Editors Note: A full appendix of links related to this article and Mayor Gillum can be found at the conclusion of the article.
Florida progressives celebrated loudly Tuesday night with Mayor Andrew Gillum’s nomination for Governor. The late spending on behalf of Gillum by several independent groups that refer to themselves as progressives was the difference maker. For once the establishment had been humbled at hands of progressive insurgents, even if those insurgents were largely mainstream-aligned “professional left” groups.
Mayor Gillum’s victory was one of the greatest wins nationally for the progressive movement we’ve been told. The problem is Gillum isn’t a progressive, at least by my definition and it’s not because he supported Secretary Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary. It’s because as someone who has been in public office his entire adult life, entirely too many questions about how he’s used those offices to benefit himself, his family, lobbyists and his political cronies exist. It’s not just one or two incidents, but a clear pattern of behavior.
While Mayor Gillum’s only acknowledgment of these issues is to claim he’s not under (direct) FBI investigation, the reality as evidenced by the links from major newspapers and websites at the bottom of this article is that a federal investigation is ongoing regarding Tallahassee city government and that Gillum isn’t far from the various centers of action. Furthermore, other troubling aspects of Mayor Gillum’s history seem to lend at least some credence to the idea that he’s not the most earnest public servant. Some of these issues are also described in the below links.
Ethics and transparency are progressive values
If Mayor Gillum addressed or cleared up some of these questions in a public fashion, those concerned about abuse of power, such as myself, would give him full marks and happily support him. Given that the GOP has run Florida for two decades based around the wills of right-wing think tanks, corporations and lobbyists, a change is needed. But based on Gillum’s own record as an officeholder, it’s hard to see how he provides that needed shift.
Progressivism, as I have been reared in, isn’t just about advocating for universal health care, a living wage, reproductive rights or clean air and water. It is also advocating for and practicing clean and transparent government that checks the influence of lobbyists and ends the practice of cronyism that Republicans have been so happy to make a fundamental part of politics in this state.
Those who’ve spent any time in the city of Tallahassee or around state politics realize the potential for corruption that surrounds city government in the capital city. This is not something I’d expect those who haven’t spent the time in Tallahassee that I have for instance over the last two decades to fully comprehend. I understand why progressive activists in other parts of the state or country may not fully grasp the extent of Gillum’s alleged transgressions, or the culture you must buy into to advance politically in Tallahassee city politics. This is also true of the Democratic Party politics of Leon County which for all intents and purposes is a one-party county.
One glaring problem with the Gillum nomination and reaction is that many of the same people who drone on about Republican officeholders and corruption are giving the Tallahassee Mayor a complete pass. The presumption of innocence (or blissful ignorance) is applied to someone on “our team,” while the presumption of guilt is applied to those on the other team. This is because most Democrats associated with the professional left- political consultants, heads of activist organizations, labor unions and the like are so desperate to obtain power in the state, they are willing to make any sort of faustian bargain to do so. They preach morality when it suits them, such as the highly-justified and credible attacks on President Trump and Governor Scott, but plead ignorance when it comes to their own house.
It’s important that we as progressives maintain consistency when it comes to ethics, abuses of public office and the sewer that has become the corruption of American Democracy. It’s also important that as progressives we oppose tribalism. This means we must stop treating political factions and parties like sports teams or college fraternities that we blindly cheer on and attack the opponents of.
I’ve experienced this tribalism. I’ve been called a Russian bot, a racist, and a Republican plant among other things by active Democrats cheering on “our team”. Because of this attitude, I’ve decided not to continue working for Democratic candidates until the attitude changes. I’ll take on causes and comment on politics from outside the bubble for the foreseeable future.
The Faustian Bargain
Many Florida progressives have made a Faustian bargain. They might gain the Governorship–in fact it seems likely if voters remain unconcerned with Gillum’s ethics. So progressives and the Democratic establishment will have what they want: someone willing to empower political cronies, lobbyists and those who want to suck-up to power. That’s the clear pattern of what happened in the City of Tallahassee and we have no reason to believe that Governorship will prove anything more than just a larger arena for graft, cronyism and common back-scratching.
It is entirely possible that those who make a living off politics and causes on the left are fundamentally identical to those who make a living doing the same on the right. They want access to power, they want their names in the newspaper, they want to attend cocktail parties and boast about how close they are to those making important decisions. They may preach different mantras, but perhaps based on what we observe, they are in fact, one in the same.
So many in the Democratic Party and activist progressives will argue the policy agenda a Gillum governorship would promote is more important than any of what is discussed above. But how exactly is that different than those Republicans who have made a similar faustian bargain with Donald Trump in order to pack the Supreme Court and cut taxes on the wealthy?
The number of #NeverTrumpers on the right did encourage me that we’d see a similar questioning of Gillum’s nomination this week. But Florida’s Democrats, powerless and irrelevant for two decades have lost any sense of how to exercise proper leverage regularly in the legislative process. They just want to win at any cost. Thanks to Trump’s troubles, they seem likely to win this November.
While the Trump and Gillum situations aren’t completely analogous–Trump is a brutish failed businessman, whereas Gillum has spent his entire life in public office and has on the surface a core set of guiding principles–they aren’t as dissimilar as many reading this would likely claim.
Short-term gain versus a long-term loss of credibility
The long-term cost for such desperation to obtain power is diluting legitimate critiques against Trump and the GOP. Embracing a nominee that is not that far removed from being the target of a federal investigation, is more than a few steps beyond bothersome. But when you add in the other suspicious behavior surrounding Gillum, progressives’ credibility in future critiques of the other side seem impossible to make.
Progressives seem oblivious to any familiar description of what power really is. Progressive power isn’t a mirror image of conservative power wielded by different people. Clintonianism and Third Way politics have clearly proven to undermine progressivism.
Progressive power is transformative. It gives power back to the people, rather than a set of professional left proxies, or lobbyists and political cronies.
The bottom line is if similar allegations and a pattern of behavior which includes alleged abuses of public office and public trust were tied to a Republican or even a conservative Democrat, progressives would scream like mad. We’d rightly hear about how the GOP has officeholders that abuse their offices, empower lobbyists and make poor decisions that aren’t in the public interests when surrounded by cronies or those seeking favors.
On the national level, we’ve seen Democrats excuse or cover-up sexual harassment claims when it suits their purposes. We’ve seen Democrats attack and shame those who call out powerful men for sexual harassment. We’ve seen Democrats rally around the flag to defend other prominent officeholders who have ethical transgressions. But from where I sit the Gillum conundrum represents a tipping-point, a clear sign that partisans and professional left activists in Florida are willing to throw-in with anyone who parrots their talking points in order to gain power and systematically deny there is any “there, there” . It’s a reality that has left me and those who think like I do, ill-at-ease with this party and the progressive movement in general.
The need to regain power at all costs and to have access to the levers of state government has put Florida’s Democrats and the professionals who benefit from the party in the same sort of desperate win at-all-costs position at the national Democrats were in the early 1990’s after years of Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush. What that led to was a dumbing down of the progressive message and leftist politics during the Clinton years that we are still fighting to climb out from.
While accurately attacking the culture of cronyism and corruption that has beset the halls of power in Tallahassee for the last two decades, Florida’s Democrats have forgotten they have a moral obligation to push back against a culture of cronyism, corruption and a general lack of transparency in public service. It’s an unfortunate place we sit today, but because of the choices that have made and the failure of anyone with a prominent voice within the Florida Democratic Party and its associated allied circles to take a stand, I cannot support this nominee at this time.
Let’s hope in the coming weeks, when the gravity of what is at stake hits progressives, the better angels of our nature and that of the Democrats Gubernatorial nominee step forward.
(Gillum was cleared by a Grand Jury on this, but it’s still incredibly sloppy that he made this mistake to begin with)