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Andrew Gillum, backed by billionaires, delivers populist sermon in Jacksonville

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum is fond of reminding audiences that he’s the only “non-millionaire” in the Florida gubernatorial race.

The Democrat did just that in Jacksonville Thursday evening at a town hall event held at a Northside church, in cadences appropriate for the venue.

Despite being of modest means personally, Gillum has the help of two prominent billionaires, with one of them, George Soros, again in late June ponying up $250,000 to Gillum’s Forward Florida political committee. In total, the Soros family has pumped $750,000 into Gillum’s quest for the Governor’s Mansion.

The other big name on the billionaire left, Tom Steyer, committed $1 million via his NextGen super PAC. Half of that total was directly linked to Steyer.

And those numbers may not be the ceiling for those commitments.

What they are, Gillum told Florida Politics, is opportunity: “to let voters, particularly those who are going to be an important part of our base, know that we are a choice on the ballot.”

“What most people are counting on is that we won’t be able to communicate so that voters in this state don’t know that I’m a choice on the ballot. We’re convinced that we don’t have to be all over television. We don’t have to be the campaign that raises the most money even,” Gillum added.

Digital, traditional mail, and personal voter contact (as Gillum said, “showing up on their doorsteps”) are among the ways to maximize resources.

“It doesn’t necessarily have to be an air war,” Gillum said, with his appeal to a “built-in constituency” serving as a force multiplier.

Gillum acknowledged the backing from Steyer in the town hall, and his mention of the million-dollar donation scored a round of applause, the first of many throughout the evening.

But opponents — both in the other party and in the primary field — have fired off with criticism.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, in his speeches to GOP audiences, positions his campaign as a bulwark against the influence of the two billionaires. And Putnam’s rhetoric is echoed on the Democratic side by Jeff Greene, a billionaire in his own right who entered the race in recent weeks.

“If you want to have Florida managed by George Soros and whatever he wants, regardless of whether the governor likes it, and Tom Steyer, then you can go with Andrew Gillum,” Greene said last weekend.

Gillum, as one would expect, dismisses these critiques.

“I have known Mr. Soros for about fifteen years,” Gillum said, “and he has contributed to work I’ve supported at the People for the American Way Foundation and the youth leadership work I’ve done around the country. He has never called up and asked me for a single thing.”

“It’s easy for someone like Jeff Greene to want to dismiss someone getting support from someone else. He’s the same candidate who made his fortune by shorting the market. Now, he did well, but a lot of people did not do well during that terrible housing downturn,” Gillum added.

“I don’t have the luxury of his three-plus-billion-dollar fortune to try to buy a race,” Gillum continued, “but I don’t believe that’s what’s going to win.”

Rather, Gillum believes his appeal rests in “the kind of authentic, real energy that’s showing up on the ground from everyday people.”

Though by the standards of the gubernatorial field, one where Democrats Philip Levine and Greene have a so-far bottomless capacity to self-finance, and where Republican Adam Putnam cleared $30 million raised some weeks back, $1.75 million is real money — especially for a campaign like Gillum’s, uniquely capable of galvanizing the grassroots and (at least theoretically) expanding the universe of primary voters.

Seventeen months ago, Gillum described an “eighteen-month view of engagement” approach to the campaign, one that involved reaching out to voters who wouldn’t turn out otherwise.

Gillum noted the task as the election approaches is “narrowing our focus on the parts of the state that will allow us the best yield for our time.”

Time will tell if that prevails.

Most polls have shown Levine and Gwen Graham ahead of Gillum, Chris King, and Greene.

And in the Jacksonville market, the biggest names to endorse Gillum have been former state Sen. Tony Hill and former state Rep. Mia Jones, with other Democrats, such as Jacksonville City Councilmen Garrett Dennis and Tommy Hazouri, backing Graham.

However, the Gillum approach seems predicated on the kind of variables that former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld referred to as “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns.”

Are the pollsters and pols wrong?

That’s Gillum’s bet. And that of the billionaires bankrolling his populist bid.

Gillum is delivering a message that Democratic voters yearn for, regarding such issues as criminal justice and rehabilitation (including the regressive “money bail” system), veteran homelessness, jobs with a living wage (including teaching), Medicaid expansion and indigent health care, the judiciary and others.

And he is delivering that message with a messianic verve and commitment, as well as a definite generational appeal to voters under the age of 40, that eludes many in the field.

Gillum kept his remarks positive in the town hall, though he did note a disagreement with Graham on “the issues.”

“She voted against President [Barack] Obama 52 percent of the time … to ban Syrian refugee immigration … in favor of the Keystone Pipeline,” Gillum said, noting that while “it isn’t personal,” he doesn’t trust Graham “when [our] back is against the wall.”

As the candidate told us Thursday, it’s a five-way race for the nomination. And 20 percent plus one vote, in theory, can win it.

“My conversation and my comments are informed,” Gillum said, “by the people I’ve come in contact with on the trail.”

“We’ve been written off more times than I’ve got fingers for. I believe we come back after every one of them. We’re beginning to peak,” Gillum said, “right at the time that we need it.”

Written By

A.G. Gancarski has been a working journalist for over two decades, with bylines in national and local publications alike on subjects ranging from pop music to national and global politics. Gancarski has been a correspondent for since 2014, and has held a column in Jacksonville, Florida's Folio Weekly for two decades. In 2018, he was a finalist for an Association of Alternative Newsweeklies "best political column." Gancarski is a frequent presence on Jacksonville television and radio, including fill-in slots on WJCT-FM's award-winning talk show "First Coast Connect." He can be reached at

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