Andrew Gillum at Orlando town hall: Democratic voters want to hear a progressive message

Andrew Gillum at Orlando town hall: Democratic voters want to hear a progressive message

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum talks with people during a town-hall meeting in Orlando on Thursday, May 31, 2018. (Steven Lemongello / Orlando Sentinel)

Andrew Gillum said Florida Democrats can’t rely on opposition to Donald Trump if they want to win the Governor’s Mansion in November, but instead need to focus on progressive issues such as “Medicare for All” that will bring out Democratic voters.

Democrats “need to make sure they’re creating an agenda [voters] can see themselves in,” the Tallahassee mayor said at a town hall in Orlando on Thursday night. ”Yes, deal with Trump, but by the same token let’s not make him the centerpiece of our electoral success.”

The event at First Unitarian Church of Orlando was the last in a series of town-hall meetings hosting all four Democratic candidates for governor, organized by the Central Florida chapters of Grassroots Progressives, the Women’s March, Indivisible, Tuesday Resistance and Challenge Politics. Former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and Winter Park businessman Chris King appeared earlier this spring.

“It’s my belief that the way we’re going to win this race — not just the primary, but the general — is by giving more of our voters a reason to turn out,” Gillum said. “I don’t think we’ve given the best stimulus to the voters who are required to turn out for Democrats to win. Largely those voters are black, brown, younger and poorer — and let me tell you, I trust my chances turning out those constituencies better than any candidate in this race.”

Of his opponents in the Aug. 28 Democratic primary, Gillum joked: “Over the course of the campaign, everybody’s redefining themselves, everybody’s progressive all of a sudden. I was getting lonely out there.

“Don’t create new candidates out of whole cloth and new belief systems,” Gillum said. “Be yourself. Lean into what you believe. My critique of my opponents isn’t just that we disagree with each other, it’s that I want to make sure if I’m not the Democratic nominee, I want to know what we’re getting. I want to know … if you’re going to be the governor who campaigned as progressive.”

Gillum was still extremely critical of Trump, calling the federal response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico “a failure of epic proportions at every level of government, but it does start at the top. The federal response has been abysmal. I’m not sure the president knew, before being told, that Puerto Rico was part of the United States. And some of his followers still don’t know.”

But he stressed issues that played well to the progressive crowd, getting some of the biggest applause for the candidates so far.

“I’m the only candidate running for governor who believes in Medicare for All,” he said. “You can’t say as Democrats, ‘Health care is a right,’ and then not take the appropriate policy steps to make sure it’s true. There are candidates running around saying health care is a right, and then ask them how to do it and everybody goes chirping.”

The mayor said he knew the need for every resident to have insurance coverage because he grew up “waiting for the free dental clinic to show up in the neighborhood so we could get free dental care.”

“I know not because I’m reading a script or a pollster told me; it’s because I lived it,” Gillum said. “I’m the only non-millionaire running for governor, and I do wear it as a badge of honor.”

He cited his legal fight with the National Rifle Association over an ordinance banning guns in city parks; his city’s growth of solar power; his support of early education; and the school system’s programs to train more students for skilled jobs that allowed half of the graduating high school class to already have job offers.

Gillum said mental health care shouldn’t be only brought up following mass shootings “as a way not to do anything about guns,” and added he wants full legalization of marijuana and retroactive decriminalization for those convicted of nonviolent possession.

He also said he would veto any budget that took money out of the affordable housing fund for other uses, and said improving the quality of life is a better way of attracting companies such as Amazon rather than tax breaks.

“We’ve been fooled into believing in this state that the only way you can get good jobs to come to Florida is by being a cheap date, a low-tax state,” Gillum said. “I believe companies choose cities and choose states based on the quality, lived experience they and their employees can benefit from should they locate there.”

If companies come to Florida, he said, “and there are employees that have to go into their own pocket to pay for a private school education because they have no faith in a public school? Disincentive. If they come here and you’ve got to spend two and a half hours going to and from work, because your governor failed to expand high-speed rail? … If you have a climate-change-denying governor when you live in a state that’s a peninsula? Those are things that might cause people not to choose us.”

slemongello@orlandosentinel.com, 407-418-5920 or @stevelemongello

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