You must win before you can govern.
Easier said than done, especially, it seems, for progressives.
Andrew Gillum, who exploded onto the national political scene with a meteoric victory in the 2018 Florida Democratic gubernatorial primary, was the immediate favorite to win it all on Aug. 28.
He had a clear, consistent message, an overwhelmingly favorable state press, a charismatic personality, serious momentum, and faced U. S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, easily the weaker of the two Republicans who fought for the nomination. I don’t believe anyone would have come within a parsec of beating Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam, who was being groomed as Florida’s chief executive for at least eight years.
The stars aligned, but only briefly.
Gillum’s role as favorite evaporated within the first week of the general election campaign and the blame falls squarely on the candidate -- not ballot-counting snafus, not an FBI investigation, not racial innuendo employed by the opposition.
The ex-mayor of Tallahassee made two fatal decisions: choosing fifth-place primary finisher Chris King, a philosophical clone, as his running mate; and allowing the incompetent, impotent Florida Democratic Party to co-opt his campaign apparatus.
Gillum’s primary win was nothing short of spectacular. He embarked on that campaign with far less name recognition than former Miami Beach mayor Phil Levine or Gwen Graham, daughter of former U.S. senator and two-term governor Bob Graham Worse, his effort was financially challenged at the start, so gaining name recognition appeared Herculean in scope.
But Gillum assembled a group of incredibly astute operatives who choreographed the primary effort from cramped offices on the fringe of the Florida A & M University campus. Everything, including scheduling, message, and communications, went nearly flawlessly.
While Levine and Graham relied on piles of money and a legacy name to boost their respective candidacies, Gillum issued meaningful, detailed policies and criticized the positions of Rick Scott, Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis and other high-profile Republicans.
Levine, in the past, allied himself with Donald Trump in criticizing the media; Graham’s voting record in Congress during her two-year stint as a public servant was undeniably abysmal. Gillum took to the offensive against the heavily favored duo, capturing valuable air time on national cable news shows.
The tide began to turn. Heavy Democratic hitters Tom Steyer and George Soros poured significant contributions into the Gillum campaign. Steyer provided a ground army of NextGen volunteers to register millennials and the coming-of-age Reform Generation.
Meanwhile, Democratic state party power brokers split their allegiances in the primary between Levine and Graham. The Tallahassee mayor was virtually ignored until he surged in the last three weeks of the campaign. Even then, he garnered virtually no support from the so-called corporate wing.
Following Gillum’s spectacular “upset,” he chose to break up the band, allowing the woefully inept Florida Democratic Party to usurp the campaign. It was plagued with mistakes from the start.
A new communications director with no social media skills took over. Gillum’s Facebook pages that during the primary were saturated with policy positions and the documented hypocrisy of his opposition, became recruitment vehicles for street corner sign wavers and house-to-house canvassers -- all internal functions.
Worse, the army of unpaid adult volunteers was cast aside in favor of paid gunslingers that every two years go to the highest bidder. The fervor and knowhow just weren’t there.
Unfathomably, Gillum wasted time in sparsely populated rural areas where Democrats are as rare as a smooth Florida election. Dateline Gillum listed places such as Flagler County and Putnam County instead of vote-rich Republican strongholds such as Marion and Brevard.
It was reminiscent of Hillary Clinton spending the last months of her 2016 campaign in Georgia, Arizona, and Texas.
Then there is Bernie Sanders. Bringing him into Florida during the primary to galvanize progressives boosted Gillum enormously. Campaigning alongside the country’s most recognizable socialist four days before the general election could not have been more ill-conceived when your opponent is trying to pin you with the “socialist” label.
I reached out to the Gillum campaign when I became aware that Sanders was scheduled. The response: He will energize young voters. Lame.
There’s more: The injudicious use of surrogates and the overemphasis on DeSantis’ associations. The FDP brand, true to form, crashed and burned in a statewide race, this time with the optimum candidate.
Then there’s Chris King, a fellow progressive who finished fifth and last in the Democratic primary with a dismal 2.5 percent of the vote. Gillum named King as his running mate but King brought nothing electorally to the table except hailing from the I-4 corridor.
The DeSantis team was a lot shrewder. With the selection of state Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, the GOP gained advantages in gender, ethnicity, and legislative experience.
And who the hell vetted King? After he lost a student body election in 1999, King said the Harvard Crimson newspaper unfairly made an issue of his religion and cost him the student-body election.
“I was nailed to the cross,” King told reporters at the time. “And most of the editorial staff that was so hard on me, the vast majority were Jewish.”
King admitted he made the statement and that it was wrong. But the damage was done. Calling out DeSantis for hobnobbing with white supremacists and anti-Semites not only had no impact, but smacked of hypocrisy after the King revelation.
Jim Bleyer, a former reporter at the Orlando Sentinel and Tampa Tribune, writes the Tampa Bay Beat blog.