Andrew Gillum entering rehab to treat alcohol abuse after hotel incident

The Democrat will be ‘stepping down from all public facing roles for the foreseeable future,’ he said in a statement late Sunday.
Andrew Gillum the Democrat candidate for governor speaks at a news conference.
Andrew Gillum the Democrat candidate for governor speaks at a news conference. [ STEVE CANNON | Associated Press (2018) ]
Published March 16, 2020|Updated March 16, 2020

MIAMI — Days after police say they found him in a South Beach hotel room with a collapsed companion and baggies of crystal meth, former Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum announced plans Sunday night to enter rehab for alcohol abuse.

"After conversation with my family and deep reflection, I have made the decision to seek help, guidance and enter a rehabilitation facility at this time," Gillum said in a statement. "I now need to firmly focus on myself and my family. I will be stepping down from all public facing roles for the foreseeable future."

According to a Miami Beach police report, police responding to an overdose call at the South Beach Mondrian early Friday morning found Gillum in a hotel room with two other men and too inebriated to talk. Police said they found three bags of suspected crystal meth on the bed and on the floor.

Gillum, a Democrat who narrowly lost the 2018 race for Florida governor, was not arrested and was allowed to return back to his hotel in downtown Miami. He issued a statement Friday saying that he was in Miami to celebrate a wedding and had too much to drink. He said he has never used methamphetamine

“Since my race for governor ended, I fell into a depression that has led to alcohol abuse,” Gillum said in his Sunday night statement, issued by a national public relations firm. “I witnessed my father suffer from alcoholism and I know the damaging effects it can have when untreated. I also know that alcoholism is often a symptom of deeper struggles. I am committed to doing the personal work to heal fully and show up in the world as a more complete person.”

Gillum’s announcement came about 90 minutes after his inner circle held a Sunday night conference call. His decision to step away from the spotlight clouds a political career that just a few days ago seemed to have no ceiling.

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He turned a narrow loss in the 2018 Florida governor’s race into a national profile and created a political organization at the core of the Florida Democratic Party’s 2020 efforts. He landed an analyst gig that kept him on prime time CNN, $10,000 speaking fees and a place atop speculative lists of potential presidential running mates.

But everything Gillum built over the last quarter-century crashed down in scandal Friday morning with the release of the Miami Beach police report documenting the events early Friday in room 1107.

The description in a Miami Beach police report of a too-inebriated-to-talk Gillum vomiting in a toilet while a collapsed companion received chest compressions destroyed all expectations for a political future that many anticipated would include a 2022 rematch with Gov. Ron DeSantis or a run against Sen. Marco Rubio.

“I would expect him to distance himself from the public entirely,” said Juan Peñalosa, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party said Saturday.

Gillum, by far the most energetic figure in Florida Democratic politics, shrank quickly into the background. He issued a statement saying he was in Miami for a wedding when paramedics were called to “assist one of my friends.” He denied using methamphetamines and asked that he be allowed to spend time privately with his wife and his three young children.

Travis Dyson, who was taken to a Miami Beach hospital Friday morning in stable condition, told the Miami New Times that Gillum mentioned nothing of a wedding. Dyson, who went by the alias Brodie Scott on a website for male escorts, declined to comment Sunday but wrote in a text message that he’s hiring an attorney.

“I apologize to the people of Florida for the distraction this has caused our movement,” Gillum said in his statement.

No one was arrested Friday morning. But Gillum’s fall from grace — which stunned people close to him — potentially affects more than his private life and political career.

Following his loss in the governor’s race, he’d fashioned himself into the national face of the Florida Democratic Party. He launched a voter registration drive he initially said would add 1 million voters to the state’s voting rolls and waging a campaign against voter suppression — a problem he sometimes blamed for his campaign’s defeat.

Gillum also promised to campaign for down-ballot Democrats. He announced in the fall that his Forward Florida Action organization has seeded $1 million to voter registration groups.

“It’s going to be the Florida Democratic Party’s work to let our big donors know that we have a gap to fill here now. I’m confident they’ll step up,” said Ana Cruz, a Democratic strategist who was in Tallahassee Friday when news of the scandal began to spread at the state Capitol. She said Democrats there were “incredibly hurt and disappointed,” and said Gillum “absolutely” should step away from party activities this year.

Sunday evening, Sean Pittman, a lobbyist, friend and adviser to Gillum, organized a conference call with the former Tallahassee mayor’s inner circle to discuss his next steps.

It’s hard to know how successful Gillum has been when it comes to registering voters.

Last month, Florida Democrats celebrated the party’s surpassing the 5 million mark in registered voters in Florida. Yet the executive director of Gillum’s Forward Florida Action non-profit refused to say how many people had been registered as a result of the organization’s efforts. Forward Florida Action, which keeps its donors private, has also declined to release information about the organizations it has funded.

Still, groups that received money from Gillum’s political apparatus said they don’t expect his issues to dampen efforts to register new voters and promote Democratic causes in Florida.

Nor did strategists rule out that Gillum, a former Tallahassee mayor who began his political career in college as a community organizer for Norman Lear’s People for the American Way, could once again become a useful player in party politics. Gillum left $3 million unspent in his political committee’s coffers during his campaign for governor and still has $2 million to spend.

“Andrew was extremely talented. He had a bright future,” said Reggie Cardozo, a Florida Democratic political consultant. “There is a way for him to still be relevant. I don’t know if it’s him running for office anymore.”

This was not Gillum’s first brush with scandal.

Throughout his campaign for governor, he was dogged by a public corruption investigation at Tallahassee City Hall. Ethics investigations exposed cozy relationships with lobbyists and jaunts to Costa Rica, Qatar and New York, where he took in a Broadway showing of Hamilton thanks to tickets purchased by undercover FBI agents. The Florida Commission on Ethics ultimately fined Gillum $5,000.

After his loss, a federal subpoena suggested that U.S. prosecutors had turned their intention to Gillum’s political machine. He used his fundraising committee, Forward Florida, to pay more than $700,000 in legal fees while also paying Pittman’s law firm nearly $100,000. Gillum also formed a company last year with his best friend from high school, disbarred attorney Christopher Chestnut.

Related: Federal subpoena demands records on Andrew Gillum and his campaign for governor

Gillum’s supporters were willing to overlook these past ethical lapses and the swirling investigations, and Gillum remained Florida’s most engaging Democrat. Indeed, last June, just days after news broke that his name was listed in a new round of grand jury subpoenas, Gillum was the biggest draw at a state party gathering in Orlando. A production crew followed him from room-to-room as he posed for selfies and hugged admirers.

But even close friends and supporters struggled to reconcile the Gillum they knew with the man in the police report.

Former Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Donna Brazile said Gilum was going through a “personal tragedy that is much bigger than his political goals or future.” State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat and early supporter of Gillum’s in the 2018 gubernatorial primary, said he was disappointed with Gillum’s “poor judgment,” but cautioned that “I don’t think any person should be judged by their worst moment.”

Gillum is hardly the first politician dragged down by the sins of South Beach. But for all Gillum’s imperfections, the details noted by Miami Beach police were out of character, people close to him said.

Gillum talked often during his campaign for governor about how his family’s struggles with substance abuse and the criminal justice system shaped his desire to walk the straight and narrow.

“This is really uncharacteristic from what we’ve seen of him up until now,” said Marcos Vilar, executive director of Alianza, an organization mobilizing Puerto Ricans that has worked closely with Gillum’s Forward Florida. “But we’re going to continue workingOur movement is not built on one person.”

Gillum has said little since Friday morning, when police say they allowed him to leave the Mondrian South Beach and return to the Epic Hotel in downtown Miami, which he listed as his address on a police report.

Neither have the two men in the room with him, Dyson and Aldo Mejias, a 56-year-old doctor whose license expired in 2019. Mejias called paramedics.

But on Facebook Sunday, Gillum’s wife, R. Jai Gillum, thanked the couple’s friends for their prayers and took a shot at critics reveling in news of her husband’s downfall.

“In times of great uncertainty, one thing is clear,” she wrote. “This too, shall pass.”

Miami Herald staff writers David Ovalle, Charles Rabin and Martin Vassolo contributed to this report.