since acted as the rainmaker and glue-guy for a large collection of progressive-minded nonprofits already going about the work of mobilizing voters.
Strategists in attendance in Orlando all pegged that registration effort as the foundation of the party’s strategy to end a string of narrow losses and reclaim Barack Obama’s successes in 2008 and 2012. And heading into 2020, Republicans and Democrats alike believe that Donald Trump cannot survive a loss in Florida next November.
“Andrew is in a very interesting role, and I think he’s one of the folks in the state that can bring c3s and c4s together and the party to the table, and we all can sit and work together so we’re rowing in the same direction,” said Juan Peñalosa, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party.
And that’s what makes Gillum’s problems potentially the party’s problems.
New legal woes?
A federal subpoena quietly issued this year sought information into Gillum, his gubernatorial campaign and Forward Florida political committee. The subpoena, first reported May 30 by the Tampa Bay Times, also demanded information on a longtime mentor who paid him as a consultant during his gubernatorial campaign and a billionaire donor who gave his political committee $1.5 million during the general election.
The adviser, Sharon Lettman-Hicks, is currently a staffer for the Florida Democratic Party, which is paying her to coordinate Gillum’s voter outreach campaign, and a board member on a newly registered Gillum company. The donor — mega-booster Donald Sussman — gave $27 million to federal races in 2018 alone.
Both are at a minimum bad for optics, and the naming of Sussman caught the attention of other Democratic donors. Sussman could not be reached for comment.
But people familiar with his thinking say he isn’t so upset by publicity around the Gillum subpoena that he’s going to stop giving to Democratic causes in Florida. And while fundraising records for June won’t be available for another month, there are no signs currently that the deep-pocketed donors who Gillum so successfully attracted to his gubernatorial campaign are jumping ship.
Gillum told reporters in Orlando that he hasn’t spoken with Sussman but said he’s raised $800,000 “over the last several weeks,” including $250,000 in recent days. State records show that May was the best fundraising month that Gillum’s political committee, Forward Florida, has had since he lost the election, but the vehicle Gillum is using to fund the voter registration effort, a 501c4 called Forward Florida Action, only reports fundraising totals to the IRS once a year.
Democratic leaders, meanwhile, say they aren’t worried about the subpoena becoming more than a distraction to the party’s efforts overall. “One person is not the party,” Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said in Orlando just minutes after Gillum addressed a crowd in his own reception. “I think that people are excited and energized to register as Democrats.”
Gillum did seem to hedge a little when talking about his voter registration drive, framing the idea of registering or re-engaging 1 million voters as a high-water mark. He said even if “marginally successful,” the effort could prove consequential in the presidential election.
When Gillum lost to Ron DeSantis, Democrats had an advantage in registered voters over Republicans by roughly 260,000. A decade earlier, Obama enjoyed a Democratic voter advantage of nearly 700,000.
“I don’t underestimate the fact that it is a distraction, without a doubt. But as I’ve told our people we ran an open and an honest campaign, and I stand by the work that we did there,” he told reporters. “I’m pretty well convinced that regardless of what happens with that inquiry we’re going to hit our mark.”
If Gillum’s reception in Orlando is any indication, he continues to have the party’s activist wing behind him.
Danielle Thomas, an education activist from Orlando who volunteered for Gillum’s campaign last year, hugged him as he walked into his gathering in Orlando. He asked her about her parents. She told him it was good to see him again.
Thomas, who met Gillum while lobbying on education issues in the state capital, said she sometimes calls Gillum directly to talk, and they’ve already had conversations about the latest interest from federal investigators. “It’s hard to hear,” she said. “He and I have had a couple conversations about that.”
But Thomas, like so many who have met Gillum since he launched his run for governor, has a relationship that means more to her than news articles about federal subpoenas or campaign trail attack ads. She said she trusts that he’s done everything with good intentions, and that he’s going to be successful.
“There are some of us who will support him,” she said, “whatever he does next.”