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How Gubernatorial Candidate Andrew Gillum Won With Grassroots Activism

Phillip Agnew and Charlene Carruthers discuss their work with Gillum.

After progressive candidate Andrew Gillum pulled off a stunning upset in Florida’s Democratic primary for governor Tuesday, putting him on a path to become the state’s first African-American governor, he was attacked within hours by his Republican opponent — handpicked by Trump — who warned voters not to “monkey this up” by supporting Gillum. Even Fox said they they don’t condone his comments. We speak with two activists who’ve worked with Gillum: Phillip Agnew with Dream Defenders in Florida and Charlene Carruthers, head of Black Youth Project 100 and author of the new book Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: We begin today’s show looking at how progressive candidate Andrew Gillum pulled off a stunning upset in Florida’s Democratic primary for governor Tuesday, putting him on a path to become the state’s first African-American governor if he wins in November. The 39-year-old mayor of Tallahassee was backed by Bernie Sanders and spent millions less than his better-funded opponents, including former Congresswoman Gwen Graham, the daughter of Bob Graham, the former governor and senator. Gillum was the only nonmillionaire in the five-candidate race. On the campaign trail, Gillum called for Medicare for all, abolishing ICE, reforming the criminal justice system, repealing Florida’s “stand your ground” law and increasing corporate taxes.

President Trump handpicked Gillum’s Republican opponent in the governor’s race, Congressman Ron DeSantis. And on Wednesday, he tweeted — Trump tweeted, quote, “Not only did Congressman Ron DeSantis easily win the Republican Primary, but his opponent in November is his biggest dream…a failed Socialist Mayor named Andrew Gillum who has allowed crime & many other problems to flourish in his city. This is not what Florida wants or needs!” he wrote. DeSantis, who is white, then drew widespread outrage Wednesday when he used racist language to describe Gillum in an interview with Fox News.

REP. RON DESANTIS: We’ve got to work hard to make sure that we continue Florida going in a good direction. Let’s build off the success we’ve had on Governor Scott. The last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda with huge tax increases and bankrupting the state.

AMY GOODMAN: During the same interview, DeSantis referred to Gillum as an “articulate spokesman” for far-left views. Fox News anchor Sandra Smith later told viewers, quote, “We do not condone this language and wanted to make our viewers aware that he has since clarified his statement.” DeSantis’ spokesperson, Stephen Lawson, said, quote, “Ron DeSantis was obviously talking about Florida not making the wrong decision to embrace the socialist policies that Andrew Gillum espouses. To characterize it as anything else is absurd.”

Andrew Gillum later appeared on Fox News himself and was asked to respond to DeSantis saying “monkey this up.” He spoke to anchor Shepard Smith.

MAYOR ANDREW GILLUM: Yeah, that part wasn’t lost on me. It’s very clear that Mr. DeSantis is taking a page directly from the campaign manual of Donald Trump. But I think he’s got another thing coming to him if he thinks that in today’s day and age Florida voters are going to respond to that level of derision and division. They’re sick of it. What we’re trying offer in this race is a North Star —

SHEPARD SMITH: Was that racist or a — or a —

MAYOR ANDREW GILLUM: — for where we want to go as a state.

SHEPARD SMITH: Was that racist or a figment of speech?

MAYOR ANDREW GILLUM: Well, in the handbook of Donald Trump, they no longer do whistle calls. ith so calls. They’re now using full bullhorns.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined two guests, who have worked with Andrew Gillum. In Miami, Florida, Phillip Agnew is with us, co-director of Dream Defenders, a community-based movement organization. In 2013, Andrew Gillum was a city commissioner in Tallahassee when Agnew and the Dream Defenders led the takeover of the state Capitol to protest the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin. Gillum supported their direct action. The next year, Gillum was elected mayor. Agnew and the Dream Defenders have also worked to support Andrew Gillum in Florida’s governor’s race. And in our New York studio, we’re joined by Charlene Carruthers, national director of the Black Youth Project 100. She worked with Andrew Gillum in a program that trains young people to run for office and teaches them how to run campaigns. Her new book is just out; it’s titled Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Phillip Agnew in Florida, let’s begin with you. First, your response to Ron DeSantis and what he said just hours after this upset victory in the Democratic primary, where Andrew Gillum won? Talk about his words, “monkeying it up.”

PHILLIP AGNEW: Well, down here in Florida, we call Ron DeSantis “Ron Distraction,” “Ron Disaster.” He’s trying to take Florida back into a vision of the past. And so we don’t spend time talking about him.

What we’re talking about are the issues that Andrew talked about, which is a new vision. We say down here that we’re moving with 2020 vision. And so, there’s no need to look back. All we need to do is look forward. And on Tuesday, we saw that the majority of people in the state of Florida want to move forward. They want healthcare for all. They want an end to the private prison system. They want raises for all public school teachers. They want an elected official who isn’t afraid to say “climate change,” let alone engage with climate change. And so, we have an opportunity, after two decades of Republican trifecta leadership in Tallahassee — in the governorship, in the House and in the Senate — to actually shift our state and move it from being a political punchline to a model of what it looks like when the people have power. And so, moving back and talking about candidates who obviously want to take us back to their storied past is not really worth our time, right?

We have a vision that we’re putting forward, the Freedom Papers, that says that we can move from a state that invests in profit to a state that invests in people. And so, we’re excited about Tuesday, because the climate in Florida is one of affirmation right now, that we’ve been knocking on doors for the last six years as Dream Defenders Action, and a constellation of organizations have been working for decades to ensure that on Tuesday, it takes two — it takes 20 years to be an overnight story, but we’re excited, and we knew that this was going to happen. It wasn’t stunning for us at all.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Phillip Agnew, you said you’re looking ahead to 2020, so what do you think Gillum’s victory might mean for the 2020 presidential elections?

PHILLIP AGNEW: Well, it’s Gillum’s victory. It’s also the fact that in November we’re going to have the opportunity, led by formerly incarcerated people, to bring the franchise back to 1.4 million people that have had the right to vote stolen because they have a felony conviction in a racist state. And so, Gillum’s nomination and eminent candidacy and the right to vote for 1.4 million people in the state of Florida tells us that we have the opportunity in 2020 to change the state that went barely red for Donald Trump, that Rick Scott won by 60,000 votes four years ago. We have the opportunity to make a model here, and one — as the state goes, the country goes. And we have an opportunity, with those 1.4 million people, with the election of Andrew Gillum as governor, to turn this state blue, and then to move a radical platform as we look to 2022 and 2024 and the next 20 years in the state.

AMY GOODMAN: Phillip Agnew, take us back to 2012 and before. Let’s get a fuller picture of Andrew Gillum. He already made history, whether or not he becomes the governor of Florida, and he would be the first African-American governor. He’s the first African-American gubernatorial candidate of a major party. And go back in time and talk about how Dream Defenders formed and your work with Andrew Gillum, how Andrew Gillum rose up through the ranks, coming home to his state of Florida to organize.

PHILLIP AGNEW: Amy, if you don’t mind, I’d like to go back to 2003. I met Andrew Gillum while I was a student leader at Florida A&M University. I wound up being student body president. And Andrew Gillum, who had been student body president, had also run and become the youngest commissioner in the city of Tallahassee at that point. His office was right off of campus. And it was in 2003, after seeing posters of millions of people who had descended on Tallahassee, led by Andrew Gillum as a student leader in the Arrive with Five march for affirmative action, that I really learned that the role as a student leader at Florida A&M is not one that is just concerned with the campus, but you are concerned with the lives of the people of the state of Florida. And Andrew taught me that in 2003.

So, in 2012, when we start this organization, it is really with a model of what Andrew has led for many, many years in the state. We like to say Andrew Gillum isn’t a friend of the movement, he is a part of the movement. He is a part of a long lineage of people. And so, not only in 2003, but in 2012, 2013, 2014, when we protested, as mayor of Tallahassee, he gave us a forum in Tallahassee. And so, what we have here is a person who has come from the grassroots, who has risen, who has stayed in the state, educated in public schools, went to college in Florida, and now has risen to being the only black — the first black nominee for governor in the history of Florida. And so, this is a story of many years of hard work. This is not an overnight sensation. This is somebody who has put in the work, who has been there and who has been a model for people for many, many years and will continue to be one as governor.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, you said, you know, he supported your protest, but it was much more than that. You did a month-long occupation of the Florida state Capitol building.


AMY GOODMAN: Now, this was in response to the killing of Trayvon Martin and the whole justification, the “stand your ground” law that George Zimmerman used. So explain your role and Andrew Gillum’s role as an elected official.

PHILLIP AGNEW: Well, we were protesting the acquittal of George Zimmerman, right? And so, the entire country was angry and up in arms and looking at Florida for some sort of glimmer of hope. And, you know, we said at that time — we had occupied the Capitol for 30 days. There are many people who wouldn’t touch us. But there are people like Charlene with BYP. There are people like New Florida Vision, Florida Immigrant Coalition, who supported that occupation. And, you know, we said at that point — Andrew Gillum was one of the only elected officials, as a commissioner, to help us to deliver food and to stand in the gap when people wanted to kick us out.

And we said, at the end of that occupation, a few years ago, that we would be back, that Rick Scott had not listened to us and that we were going to leave the Capitol, we were going to organize in our communities and that we would be back to ensure that our job was done. And, you know, we thought it was going to take about two months for us to get back and bring the masses of people back to the Capitol and demand justice. But little did we know that it would actually take many, many years and that this time, when we come back to the Governor’s Mansion and the governor’s office, we wouldn’t be occupying and yelling at a governor who wouldn’t listen. We will be occupying for the next four years with a governor who comes from the ranks of movement organizations and knows how to build. So, Andrew Gillum has been there. And this is just an affirmation, another promise kept by the movement organizations on the ground in Florida, that we can build, when you knock on doors, when you talk to people, when you don’t just rely on social media, when you do the hard work, you don’t see the immediate results, and this is what you get. You get one of the most stunning victories in the country on Tuesday.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, during the campaign, Andrew Gillum said that the “stand your ground” law has created a state of emergency in Florida, and called on Governor Scott to issue an executive order suspending the law. Quote, “If he won’t, when I’m Governor, I will,” Gillum said.

PHILLIP AGNEW: The consequence of confusion over how “stand your ground” is applied in this state can result in the loss of life of otherwise innocent people. It is in fact an emergency in the state of Florida, when parents have to be concerned about their children or themselves being gunned down, again, under the color of the law of “stand your ground.”

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Phil Agnew, can you respond to what Gillum said there, and also give a sense of what the impact of “stand your ground” has been across Florida?

PHILLIP AGNEW: Well, of course, we agree. I think if you look at the state of Florida, we have a number of states of emergency. In education, there’s a state of emergency. Criminal justice and the environment, there’s a state of emergency. In healthcare there’s a state of emergency. And so, Mayor Gillum has a lot of work to do on day one when he enters the office.

“Stand your ground,” specifically, is a part of a bevy of laws put forward by Marion Hammer and the racist NRA in the state of Florida. And so, what we’ve seen is laws that are germinated and built in Florida are then exported around the country. And so, for a law like “stand your ground” to be stricken down in Florida, that bodes well for many other states that are fighting similar copycat laws, that were started in Florida.

And the impact has been heavy. You now have a populace of people who have been living in Trump’s America for many, many years. They feel that just by being a little bit afraid of someone else, that they can murder them in cold blood. And what it has done is built an environment a great fear. When you go to school — we saw what happened many months ago, in February, in Parkland — young people are afraid. They’re afraid to be in school. They’re afraid to be in their neighborhoods. If you live in Liberty City, you’re afraid to live in Liberty City because you got gun violence there, as well. And so, we have an environment that is friendly to guns and very unfriendly to young people.

And with a Mayor Gillum and Governor Gillum in office, we have the opportunity to put the brakes on that, and then to begin to bring forward a new bevy of laws that create a safe environment, that aren’t invested in guns and the NRA, but are invested in the lives and the livelihood of young people, women, immigrants and citizens of Florida.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined by Charlene Carruthers, national director, founding director of the Black Youth Project 100, author of Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements. You go way back with Phillip Agnew, is that right? Back to elementary school?

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Oh, my god, yes! We went to the same elementary school on the South Side of Chicago.

AMY GOODMAN: And you go way back with Andrew Gillum.


AMY GOODMAN: If you can talk about how you knew him?

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Mm-hmm. So, in about 2011, 2012, I was a part of a program called the Front Line Leaders Academy. And basically they brought together black, brown, LGBTQ young folks from across the country to train on how to run campaigns and, even more importantly, how to run for office ourselves. And amazingly, since then, some of my cohort members have actually been elected. And Andrew was a part of the leadership of that program, alongside Rebecca Thompson. And for me, what I remember most about Andrew at that time —

AMY GOODMAN: This was Washington, DC?

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Yes, this was in Washington, DC

And what I remember most about Andrew at that time, and years after that, be it at the Capitol during the occupation by Power U and the Dream Defenders, was his accessibility, his willingness to listen, his spirit that was open and welcoming to young people. I remember his sister, Monique Gillum, who’s also a sorority sister of mine. She’s a powerhouse behind that campaign, too.

And so, I am excited about the fact that the campaign and the organizations, including Dream Defenders Action, including Florida Immigrant Coalition, Collective PAC, Color of Change PAC, who were on the ground and decided to invest in the voters and the people, that other candidates and parties have thrown away. And when you bet on our people, it’s not risky. It’s not a gamble. It’s actually a sure bet, right? And we saw well over what? A 500,000 voter increase from 2014 in the primary election? That’s huge to see. And that doesn’t happen because people just felt like getting up to vote one day. It happens because they had a platform to believe in. They had a candidate running on a platform to believe in. And they showed up because they had organizations who value their opinions and value the issues enough, that impact their lives, to fight for it.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So what do you think, Charlene? What do you think Gillum’s victory means, not just for Florida, but for across the US?

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: So, I’m from Chicago, where we have a number of rank-and-file Democrats who actually are perhaps Democratic in name, but in all other ways they are corrupt, they don’t actually act in the best interest of the people — from Mayor Rahm Emanuel in Chicago to various members of our City Council to the person who sits as governor in the state of Illinois. And so, my hope is that it sends a signal to organizations and individuals to say that we need to move radical agendas and not just focus on candidates. Gillum is amazing. But he would not have received this nomination for the Democratic Party had he not had a platform that young people, that immigrants, that black folks, brown folks could actually get behind.

AMY GOODMAN: The media had put him fourth.


AMY GOODMAN: Now, you have Stacey Abrams —


AMY GOODMAN: — who would become the first African-American governor of Georgia. You have Ben Jealous —


AMY GOODMAN: — who, if he wins, would become the — is running for governor of Maryland.

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Maryland, mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: And then you have Andrew Gillum —


AMY GOODMAN: — who would become the first African-American governor of Florida.


AMY GOODMAN: All trained as activists in the manner you’re talking about, in these kind of — I remember when Stacey Abrams won, Ben Jealous tweeting the picture of the two of them organizing years before.

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. So, I think it’s superimportant to be clear about the importance of moving platforms, moving an agenda that’s about universal healthcare for all people, ending money bail — right? — legalizing marijuana, which we know there are people — our people are sitting in prisons and jails across the country while this has been legalized, right? And so, candidates matter, sure. We have to elect someone. But they also need backup when and if they’re elected. So, if Gillum becomes — when Gillum becomes governor, when Abrams becomes governor, when Jealous becomes governor, if they don’t have a grassroots base to both hold them accountable and to move that agenda, they won’t be successful.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to turn to Fox News host Laura Ingraham commenting on Andrew Gillum’s upset victory in the Democratic gubernatorial primary in Florida.

LAURA INGRAHAM: Gillum is the African-American male version of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He’s young. He’s kind of dynamic. And he’s running on a platform of universal Medicare, legalized marijuana and abolishing ICE. Exciting. And he’s viewed by hard-left Democrats as kind of a savior from the stranglehold that the party’s establishment have had on their desires, hopes and dreams.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Charlene, can you comment on that? I mean, Fox News, that’s the same network that DeSantis said “monkey this up.”

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Yeah, you know, this is more of the same. We saw this in 2008. We saw it in 2012. And we saw a version of it in 2016, where conservatives, Republicans, where the media, that is also controlled by corporate interests, use not just these whistleblowers, but, as Andrew noted, like bullhorns, to really lay their values out on the table.

And so, what we need to focus on right now is not actually the opposition. What we need to focus on are the folks who are invested in moving a radical agenda, both in the state of Florida, the state of Georgia, even in my home state of Illinois, and absolutely in the state of Maryland, because these folks, as Phil said earlier, they’re a distraction for what’s possible. And we know that even in the state of governor, there are actually, at my last count, more registered folks who are registered to vote for the Democratic Party. And so, the thing that we have to do is actually do the work to turn those folks out and mobilize them not just for the election, but beyond Election Day, and keep them organized.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to ask you to stay with us, Charlene Carruthers, again, founding director of the Black Youth Project 100, author of — well, it’s a new book, Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements. And we want to thank Phillip Agnew, co-director of Dream Defenders —


AMY GOODMAN: — a Florida-based community movement and organization that helped to elect, organized fiercely for, Andrew Gillum in this upset victory in the Democratic primary for governor in Florida.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re going to go south to look at Mississippi, this surge in deaths in Mississippi’s prisons. Stay with us.

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