Throughout much of his political career, Andrew D. Gillum has stood out for the young age at which he has shown leadership. In 2003 at age 23, he was the youngest person ever elected to the Tallahassee City Commission. In February 2004, he was featured in EBONY as one of the “30 Leaders Who are 30 and Under.” Ten years later he was elected the mayor of Tallahassee, Florida’s state capital. In 2016, he addressed the Democratic National Convention, and his even name appeared on a list released by Wikileaks of early vice presidential possibilities for Hillary Clinton. On top of that, he’s all of 37 years old.
However, going forward his career may be defined more by a fight that is at the heart of the red state-blue city battle playing out across the nation. Nearly two-thirds of Americans live in cities; further, nearly two-thirds of the top 100 cities by population had Democratic mayors as of 2016. However, Republicans control 32 state legislatures. “What we’re seeing is Republicans having total control, of governor’s mansions, state houses and senates … where they control both chambers and the governor’s mansion. What they’re doing is basically taking that power for a ride,” Gillum said.
This type of red-blue split sets up battles such as one in which Gillum just prevailed: defending himself against a lawsuit by gun lobbyists over the right to fire a gun in a public park. Central to the fight was the practice of pre-emption, where state legislators pass a law that trumps one that has been passed by local lawmakers.
In Gillum’s previous position as a Tallahassee city commissioner, he and other public officials were sued for refusing to repeal decades-old gun control ordinances. Gillum and his co-defendants ultimately prevailed twice in proving that they had not violated state law because the state had already rendered the local ordinances “null and void” and the city was not enforcing them. Their most recent win was an appeals court decision on Feb. 3.
However, the rulings dismissed the city’s argument that the harsh penalties in the state law violates their rights. Gillum is continuing that fight in a “Campaign to Defend Local Solutions.” He spoke about the future of the campaign with EBONY.com, as well as the possibility of running for Florida governor in 2018, given that the current officeholder is term-limited. Gillum’s responses below are edited for space and clarity.
EBONY: Tell us more about the lawsuit that led you to start the Campaign to Defend Local Solutions.
Gillum: A group called Florida Carry and one called the Second Amendment Foundation came to the commission meeting and said that we were in violation of the state law if we allowed those ordinances to stay on our books, and demanded that we withdraw them. We said no, we were not going to do anything, and a few months later we were hit with a lawsuit. We were allowed to be sued because the egregiousness of Florida’s pre-emption law says that if an official votes contrary to state pre-emption that they can be personally sued, fined up to $5,000, be responsible for attorney’s fees of the opposing party for up to $100,000, cannot be represented by their government counsel—so you’ve got to go get your own lawyers—and you can be removed from office at the discretion of the governor.
The citizens of my community elected me to cast votes and to act in their interests. So now you can sue me for exercising my vote in a democratically elected office? We believed it to be a violation of the Constitution and our rights.
EBONY: What else is at stake in the campaign?
Gillum: In Democratic cities like mine where we might be in favor of stronger gun safety measures, a higher minimum wage, stronger environmental standards or LGBT rights and protections, [those stances are] inconsistent with the philosophy of many of these conservative-controlled legislatures.
We’re trying to help people understand that their lives are impacted when the legislature comes in and says that the people that they worked hard to elect—their mayors, their school board members, their city council members—no longer have the power to pass laws and ordinances that are consistent with the values of their community. That’s what’s at stake here. Pre-emption’s a big word but really what it is, is that this is the taking of power from people.
The communities I’ve represented have had enough of it, and especially in … a Trump administration [the question is] how we can protect our little bastions, our own communities from the derision and division and hatred and intolerance that seems to have intoxicated the rest of everything around us.
EBONY: You started public service at a very young age—just 23 years old when you became the youngest person ever elected to the Tallahassee City Commission. Do you remember the moment you decided to enter politics?
Gillum: It was my freshman year at FAMU in 2000 and the governor of the state of Florida [Jeb Bush] decided that he was going to unilaterally end affirmative action in higher education and in private contracting in Florida. I was at an HBCU but I had a brother and a sister who were coming behind me and I didn’t know what they were going to choose for their educational options. I wasn’t sure if they might need affirmative action.
We tangled at the highest levels of government when we took on Jeb Bush, whose brother, by the way, was a sitting president. About 3,000 of us marched down to the state capital with suits on. I was insistent that suits be worn because I didn’t want them thinking that that we were child’s play.
We had our research, demands that we were going to put to the governor. After all that was done we didn’t win the full battle … we got some concessions from the governor, and he came out of his office and said we were some of the most thoughtful young people he had ever encountered. I’m now able to see that as a compliment, but at the moment I thought that it was pacifying and a little condescending.
That was a little bit of a learning moment for me: that you’ve got to go to power, you’ve got to demand something. It also taught me because there was stagecraft on their part; things that, in hindsight, were done to put us in our own little box. We didn’t win anything, but the governor came out, put his hands on our shoulders in front of the cameras. They got the image that they wanted and we didn’t get what we came to get. The policy didn’t change.
I’ll never forget that. It has impacted my own leadership, that early lesson.
EBONY: Do you use stagecraft now?
Gillum: I know how to avoid becoming somebody’s prop.
EBONY: Your term is up in 2018. What’s next after being mayor?
Gillum: I’m constantly prayerful for how I can be useful. I’m a home-grown Floridian, born in Miami, raised partially in Miami and in Gainesville. Tallahassee is my home and has been for 18 years, so my love for my state runs very, very deep. And I’m sad about the state of affairs, where we are.
There are a number of fights we have to keep up with in Florida … on everything from climate change; to protecting the integrity of public education so that it can do what it supposed to do; to public infrastructure in our state.
EBONY: You sound like someone who might be running for governor.
Gillum: We’ve obviously had folks raising the prospect of a statewide run. I believe in being courageous, but I don’t believe in suicide missions. I think there has to be a relevant place to make a difference and a pathway to get there.
There was a petition at the start that tried to get me to run for governor, and I have responded to them by appreciating them for the thought and admitting that I am considering what 2018 looks like. I have a lot of considerations that have to be made.
Sheryl Huggins Salomon is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based editor and digital media consultant. Follow her on Twitter.
Click here to see more of EBONY.com’s “Influencers” series.