The scope of Andrew Gillum’s talent became clear to a national audience on October 25, when he invented what will likely be the way Democrats talk about Trump Republicanism for years to come:
"Now, I'm not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist,” Gillum said of his Republican rival for the governorship of Florida, Ron DeSantis, during a debate. “I'm simply saying the racists believe he's a racist.”
That is, more or less, what Hillary Clinton meant to say when she sneered at the “basket of deplorables,” and what Barack Obama never quite found a way to get at when Republicans demanded his birth certificate. And it’s an emblem of how the little-known Tallahassee mayor has shown Democrats a new path in the Trump era, a way to balance the poll-tested imperative to stay positive with the demand that they respond to the vitriolic and sometimes openly racist style of Trump Republicanism.
In a wide-ranging interview in the back of an SUV leaving a Miami rally Thursday, Gillum explained to BuzzFeed News why he’d said what he did on that debate stage in Davie, rather than simply calling DeSantis a racist.
“I know that that term puts people in a corner,” Gillum said. “I tried to be artful in calling out his behavior and associations without calling him a ‘racist’ because I didn’t want to alienate a part of the electorate that we didn’t need to alienate. Is race real? Do people have it on their minds? Yes. But that doesn’t automatically make you a racist. It just means that maybe you haven’t had an experience with a person of color to lead you to a conclusion one way or another.”
And which person of color would turn that imagined voter around?
“Maybe I’m that,” Gillum said.
That answer is classic Gillum: Optimistic and openhearted, as he explains how he structured what may be the most agile and devastating political attack of another bitter political season, one that left DeSantis stammering. And his apparent strength has offered a canny new model for national Democratic politics, one that nobody expected to come out of Florida this year.
Gillum’s emergence as the surprise Democratic nominee, however, didn’t have anything to do with his ability to wield a knife. He won his primary on optimism and uplift. “Frankly, running against Trump is going to be insufficient to win,” he told BuzzFeed News in April.
In June, before the primary, Gillum told donors in private that his voters’ demands were “one of the reasons why I’m actually not running this race talking about Trump a lot.” Gillum argued that Democrats couldn’t win by just harping on Trump’s deficiencies. “And I hope that our party doesn’t make the mistake of believing that the only way we can win is by trashing that guy. We’ve got give voters something to vote for, not just against.”
DeSantis, the Trumpiest of Republicans, coasted to victory in the August primary, buoyed by a single Trump tweet. A more conventional, and whiter, campaign team joined Gillum’s inner circle for the general election campaign, along with cash from the Democratic Governors Association and billionaire Tom Steyer. Gillum began to hear that he needed to, in the polite terms of professional politics, “draw stronger contrasts.” Gillum at first struggled.
“He made himself very clear that he didn’t want to do certain things,” a campaign source recalled. DeSantis needled Gillum, calling him by his first name — which he says he took offense to — but he didn’t respond in kind.
“I knew that our path to victory still meant that I had to go out there and be positive, try to [uplift] and maybe rise above whatever the negative was, and frankly, refrain from calling him out in the way that I might have otherwise,” he said. “I knew that it was important that I not be seen as the negative person in the race. But I was also clear from the very beginning that I was not going to tread in the path so many Democrats before me who have refused to push back and who will allow their opponent to land blows and never ever return the heat.”
But inside Gillum’s camp, a debate raged.
“When someone insults him, he genuinely takes it personally,” one adviser said. “He wants people to know that the attacks are not okay and he wants people to know where he stands.” Gillum wanted to do that concisely and clearly. “Even in debates, I stated my pushback plainly and then we got on to what it was that we wanted to communicate,” he said. “We never wanted to let that kind of thing sit. And I think that is part of our success. We were always giving people who wanted to believe in us a real reason that they could still believe.”
The DeSantis camp sees it differently. One DeSantis adviser told BuzzFeed News that it became evident that Gillum saw race as the Republican’s Achilles heel, and that it would have been political malpractice for him not to use it as offense when it was clear that the attacks were getting under DeSantis’ skin. The adviser, who spoke to BuzzFeed News on the condition their name not be used, said they saw Gillum’s responses to provocative language as a matter of cold political strategy.
Florida’s general election has been a stark illustration of the extent to which a Republican candidate could run in the Trump mold, in a time when dog whistles have been replaced by vuvuzuelas — and of the limits of that style when you’re not named Donald Trump. DeSantis’s campaign infamously aired an ad narrated by his wife that showed the candidate imbue his young children with the slogans of Trump’s priorities. And Trump, who knows the press will frame Democratic gains made this cycle as a repudiation of his presidency, has spent a great deal of political capital propping up DeSantis. Trump has described Gillum’s city as “crime-ridden” and “corrupt,” and even called Gillum a “thief” who is weak on borders.
Two comments deepened the perception that the Republican campaign was aimed at Gillum’s race. The morning after the primary, DeSantis warned Floridians not to “monkey this up” electing Gillum, which immediately brought the race national attention. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said over the weekend the election was “so cotton-picking important,” a phrase received by Democrats with a racial edge Perdue denies he intended. Gillum campaign sources and advisers said the fact that the president was so closely involved in the race (a Florida political strategist told BuzzFeed News that Trump and DeSantis have spoken frequently) made it difficult for Gillum to not talk about the president, especially with the press and cable news hanging on to his every word.
In the interview with BuzzFeed News, Gillum said finding the right balance was guided by a philosophy that “would not allow me to lay down at any point,” and the foundational belief that his candidacy needed to represent a positive vision for the future of Florida.
“These guys are coming for us, and they’re coming for us to take us out. It wasn’t lightweight stuff. They were coming heavy. And so no, maybe we can’t go equally as dark or nasty, but you’re absolutely going to hear me push back,” he said. “But our path to victory has always meant that I had to compel people to vote for something and that talking about issues by myself may or may not be enough to get us over. So in my opinion, it was always going to be very important that we had a positive vision because I anticipated that there would be so much negativity in the campaign and in the race. And that negativity showed up on day one.”
Gillum originally envisioned reaching white voters in the rural and northern part of the state by talking about improving public schools and running on his personal narrative. That work meant talking less about public policy, and promoting authenticity and a shared vision for Florida. Gillum still hopes he can do that, and in this charged environment, he continues to pick his spots.
“I couldn’t get as dirty as them,” he said. “I knew that if we were brawling, if we both in the gutter at that level name-calling back and forth, their dirt would come off. They would get the benefit of the doubt and I won’t. So I can never stay in that place and expect to win.”