Andrew Gillum is the Democratic nominee for Governor of Florida, a state with some 20 million residents who reflect America’s melting pot of diversity.
Gillum, 39, is a Miami native, husband and father of three, who was raised in a working class family: his mom drove a school-bus and his father was a construction worker. He attended Florida A & M University (FAMU) and was the first in his family to graduate from college. At age 23, Gillum became the youngest person ever elected to the Tallahassee City Commission; in 2014, he was elected Mayor.
Today, as one of three African American gubernatorial candidates running—the others are Stacey Abrams of Georgia and Ben Jealous in Maryland—Gillum is hoping to make history as the first Black governor in the Sunshine State. His opponent is Republican Ron DeSantis, a former U.S. Congressman who has stirred controversy with campaign comments that some believe have racially charged overtones.
With the November 6 midterm elections fast approaching, ESSENCE caught up with Gillum on the campaign trail for an exclusive.
ESSENCE: Why do you want to be Governor of Florida?
We’re first and foremost running to create a state where everyday working people are seen and heard again. And that’s on everything from making sure that, if you’ve got kids in the public education system, that they’re getting access to a system that educates them and trains our kids for next generation workforce, to the 800,000 people in my state who could have access to healthcare who don’t. It’s also important to have a governor who believes in science and tries to transform Florida’s economy into a green economy. We’re the Sunshine State. We should at least make it mean something. And Florida, a state that I grew up in, a state that I love, offers a lot of opportunity. The problem is that opportunity doesn’t exist for all people. We’ve got to work to ensure that, you know, my story is made more possible for more people.
ESSENCE: You’ve made expanding health care access a major part of your platform. Please discuss what that means for Floridians.
The governor and the legislature have been strongly ideologically to the right. Not only did they oppose the Affordable Care Act, but we failed to expand Medicaid in my state for over 800,000 of the most medically needy people allowing $6 billion from the federal government into other states when that money rightfully belongs in Florida. President Obama tried to send us over $2 billion.
[I would be] the governor who’s going to be willing to expand Medicaid. My opponent, by contrast, while in Congress – he served six years – voted repeatedly to repeal the Affordable Care Act. He voted to allow insurance companies to discriminate against people based off of preexisting conditions. And he worked overtime to see health care companies be able to walk away with massive profits while everyday people struggled inside emergency rooms for regular routine maintenance and care. It’s a backwards vision and we’re trying to offer one that not only helps those 800,000 people, but for small businesses and those of us with private health insurance or employee-based health insurance who are right now seeing our premiums increase year over year. By bringing those folks into the mainstream health care system, you reduce the number of people having to go to emergency rooms to get care. And that bring down the cost of insurance. That’s important to us.
ESSENCE: Florida is a very diverse state, but are there specific concerns relating to African-Americans and people of color that you would try to address as governor?
I think – first off, when we improve education in the public system, we improve it for black and brown kids. Teacher’s salaries are the 40th lowest of 50 states. Our education system is 40th out of 50th in quality.
You know, when we expand access to Medicaid, we improve that condition for low income families, but also, according to our state stats, you know, largely for communities of color. Improving the economy in the state of Florida and creating the opportunity for more small businesses to grow and develop in our state, making sure that minorities and women owned businesses get access to the buying and spending power of the state of Florida, which is, you know, a top – $88 billion dollars. We’ve got a $200 billion investment portfolio. Right now the buying and spending power in our state does not reflect the rich diversity of the state of Florida. I believe the policies that we’re trying to push would directly impact communities of color, but not exclusively. They’ll be to the benefit of all the people of our state, including in communities and in parts of my state that won’t consider voting for a Democrat – they would benefit from that as well.
ESSENCE: Let’s talk about criminal justice reform. Florida has had some very high profile scenarios in which Trayvon Martin and other African Americans have lost their lives. Can you speak to that and what you would like to see done as governor?
My position on repealing `Stand Your Ground’ is that it is an unjust law. Stand your ground has got to go. It is an unnecessary law and it’s a law that allows for an individual to decide, based off of what they assess a threat level to be, to include if they go and agitate a conflict to be able to, under the color and the protection of the law, to take out life that they deem less valuable, that they determine to be a threat to them. And therefore, you know, can snuff out innocent life. That’s what happened with Trayvon Martin. That conflict was agitated by Mr. [George] Zimmerman who, you know, anointed himself the neighborhood law enforcement. And in the case of Markeis McGlockton it was a vigilante who was coming from a gun shop across the street who decided he was going to be the parking patrol and enforcement agent and pulled out a gun and killed Markeis in the presence of his 5-year-old child, his life partner, Britany and their two babies in the backseat of the car. It’s a law that’s not necessary and it puts men of color particularly and boys of color at particular risk. It’s got to go in Florida. And as governor, I’ll do everything that I can to see that law repealed.
ESSENCE: What are some other thoughts about criminal justice reform?
We also need bail reform in the state of Florida. Right now in Florida 60 percent of the people who were sitting in our jails are there not because they’ve been found guilty of a crime but because they couldn’t afford to pay the money bail system. It costs the state of Florida over almost $900 million a year – $880 billion to pay to incarcerate individuals who are not convicted. So we’ve got to change the laws of this state to make way for people to be able to keep about their livelihood as they seek justice through the criminal justice system.
And then when our citizens return to society, we have to reduce the barriers that right now prevent them from being able to get a job, that takes away their licensing and other accreditations based off of a felony record. And when they come back out, they don’t have the ability to go and work jobs where they can earn a livable wage. And oftentimes those individuals find themselves back into a cycle in the criminal justice system. So [society] erects barriers that prevent them from being able to break that cycle. As mayor of Tallahassee, I banned the box. We don’t ask about criminal background history when people look for jobs in our city unless answering yes to having had a background, a criminal record, is a disqualifier for the job. By and large, it isn’t. So we measure people off their merit. We have to scale those kinds of opportunities up all across the state of Florida.
And we have to pass Amendment Four, which is on the November ballot. If passed, it will automatically re-enfranchise 1 million of the 1.7 million Floridians who have had their votes permanently taken from them because of a Jim Crow-era law in Florida that permanently removes the right to vote for anyone who gets a felony record. And beyond that, making sure that we reduce the barriers for people to get access to jobs that are jobs with dignity.
ESSENCE: Please tell our audience who Andrew is as a husband [wife is R. Jai Gillum] a father [the couple has four-year-old twins and a one-year-old] and a man?
Family is everything to me. My parents are the two hardest-working people I know. When [the construction] business was slow, you could find my father selling fruits or vegetables, or flowers to families. They taught me the value of hard work, and did everything they could to provide us opportunities they didn’t have. I was the first in our family to graduate high school and college, and after watching my younger brother and sister graduate, I know firsthand what it’s like to see your family’s intergenerational poverty interrupted at the hands of a good public education. I know what it’s like to struggle and be told that you don’t belong, and that’s why I will always be grateful for my parents’ love and commitment to my siblings and me. Every day I strive to show that same unwavering love and commitment to my wife and three young kids, and that’s why I’m fighting to invest in education, lift up families, and for a better future for all Floridians.
ESSENCE: Do you view yourself as a role model?
This election is about much more than my name on the ballot — it’s about showing little boys and girls, whose names I can’t call and faces I don’t know — that they can be anything they want. From a doctor, to a teacher, to an artist, to even the Governor of the third-largest state in America. I’m running to finally put some common sense back in the Governor’s mansion.
Note: This interview has been edited for space and clarity.