First Stacey Abrams romped to victory in Georgia’s gubernatorial primary. Then came Ben Jealous in Maryland and, on Tuesday, Andrew Gillum.
Five years after the rise of Black Lives Matter — and against the backdrop of a White House that has inflamed racial tensions nationwide — Gillum’s upset win in Florida laid bare the potency of a new generation of black leaders gradually coming to power within the Democratic Party.
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With Gillum’s defeat of former Rep. Gwen Graham, Democrats will send three black nominees for governor to November’s general elections. A large number of African Americans are running for competitive House seats in majority-white districts. A black Democrat could become the next House speaker, and several of the Democratic Party’s top-tier prospective presidential candidates are black.
“There is an undeniable energy behind women and candidates of color across the country, and it is in direct defiance to the man in the Oval Office right now,” said Bill Burton, a veteran Democratic consultant.
Following Gillum’s win, the latest victory for a non-white candidate in a high-profile contest, Burton said, “The face of change is less monolithic than it has ever been.”
Gillum’s primary victory — like Abrams’ and Jealous’ — reflects the still-evolving prospects of African Americans in the Democratic Party a decade after America elected its first black president.
African Americans, while serving as the electoral backbone of the Democratic Party, have long been underrepresented in statewide office, and Gillum’s victory stunned Florida’s political establishment.
Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, was running in third or fourth place in public opinion polls before an endorsement from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) this month. Despite being outspent on television ads, he maintained that he could win if he won over black voters — who make up about 28 percent of Democratic primary voters in Florida — as well as white progressives. Following his late surge, he will now face a Donald Trump-endorsed Republican, Rep. Ron DeSantis, in the general election.
At his victory party Tuesday night, Gillum told supporters that “this thing is not about me.” But if elected, he would become Florida’s first African-American governor, while Abrams is vying to become the first black woman governor in the United States. They and Jealous are all progressive and relatively young, with Jealous the oldest at 45.
Their candidacies have drawn an especially sharp contrast to Trump. While the president has frequently pointed in his speeches to low black and Hispanic unemployment in an appeal to non-white voters, his remarks about “rapists” from Mexico and immigrants from “shithole” countries have enraged Democrats. Earlier this month marked the one-year anniversary of the deadly violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia — and Trump’s initial response that there were “very fine people on both sides.”
Gillum addressed the White House explicitly — and race implicitly — when he told supporters at his victory party that his campaign would paint an alternative to “the derision and the division that has been coming out of our White House.”
“Right here in the state of Florida, we are going to remind this nation of what is truly the American way, what is truly the American way, which simply is that you can start from the bottom, Richmond Heights … and make your way literally to the top of this state,” Gillum said to cheers. “And be of service to all people, have a message of love, of unity, of connection, of common sense, of decency, of what is right and not what is wrong. And that message is big enough, it’s wide enough, it’s deep enough to hold all of us.”
Gillum, Abrams and Jealous are significant to national Democrats not only for the governorships that they could win, but also the shape of the party in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election. Black turnout in the 2016 election fell for the first time in 20 years, according to the Pew Research Center, contributing to Hillary Clinton’s loss to Trump. Two years later, Democratic donors have paid increasing attention — and millions of dollars — to black candidates, hopeful that in addition to winning office, they could re-energize black voters ahead of the next presidential election.
The Democratic Party’s large field of prospective presidential candidates includes such black politicians as Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
“The Democratic Party’s finally getting out of the way and supporting candidates at the local level that don’t necessarily look like [Democratic Party officials],” said Michael Ceraso, a Democratic strategist who worked on Bernie Sanders’ and Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns. “I think Andrew’s win, and obviously Stacey’s, and [Iowa secretary of state candidate] Deidre DeJear over in Iowa are three examples.”
Ceraso said that while Trump is “bringing out a lot of frustration and angst … I just think that these candidates are inspiring and, at the same time, putting together really strong campaign operations, combined with a progressive wave.”
Only two African Americans have ever been elected governor in the United States, and the prospects for the Democratic Party’s three black gubernatorial candidates this year are uncertain. Republicans are already attacking Gillum, with the Republican Governors Association casting him Tuesday as a “radical far-left politician.”
But the field of African American candidates is deeper than it has been in previous years. In House races, more than half a dozen black Democrats are running in districts whose electorates are mostly white — significant to African-Americans traditionally considered less competitive in such districts.
The House candidates include Colin Allred, a 35-year-old former NFL linebacker in Texas; Lauren Underwood, who is seeking to flip a House district in Illinois; Antonio Delgado, a lawyer in New York; Steven Horsford, a former Congress member seeking to reclaim his seat in Nevada; Lucy McBath, a gun control activist in Georgia; and Linda Coleman, a state legislator running for Congress in North Carolina.
In another majority-white district, Jahana Hayes, a Connecticut teacher, is favored to become the first black Democratic member of Congress from her state.
If Democrats retake the House in November — and if Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) does not run or is defeated — it is possible the body will elect its first black speaker. Potential candidates include Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, Hakeem Jeffries of New York; Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, Elijah Cummings of Maryland and Marcia Fudge of Ohio.
But on Tuesday, the focus held squarely on Gillum. After campaigning for the candidate at his alma mater, Florida A & M, Angela Rye, former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus, raved on CNN about “the energy of these students, knowing that they’re going to go and support one of their fellow alums, knowing that there’s someone who looks like them, who represents their interests, who everyone counted out because he didn’t raise the same amount of money, who everyone counted out because of his age, who everyone counted out because he was not the person whose turn it was supposed to be.”
“But you know what?” Rye added. “It was his time.”