When firefighters escorted me out of our home at age seven, I had know idea it had to do with my mother going up against the almost entirely white wealthy political establishment. What turned out to be a midnight bomb threat also turned into my introduction to the assumptions about us and the extra mile Black candidates are made to run when they choose to run for office. Thirty years later, Andrew Gillum in Florida is the latest to have had to run it.
What makes his victory so spectacular is what he was able to do despite the Party, despite the media, and despite the consultant class that controls so much of what’s “viable” in politics today.
Gillum and candidates like Stacey Abrams, Ben Jealous, or Wesley Bell signal that there is a shift in political attitudes that the establishment has yet to catch up with. In many ways, it’s a return to the roots of campaigning, relating to voters and offering clear solutions to the most pressing issues they face.
When Abraham Lincoln ran for President, growing up in a log cabin with humble beginnings made him relateable. But in today’s money-ridden politics where the governor’s’ race in Illinois is being billed as the battle of the billionaires, not having generational wealth is treated very differently by party insiders.
When we talked to voters about Gillum being the son of working people and the first in his family to go to college, they saw themselves in him. But the media greeted the same background and the lack of self-funding that comes with it as a liability in Florida. Gillum’s campaign was ‘impossible’ but, Jeff Greene, who’s campaign sputtered so fully he cancelled all ads a week before the election, got a pass on that test simply by committing to self-fund his campaign. Apparently they assumed cash could make up the distance between voters’ lives and values and the Mar-A-Lago billionaire.
In a world where it will take African-American families two centuries to catch-up to white wealth, coming from the moneyed class is not a part of our litmus test. In fact, it might even be a reason for suspicion for voters who are more familiar with student loans and the monthly math between groceries, gas, and doctor’s bills than they are to country clubs or comfortable living.
If it wasn’t his money, the next hurdle was his race – despite the fact that Black and Latino voters together make up the majority of the Party. The media who did give any space to Gillum’s race often took the angle of asking whether Florida could elect a Black governor. They cited the long standing pattern of Democrats choosing white ‘centrists’ to compete for GOP votes without necessarily noting that it is a strategy that has lost for the party for the past twenty years. Without acknowledging the fastest growing segment of voters being young, progressive, and independent – exactly who Gillum would appeal to most – they tied “Gillum” and “last place” in their mouths repeatedly.
No one asked if Democrats can afford another elderly white “centrist” candidate running from a losing playbook. Unless we pretend Florida’s electorate hasn’t changed in the past decade, that’s exactly the question that we can no longer afford to ignore.
Look, Black people are no strangers to having to be twice as good to get half as much. But when it comes to the world of politics, the ‘Black tax’ that candidates face is outdated and out of control.
It took my mother three full runs and a lot of hand painted signs to get into office. It wasn’t until the momentum behind 1992’s year of the woman that she saw victory. In my own time in office I saw first hand the advice from hired pollsters that either believe the Black vote is in the bag and therefore doesn’t merit specific outreach or too unreliable to intentionally go after. It was 2008, Barack Obama was running and social media was this new thing. Using those tools I was able to connect with voters directly in ways that had I had to rely on old channels and established infrastructure, I’d still be waiting for a check.
What Gillum’s race and others around the country is showing is that we as Black voters are watching closely. We will not be taken for granted any more and we recognize we have the power to not just win races but reshape the Party to actually address our needs. In short, after years of so much being demanded of our candidates to be considered viable, we’re returning the favor and telling all politicians, “I need you to do better.”
With the math and the track record so obvious, it shouldn’t be so hard.
Doug Jones didn’t win his special election in Alabama in 2017 with more Black votes than Obama got in 2012 based on his looks and personality. Black voters are embracing an activist edge that has made it an understanding that positions like the Lieutenant Governor in New Jersey or in Virginia need to be reflective of the party’s base. That understanding needs to go further to not just reserve certain offices for us but to remove the extra hurdles Black candidates are made to leap when we run.
Instead of resisting the coalition of the new majority, the Party would do well to embrace it because, like all our movements before us, it promises an inclusive vision for everyone.
It’s a promise that galvanized the voters I call “ignored” but the pollsters would call “unlikely” who carried Gillum to victory. In just the segment of voters that we reached out to at the New Florida Vision PAC, we saw a 300% increase from the last midterm in 2014.
The general will be decided like Florida elections always are, at the margins. That’s something we can all agree on. The lesson we should learn is that’s not just where elections are won but where winning candidates now come from.
Former State Senator Dwight Bullard is the chairperson of the New Florida Vision PAC based in Miami, FL