Is he a progressive or a centrist? An environmentalist or pro-development? Is he for universal health care or aligning with the insurance industry?
Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, the Democratic nominee for and likely Governor of our state, has been in elected office since the age of 23. Like most politicians he’s flipped and flopped on issues. Much like many politicians he’s kept close company with lobbyists and those looking to develop land. Unlike many politicians he’s been able to somehow win a statewide party nomination by downplaying his record and ratcheting up his rhetoric—albeit temporarily and just to get through a primary. Following his primary victory, Gillum wasted no time racing to the middle and making it clear to those paying attention, he wasn’t beholden to any set of principles or ideology. Still progressives love him despite unanswered questions still persisting regarding municipal government in Tallahassee.
His history tells us he is beholden to one thing: power (reflecting the preferences of those around him.) Perhaps this isn’t the worst thing when contrasted to the Florida GOP as those who surround him aren’t the sort evil people with a straight agenda of empowering corporations and keeping the working class down, the way some around Republican officials in this state are. But it still casts doubt on his independence and his ability to actually deliver on that he’s been promising voters. Gillum as we’ve learned before is very loyal to those who surround him even pushing their agenda as en elected official.
Gillum’s ideology isn’t progressive, centrist or conservative. It’s based around the fundamental principles of political survival and advancement. The company he’s kept since the age of 23 tells us he’s a climber and a talented actor playing various roles assigned him at a given moment. During the Democratic Primary for Governor facing off with Gwen Graham, a bonafide centrist and Phillip Levine, a self-proclaimed moderate, Gillum raced left and was able to con many into believing he was a true progressive. Meanwhile he’s adroitly found ways to personally profit off his own campaign which shows an impressive business acumen. Gillum has also been able parlay his candidacy into a consulting job with a PR firm that appears to be secretive.
Not surprisingly given all of this, the day after he won the primary, Gillum’s swung hard from Medicare For All to “affordable healthcare,” and echoes the concerns of right-wingers about the government in Nicaragua which might lead to believe that what he really stands for is ‘not much.’ That is, not much that isn’t vetted by lobbyists such as close associate Sean Pittman who lobbies for AT&T, TECO and Florida Crystals among others and who recently penned a column declaring Gillum something other than a progressive. It’s worth recalling Pittman was one Gillum’s travel buddies on his now infamous trip to Costa Rica where the Tallahassee Mayor unbeknownst to him sat down with an undercover FBI agent and finds himself in a tangled web of scandal (great graphic from the Tallahassee Democrat by the way)
Politicians changing their tune shouldn’t surprise anyone. What is remarkable, though, is the left’s willingness to enable the shift by pretending it hasn’t happened, or worse yet, justifying it as a wise General Election strategy. This is the most Clintonian of defenses.
A lack of historical perspective and institutional knowledge about Florida politics and government, combined with an insatiable need to “feel important” and appear powerful have pushed many on the left toward behaving like Republicans. Thus in an environment where the collapse of local newspapers has created a vacuum in investigative journalism and further empowered partisan and political activists, Gillum hasn’t faced the type of scrutiny he would have 8, or 12, or 16 years ago. These activists have either been conned by Gillum or have thrown-in with him in order to obtain power. They’re either blissfully ignorant of a pattern of behavior that would be questionable to any true progressive or willing accomplices hoping to beat the GOP and conservatives that have damaged this state at their own game.
Fair enough, this is politics now and it has to accepted as reality in this era of polarization that an “our team” versus “the other team” framework would emerge.
But it is worth noting virtually no one I have spoken to around the City of Tallahassee in recent years sees Gillum as a progressive. They see him as a talented Democratic Party pol in a one-party town, which also happens to be the state capital, giving him access to even more connections. He’s often seen as a pragmatic political survivor who has been racing to get to the top. He gets high marks for political adroitness and flexibility. He’s well-respected by those around power because he is of the same ilk—which depending on your perspective could be a good or bad thing.
Gillum’s pattern of questionable behavior is an open book for all to see but hasn’t fazed Democrats one bit. While progressives get caught up nuance saying Gillum isn’t a formal target of an FBI investigation (neither is Donald Trump in all likelihood, yet we know most likely Trump HAS abused power in some respect) and that those who accuse him of wrongdoing are engaged in a witch hunt, Gillum’s seemingly convinced them all. The pattern of behavior Gillum has engaged in is either careless and reckless or worse, deceptive and deliberate.
Perhaps many progressive activists are in the business of politics to obtain power not advance causes? You might look back on the candidacies many so-called progressive candidates in the past have boasted their fealty to groups like Associated Industries of Florida (AIF), Duke Energy, or the Chamber of Commerce. They all say the same thing: it’s about access and fighting the Republicans. We’re all for fighting the GOP, particularly in this state which has been virtually pillaged by the excessive plundering of special interest-connected GOPers and corrupt legislators like the disgraced ex-Speaker Ray Sansom, Chris Dorworth, Tom Feeney, Erik Fresen and Johnny Byrd among others. The culture of corruption and cronyism created by Florida Republicans seems however to impacted Democrats and others in the political game, particularly those who hang around Tallahassee – see they know no other way anymore.
Tearing a page from the Third Way of the 90s, the way forward is to behave like Republicans: ruthless, cunning and divisive. Perhaps that is realpolitik in 21st Century Florida?
If it is, it’s worth acknowledging that the template for how this places out exists. Just go back and be honest about the manner in which policy was enacted during the Clinton administration. Looking back on that period of neoliberal excess—the one for instance that brought us the Telecommunications Act of 1996, repeal of Glass-Stegall, and the Commodities Futures Modernization Act. If it weren’t for an ill-advised blow job we would have lost Social Security.
There is simply so much at stake. Do we go forward together equipped to demand policy objectives in healthcare, infrastructure, environment (gasp!) from a Democratically-controlled Tallahassee—same as we do a Republican? If we’re to be realistic about our agenda, we’d do well remember the leadership lessons from both the Clinton and Obama administrations. War crimes, Wall Street, the public option—progressive policy wasn’t just sold off, it was used to taunt the left as when Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel called the “professional left…fucking retarded.”
The ‘professional left,’ such as it is now is beholden to funders that all hail from the same circle of coastal elites that push crap candidates year-after-year. Cuomo, Bloomberg, and Clinton are all cut from this cloth. Predictably out of touch, ill-equipped and unwilling to hold the powerful accountable for the destruction wrought by their self-interest. When the professional left participates in this—and how can they not when their funding comes from billionaires protecting their own nut—they’re not doing us any favors. They’re just advancing their own careers. So how can we trust them to hold the right and cronyism culture of the GOP accountable? How can we be sure they even have the credibility to go after the next Sansom, Dorworth or Feeney?
The Third Way promises cronyism that will be deemed “our” cronyism. Is that even a realistic goal? If it’s between real progressive policy and capitulating to lobbyists, who do we really think is going to win that battle? Heck, do we think we’re going fight it? It’s easy to imagine that those who dare to push reasonable policy change will likely be met the same weaponized identity politics we’ve experienced since 2016 (and earlier if we’re being honest).
In general this all shows us a worrying trend in the Democratic Party in which donors hail from elite tech and financial circles who rely on a “gig economy” or business cycles that allow the donor class to crush the working class in the never ending quest for increasing short-term bottom lines. This is a greater long-term issue with the party and its ideology than anything related to Andrew Gillum and will need to be explored further in the near future.
Chances are Gillum will be Governor. Part of being talented is knowing what roles to take and when. Gillum picked the perfect year to run the campaign he has. With Donald Trump in the White House, and Bernie Sanders, arguably the most popular elected official nationally having fired up the left, moving left was easy for Gillum. Smooth and convincing, the Tallahassee Mayor has a penchant for being deceptive on the stump and even in small groups. This helped convince masses of Sanders’ backers to throw in with a Clintonian-style elected official who just two years earlier had enthusiastically endorsed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic Primaries, against Sanders.
Time will tell if progressives hold Gillum accountable as Governor or if they will continue to simply attack the GOP and stick their heads in the sand. In the immortal words of the Who “we won’t get fooled again,” well at least some of us won’t.