No African-American has ever won statewide office in the Sunshine State.
In fact, one of the last candidates attempting to do so had to contend with a former president asking him late in the campaign to drop out of the race.
Kendrick Meek was a U.S. Representative from Miami-Dade who in 2010 became the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate. He faced not only Republican Marco Rubio, but also independent Charlie Crist.
Trailing in the polls with just weeks before the election, Bill Clinton asked Meek to drop out of the race, so that the party could rally around Crist. Meek declined, saying he never seriously considered it. He finished third while Rubio advanced to Washington.
Seven years later and it’s now Andrew Gillum attempting to do the unprecedented as he runs for the Democratic nomination for Florida governor.
And while it’s not something he talks much about on the campaign trail, the Tallahassee mayor opened up about the reality he faces as a black man while addressing students in an appearance at the University of Tampa campus last week.
“There isn’t a day that doesn’t go by in my city where I’m not driving behind a truck on my way to work that has a big old Confederate flag,” he said.
“I know a lot of folks say you shouldn’t conflate the Confederacy with racism,” Gillum added. “Well, I don’t know another way to describe it. States’ rights? States’ rights to own slaves? … If I pause long enough to allow it to impact me, it would.
“But I psych myself out on a pretty regular basis that they’re not talking about me. That they don’t mean me, and I’m the mayor of this city, and all the other things that you tell yourself to be unpenetrated by the kind of inequality that you get to see and experience every single day that you live and breath.”
Big things have been expected from Gillum ever since 2003 when he became the youngest member of the Tallahassee City Commission at the age of 23.
His profile grew larger after he had an opportunity to speak last summer at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Now he’s trying to buck the odds in a state that has never elected a black person statewide (though some Democrats count Barack Obama‘s two victories in Florida in 2008 and 2012).
At UT, Gillum said it’s pertinent as an elected official to note and try to do something about the structural forms of racism and inequality. He referred to a row he had last month with Jim Cooke, Tallahassee’s treasurer-clerk, revolving around the fact that while three minority based firms do bond work for the city of Tallahassee, they generally are recommended only for some of the city’s smaller contracts.
“So I had to ask the question: ‘Why does it seem in the city of Tallahassee minority firms always seem to get the smallest piece?’ ” Gillum said, replying to his own question by saying that he wasn’t certain, and speculating that perhaps Cooke (who he never mentioned by name) had a “predisposition to ‘big’ ” explicitly mentioning Bank of America and other larger institutions.
Cooke later told Florida Politics that he did not want to comment.
Gillum said there is definitely structural bias within the criminal justice system, citing studies that show that penalties for blacks are much stricter than for whites who commit the same crimes. Gillum also said that didn’t mean that judges were racist, but speculated that “a lot of it might be unconscious bias.”
“We should have, moreover, conversations about race, racism, sexism, all the other -isms, because if it sits unconscious, we’ll allow it to continue to perpetuate,” he said.
He then launched into a discussion about his Longest Table program which he initiated in 2015 to spur conversation and strengthen relations between people from all walks of life in Tallahassee. The project won a Knight Cities Challenge grant earlier this year.
“I don’t want to be Pollyanna-ish about it,” he explained. “I know that’s not the cure all, end all, be all, but if we can start to have some deliberate conversations where we put people in places and try to encourage curiosity over judgment, it’d be interesting to see what happens.”
While he can’t mandate people of different walks of life to get together, Gillum said he can try to set an example.
“I think it would be much better to have a governor that encourages that conversation rather than the ‘other-izing’ of each other because Latinos are here and you don’t have a job, or black people are shiftless and on welfare, or all white people are racists, or Black Lives Matter people are unpatriotic,” he said.
“Those are simple platitudes, and they mean nothing, and they get us nowhere.”
Gillum has had a bumpy ride at times during this campaign season. An FBI investigation into Community Redevelopment Agency deals in Tallahassee has put a cloud over his campaign, though Gillum told reporters in August that a federal prosecutor informed him he wasn’t a target of the investigation.
The race is poised to get more competitive, as John Morgan and Phillip Levine contemplate entering the race to join Gwen Graham, Chris King and himself, all vying to become the state party’s standard-bearer next year.
Gillum is the choice among the progressive wing of the party. Whether that is enough in Florida will play out over the next year.
Editor’s Note — An earlier version of this story said Kendrick Meek was the last African-American political candidate to run for statewide office in Florida. In fact, Thaddeus Hamilton ran unsuccessfully for agriculture commissioner in 2014.