BOYNTON BEACH, Florida—A statewide recount for Florida’s U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races has brought with it an intense period of massive fundraising operations, national media attention, gutter politics, and a campaign to undermine confidence in the final results.
But Andrew Gillum is in it for the long game.
As President Donald Trump urges Florida officials to shut down the recount, and Rick Scott and Bill Nelson battle each other in the court of public opinion—and in the actual courts—Gillum’s goal during the recount has been the opposite. The Tallahassee mayor is implicitly putting the governor’s race behind him—even if he won’t say it—and is visiting African-American churches to push his coalition to keep their own faith in the voting process, and to prevent them from going back to the demoralized and disaffected state many were in after Barack Obama was replaced in White House by Donald Trump.
“I want intensely to be the next governor of Florida. I want it badly,” Gillum told a majority-black audience at the St. John Missionary Baptist Church. “But what is more important to me is that we don’t turn off a generation of people from participating in the democratic process.”
Gillum sees the writing on the wall, those close to him say. Even after the state-mandated recount, he is unlikely to gain significant ground to close the 33,684-vote gap that separates him and Ron DeSantis, his Republican opponent. Gillum’s campaign, unlike Scott’s and Nelson’s, is not sending emergency fundraising appeals and has not lawyered up. Before November 6, Gillum’s slogan was “bring it home.” Now, it’s “count every vote.”
That’s because Gillum has a longer-term goal. The 39-year-old is continuing to build an Obama-like coalition for his future political advantage in this key swing state, a strategy aimed at establishing himself as a future leader in the Democratic party and ensuring that his base does not gain the impression that their votes do not count.
“For a lot of voters, particularly African-American voters, there is a real concern about confidence in the system and whether you can trust the system in the wake of 2000,” said Steve Schale, Obama’s 2008 Florida state director, referring to the recount here that sent George W. Bush to the White House.
“I think he’s very realistic, as am I, about the odds of it changing for him. But in the end, hopefully it has created more confidence in the overall system so that one of the results coming out of this isn’t a lack of hope,” Schale told The Daily Beast. “The thing that we don’t need is a sense of somehow this thing was rigged, it was stolen, and more importantly that my vote doesn’t matter because they’re just going to steal it from me.”
Schale said that during the 2008 campaign, he and his team had to spend resources on voter-education initiatives so that African-Americans were not under the impression that their vote wouldn’t count if they voted for Obama. Gillum is employing a similar strategy—but he’s taking it to the church.
“I am certain that Mayor Gillum finds great comfort and security in the comforting embrace of the church,” Bob Buckhorn, the mayor of Tampa and a longtime friend of Gillum, told The Daily Beast. “For generations, the church has provided a place of refuge when the outside world seemed chaotic, and this is particularly true of the African-American church. After a long bruising campaign and an ongoing and uncertain aftermath, it is probably a place where he feels he can collect himself and prepare for what is to come.”
Boynton Beach is located in Palm Beach County, one of two counties whose election officials have come under fire by Republicans for their handling of the ballot-counting and for unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud. Both are Democratic strongholds where Nelson and Gillum are hoping their vote share will increase following the recount.
But Florida Democrats’ hopes are riding on Nelson, who trails Scott by just 12,562 votes. National leaders in both parties are competing vigorously in the court of public opinion, and are urging the Florida campaigns to sling mud at each other in a way that ultimately undermines public trust in the final tally.
Gillum, on the contrary, is spending time in his comfort zone to guide him through a process that is uncertain at best.
“I am not here to ask you for your vote. That part is done,” Gillum said, letting out a sigh of relief appropriate for what was a grueling campaign between him and DeSantis, who has declared victory and remained largely silent since the recount began two days ago.
“My kids, when they saw me packing, they said, ‘Daddy, campaign’s over!’” he added with a laugh. “They were telling the truth. The campaign’s over. But the counting ain’t done yet. So Daddy’s got to go back out there until the counting’s done.”
The Floridians who came to see Gillum speak said they were in anguish on election night when Gillum initially conceded the race to DeSantis. Many were convinced that they would finally see the first African-American elected governor in the state’s history. For some, Gillum’s visit turned their fortunes around.
“I felt that it wasn’t counted right,” said Louise Albury, 84, who has voted in every election since she was 18 years old and lives across the street from the church. “But whatever God’s plan is—the devil can’t do nothing with it. That’s the way I Iook at it. When God is for you, who can be against you?”
Gillum, who regularly attends the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Tallahassee, did not spare his political opponents. In addition to calling out Trump regularly on Twitter, Gillum has gone after Scott in particular, whom he alleges is trying to halt vote-counting operations in largely Democratic areas of the state.
“They’re claiming voter fraud because supervisors of elections are counting votes. If they were so assured of their wins—if they had nothing to be worried about—why wouldn’t they join our chorus in saying let our people be heard and let our votes be counted?” Gillum told the crowd, which regularly erupted with chants of “count every vote.”
Although he likely came up short, Gillum was able to motivate a base of African-American voters that had not turned out to the polls since the last time Obama was on the ballot. Those voters were unsure if they would vote this year; for the ones who did, Gillum has a difficult task ahead of him.
“Who would I be right to say, I’m not leading now in the numbers… and I decided that because I wasn’t the leading number at this time, that I was going to give up and let the process just work?” he asked the crowd. “But I’m here tonight to say count every vote—whether it helps me or not, count every vote.”