A veteran U.S. senator portrayed by opponents as too old and clueless to know what he’s doing and a 39-year-old mayor who won the love of national progressive leaders headlined a pep rally Friday in Orlando, as Democrats closed ranks behind the candidates in two of the country’s most closely watched general-election races.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, the surprise victor in Tuesday’s crowded primary to replace outgoing Gov. Rick Scott, and Democratic candidates vying for slots on the Florida Cabinet gathered onstage in a packed union hall, eliciting deafening cheers as they urged unity.
Nelson, who’s facing off against Scott in what will be the incumbent’s toughest re-election fight since first winning the Senate seat in 2000, pumped up the crowd as he introduced Gillum, whom he said he met when Gillum was the student-body president at Florida A&M University.
“We knew, when we spotted him as a student college leader that he was going to develop into a great leader,” Nelson said.
While the two top-of-the-ticket Democrats may be nearly 40 years apart in terms of age, both are trying to capitalize on dissatisfaction with President Donald Trump and his Florida acolyte, Congressman Ron DeSantis, the GOP gubernatorial candidate. DeSantis eviscerated Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam on Tuesday by nailing down the support of 56 percent of Republican primary voters.
“I am going to be there side-by-side with Andrew, and we’re going to take this to victory,” said Nelson, who was headed to Washington to attend the funeral Saturday of Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain.
“It’s amazing how the nation has been gripped in the recognition of a senator of the other party that put service above self,” Nelson said.
Nelson was joined by Nikki Fried, who is running against Republican Matt Caldwell for agriculture commissioner; Sean Shaw, who’s in a matchup with Republican Ashley Moody for attorney general; Jeremy Ring, who’s running against state chief financial officer Jimmy Patronis; and all but one of Gillum’s primary foes.
Former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, who finished third in the five-way Democratic primary for governor, dubbed the 2018 gubernatorial race as pitting “the future versus the past,” “hope versus fear,” and “inclusion versus exclusion.”
Former Congresswoman Gwen Graham, who many insiders expected to carry the mantle for Democrats in the governor’s race, was greeted with shouts of support as she walked onstage at Friday’s rally.
“I love you, too,” she said, adding that she called Gillum on Tuesday night after it was clear he won the primary.
“I said Andrew, now go win this damn thing,” she said, drawing applause from the crowd.
But it was Gillum, the first African-American candidate to capture a major-party nomination for governor in Florida, who wound the crowd into a near frenzy.
Gillum hammered Scott and Republican leaders for not addressing climate change or raising the minimum wage and for opposing the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. He drew jeers from the crowd when mentioning U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, widely despised by progressives for issues such as her advocacy of vouchers that allow students to receive tax dollars go attend private schools.
“We can change this thing, y’all,” said Gillum, joined onstage by his wife, R. Jai, and flanked by Nelson and the senator’s family.
“Preach!” members of the crowd shouted more than once.
Gillum won the primary after capturing the support of liberal icons such as U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and the financial backing of billionaires Tom Steyer and George Soros.
Gillum’s campaign targeted what the candidate called black, brown, poor and progressive voters — voting blocs that often don’t show up in midterm primary elections in Florida — as a path to the nomination.
Wiping sweat off his forehead in the steamy union hall, Gillum urged supporters to “organize like we have never organized before,” repeating a campaign mantra of giving Floridians “a reason to go out and vote for something and not just against” in the November elections.
“Bring it home!” the crowd cheered as Gillum wound down his remarks.
Gillum stressed the importance of choosing “hope, optimism, love, connectedness and community,” even as Republicans ramped up their attacks on the mayor whose city is embroiled in a FBI corruption investigation.
Gillum has repeatedly said he is not the focus of the investigation and has asked voters — and reporters — to gauge him based on his record as mayor.
The DeSantis campaign, which paints Gillum as a “socialist,” on Friday released an email accusing the Democrat’s brother, Marcus, of being involved in the FBI investigation.
“Something’s up. And the voters of Florida deserve answers from Andrew Gillum, preferably before the FBI gives them to us,” DeSantis communications director Stephen Lawson said in an email.
When asked about the corruption probe by reporters Friday, Gillum reiterated that he is not the subject of the inquiry and emphasized that he is willing to provide any information sought by the federal investigators, before pointing the finger at Trump.
“I believe that the difference between Ron DeSantis as how we address the FBI is, we have said, should there be any wrongdoing, we welcome them into our government to get to the bottom of it. I believe that they are clear on what their target is, and that should come to a conclusion soon,” Gillum said Friday.
But amid investigations involving Trump’s 2016 campaign and associates, DeSantis and Trump’s response to the FBI “is to undermine them, cut them off at every turn,” Gillum said.
“Even the president has gone so far as to suggest a ‘deep state.’ That is not how we handled it. We said, you’ve got an important job to do. Nobody wants more to make sure that any actions that are taken that are inappropriate, illegal, or inconsistent with the laws of this state, that people are held fully accountable. That’s my position on it. And I’ll do whatever I can, as mayor, to ensure that they get access to whatever they need in order to bring that to a conclusion,” he said.