ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. ― Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum made his return to the gubernatorial campaign trail Friday after a week and a half away to deal with Hurricane Michael, while Republican Ron DeSantis continued a lower-key campaign focused on painting his Democratic opponent as too extreme for Florida.
“Listen, I must be the only person with a job! It is noon!” Gillum laughed as he surveyed the crowd packed into a music auditorium at St. Petersburg College. “I don’t know about y’all, but I’m ready to win!”
Gillum is the first African-American major party nominee for Florida governor, and his unabashedly liberal positions on health care, criminal justice reform and the environment, combined with his ability to engage an audience, made him a favorite of national progressive groups years ago.
On Friday, his newfound star power drew many hundreds to wait in line in late-morning heat and humidity for the opportunity to attend his hourlong appearance. The auditorium could only accommodate 300, and hundreds were turned away.
“Too small. It’s way too small,” said Barbara Kincaide, 57. “I wish they had a bigger place.”
Amie Marion, 37, who similarly waited over an hour to get in the doors, said Democrats were already excited about the coming election but that Gillum has taken it to a new level. “I don’t think you can call it hopeful anymore. They are tired. People want change.”
Gillum’s advertised topic was Florida’s resilience, forged by hurricanes, but he used it as a springboard to run through his various policy positions, particularly the warming of the planet and the associated sea-level rise. “Part of having a more resilient state is having a governor who believes in science,” he said, mocking the attitude taken by many Republicans, including current Florida Gov. Rick Scott, to answer any question about climate change by pointing out that they are not scientists.
“Well, guess what?” Gillum said. “I’m not a doctor, either. But when I’m sick, I am going to see one.”
Gillum took himself off the campaign trail a few days before Hurricane Michael struck the panhandle coast at Mexico Beach, at a time the storm was forecast to hit the coast just south of Tallahassee and with minimal hurricane strength.
Instead it grew to Category 4 status and came ashore about 100 miles west of the capital ― far enough away that Gillum’s city avoided any serious damage but still close enough that nearly 90 percent of its residents lost power. On most of his days off the trail, Gillum appeared on national cable television news programs to update viewers on the storm’s status and on recovery efforts in and around Tallahassee.
DeSantis, having served most of his third term in Congress representing wealthy suburbs of Jacksonville, resigned in the weeks before the hurricane struck to focus on his run for governor. As a result, he had no official responsibilities during the storm and its aftermath and continued his lower-key, base-heavy campaign.
It’s an approach he has been locked into after centering his primary campaign on his support for President Donald Trump, who has endorsed him. While his Republican primary opponent, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a party establishment favorite, built a traditional grassroots campaign of supporters across the state, DeSantis largely remained in Washington, D.C., making frequent appearances on Fox News to defend Trump and attack Democrats on national issues.
That strategy wound up working in a state whose Republican primary voters strongly support Trump, but it’s proving a tougher sell to moderate Democrats and independents who dislike Trump ― often intensely.
Gillum on Friday reminded his audience of DeSantis’ ties to Trump, as he warned them that DeSantis is likely to ramp up his attacks on Gillum in the final two weeks of the race. “He’s going to call me a socialist,” Gillum said. “He’s going to call me corrupt.”
The previous night, speaking to a Duval County Republicans’ dinner in Jacksonville, DeSantis did exactly that. “Are you a socialist or are you for free enterprise? I will say I am for free enterprise,” DeSantis told the 350 or so Republicans seated at tables set on a covered-over hockey arena. “I am the only one who can credibly say I am not under FBI investigation.”
Gillum has been dogged for over a year by a federal probe into his city government. Among the records investigators have gathered are those from a lobbyist and longtime friend and supporter of Gillum. No one has been charged in the investigation, and Gillum has said the FBI told him he is not a target.
DeSantis also accused Gillum of being too lenient on criminals and having allied himself with a group that believes society should have neither police nor prisons.
“Andrew has failed to keep Tallahassee safe. It is an absolute disaster,” DeSantis said. “You are basically begging for a crime spree.”
DeSantis and Gillum are scheduled to face each other in their first debate Sunday evening, just 16 days before Election Day.