In a gubernatorial town hall held three weeks ago, Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum was asked if he considered himself a “democratic socialist.” He demurred. But Gillum, now the Democratic nominee for governor of Florida, is campaigning as a member of the Sanders–Ocasio-Cortez wing of the party: He wants to abolish ICE, raise the minimum wage to $15, pass single-payer health care, and increase taxes across the board. With its laissez-faire economic policies and its general respect for personal liberty, Florida has long been considered one of the freest states in the union. And the Democrats want to put a socialist in the governor’s mansion.
Since emerging as a surprise contender for the nomination, Gillum has received fawning coverage from the national press. The fawning will only intensify after his victory over two well-funded candidates to capture the Democratic nomination and make a bid to be the first African-American governor of the state (Republican congressman Ron DeSantis will be the other candidate, after routing his opponent Tuesday night). Gillum clearly has a base of support, and has earned the backing of left-wing billionaire donors. He is an energetic campaigner whose political savvy should not be underrated. But he would be a disaster as governor of Florida.
His record as mayor is far from sparkling. An ongoing FBI probe into corruption in Tallahassee politics has ensnared some of his formerly close associates and should be a legitimate issue in the gubernatorial race. In the wake of Hurricane Hermine, Gillum clashed with Governor Rick Scott and struggled to coordinate an effort to restore power to the city. One’s competency as an emergency manager is always a crucial issue in statewide elections. But it is Gillum’s politics that should put him beyond the pale: His agenda, taken straight from the Sanders playbook, displays little awareness of what distinguishes the Florida model from less free, less successful states.
He is a dedicated opponent of gun rights who supports a ban on “assault weapons” and measures to crack down on private gun sales. He is no friend of due process, having endorsed proposals to restrict the Second Amendment rights of people who have not been convicted of crimes. He has recommended that localities pass gun restrictions that flout state law. DeSantis is far closer to the typical Florida voter’s position on guns than Gillum, which is to say that DeSantis treats the Second Amendment as if it were part of the Constitution.
On health care, Gillum wants increased government involvement at the federal and state levels. He supports Sanders’s outlandish “Medicare for all” plan and says he would expand Medicaid in Florida. He has floated other ideas to increase state spending on health care.
This may be a clever tack for a politician in the state with the country’s largest geriatric population to take, but it strains credibility. Florida would need to adopt a New York–style tax regime to finance the medical costs of all those New Yorkers retiring to Boca Raton. Regardless, the rest of Gillum’s agenda — a $15 minimum wage, a steep corporate-tax hike — would be enough to dent the state’s thriving economy.
With all of that said, neither DeSantis nor the GOP should get too complacent. The media are taking a keen interest in the race and casting it as the future of American politics: a Trump-supporting populist versus a Sanders-backed social democrat. Increased attention from the national media is always a headwind for the Republican candidate, and this race is no different: Not 24 hours after the primary results, DeSantis was absurdly declared to have resorted to a racist dog whistle (he said we shouldn’t “monkey with” Florida’s success in what was clearly a reference to Gillum’s agenda). Strong support for current Republican governor Rick Scott who is running for Senate may not automatically translate into votes for DeSantis, especially if Democratic donors shift their resources from incumbent Democratic senator Bill Nelson to Gillum.
The race may therefore be a competitive one. But the nomination of a hard-left candidate in Florida — a state that has benefited from sensible conservative reforms for a generation — is a depressing sign of the continued radicalization of the Democratic party, with no end in sight.