By Robert Buccellato
I’ve lived in Tallahassee for 25 years, been surrounded by politics my whole life, and this has never happened here before. Its an incredibly hot summer night in Tallahassee, the meeting place is the front of the famed restaurant Andrews, situated next to both the City Hall and the State Capitol complex.
The reason for the gathering is to attend an interest meeting for the formation of yet another Democratic party organization, in this case who for young professionals. At the front of the long table and the first to arrive are the organizers, a small grouping of thirty year old party activists, a tiny mix of legislative staffers and state party officials. They are personally welcoming and earnest, and the evening starts off well as the sun slowly begins to dim above the towering capitol. The temperature reaches 102 degrees and that’s when things start to change.
I invited a large grouping of progressives that included three local candidates for county commission to attend. Slowly they start to come in and the mood starts to turn cool. Finally its revealed that a guest of honor is on her way, a state official and a highly placed state party official. Once this person’s name is announced you can almost feel the back of the table, in which all the progressives have placed themselves begin to twitch. All dialogue from that moment on ends between both sides of the table. The honored guest arrives and so do the candidates. As the noted public official takes her seat at the head of the table, all of the candidates to her annoyance sit at the back of the table.
The moment the official begins to speak, the iPhone come out, and the progressive wing of the party; in more ways than one start to ice her out. As the evening ends a city commission meeting also lets out and a small micro dose of the entire Tallahassee political world comes into contact with the meeting.
Establishment executives call out members of the progressive wing of the table by name only to be met with stone faced silence. Likewise these same elected officials take no effort to outreach with any of the budding members of what was suppose to be the next generation of the Democratic party.
20 years ago, heck 4 years ago this never would have happened. The guest of honor would have come to offer their experience to a table full of hungry dreamers their eyes looking towards the day when their own names would be on ballots. But, now things were different, many of the youngsters as they would call us (I polled our age it was 31-39, with only one twenty something) were now wanting direct involvement in exchange for their enthusiasm. The time when an elected office earned you the right to command attention has long been gone and it looks like some Leon based democrats are still struggling with this realization.
There is something happening in Tallahassee. Everyone can sense it. Some old party hands who have been doing this for decades don’t pretend to understand. While the younger activists finally brought into the fold due to the historic momentum of Bernie’s 2016 race and feel it most evident as they watched Sanders’ message morph into progressive victories in Tallahassee’s city commission in 2018 and 2020.
The record heat of this summer has brought with it one strange shock after another. It began with the sudden death of County Commissioner Jimbo Jackson and the unexpected calling of a special election to fill his seat. Almost instantly the generational divisions within the party started to flare up.
Then on June 9th City Commissioner Jeremy Matlow held a press conference outside of the county courthouse to announce that he was suing the city government’s Blueprint Intergovernmental Agency.
This happened after repeated attempts by Matlow to see whether Blueprint’s top management team, consisting of County Administrator Vince Long and City Manager Reese Goad, are bound by the state’s Sunshine Laws.
“If you support change in our local government, I’m asking that you please join us to stand together united as one community, as a multi-generational, multi-racial coalition regardless of party or income to demand a local government that works for everyday people, not special interests,” said Matlow
If all of this wasn’t enough then came the day many citizens of Tallahassee hoped never would, Andrew Gillum, the 2018 Democratic nominee for Governor, was indicted on federal fraud charges Wednesday, and that could mean trouble for some of the politicians who rode his wave into elected office.
The 21 charges against Gillum allege that between 2016 and 2019 he and longtime campaign associate Sharon Lettman-Hicks conspired to commit wire fraud by unlawfully soliciting and obtaining contributions through false and fraudulent promises on how the money would be used. Gillum on Wednesday pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Though Gillum lost to DeSantis by about 32,000 votes in 2018, he was a popular nominee in many Democratic areas of the state, including Tallahassee where he spent 15 years in local elected office serving as a City Commissioner and later as Mayor. He was thought of as the golden boy, the future of the party by some. Now he was just another in a line of public officials facing imprisonment.
With each city commission meeting turning tense, a current mayor facing a tough challenge for re-election by a young retiring County Commissioner Kristin Dozier, a former mayor facing criminal charges, and calls for reform and oversight growing louder by the day; it seemed like the political heat couldn’t expand any more. But, then the roof caved in.
Just a day later came the U.S. Supreme Court ruling to overturn Roe V. Wade. A dangerous precedent that is being set by a far-right Supreme Court, casting doubt over the future of our other civil rights in the future.
On that terrible hot summer day in Tallahassee, it looked for a moment that some kind of consolidation could be achieved, a pop up event was quickly organized by numerous local groups and set to take place at the front of the Historic state capitol. The leg work was done mainly by college aged students, young volunteers, a few young candidates, the social democrats, and many women activist groups. But, there wasn’t any tangible presence by the state democratic party.
To make things even more unusual, most of the speakers that day were either activists with no elected experience or candidates running for public office during this cycle. Two speakers in particular Will
Crowley running for Jimbo’s second district seat and Josh Johnson running for a countywide commission seat were electrifying. Transforming into promising young figures of a brighter political future right before our eyes.
With all the outrage and anger taking place, there was something genuinely refreshing taking place. It wasn’t the party, but the party regulars that were propping up these candidates. It wasn’t a place for any canned speeches and whenever an establishment figure tried to jump in for a photo op, they were usually freeze out. The few elected officials that were there, were the ones that the back end of the Andrew’s table would have put their phones down for, and they seemed to be beyond proud out the speeches made by the younger generation.
In the heat of this moment in political history and this unusual summer, a dramatic change took place, the elders left the door open for the next batch. They wouldn’t give it to them, they’d still have to earn it. But, in that moment of history when action was needed, when a crowd needed to hear words of genuine hope, they handed the mic to the newcomers.
It was a moment a decade in the making and one that you wouldn’t have seen just a handful of years ago. But, it happened this one hot summer in Tallahassee.
Robert Buccellato is the author of four books including “Finding Dan McCarty,” a definitive work about an important era in Florida politics.