President Bill Clinton was heralding the possibilities of the “information superhighway,” O.J. Simpson was readying his murder defense and Donald Trump was married to Marla Maples and preparing to unveil his new Mar-a-Lago Club the last time a Democrat won an election for governor in Florida.
KNOW YOUR CANDIDATES: Complete guide to the Aug. 28 election
Now five candidates are trying to convince Democratic primary voters they have the winning formula that has eluded the party’s gubernatorial candidates since 1994, when Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles won a narrow re-election victory over Republican challenger Jeb Bush.
Nearly a quarter-century later, the five Democrats seeking the party’s nomination for governor often try to tap into Democratic frustration with five straight gubernatorial losses and the Trump presidency. Running in the Aug. 28 primary are Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, billionaire Palm Beach real estate investor Jeff Greene, Winter Park businessman Chris King and former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine.
The winner will face the winner of a GOP primary between Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Adam Putnam and U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Palm Coast.
Any of the five Democrats would represent a sharp leftward turn from the last two decades of Republican governors or either of the 2018 Republican candidates. All five Democrats champion abortion rights, gun control, more school spending, a higher minimum wage, expanding health care and getting rid of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” self-defense law. All criticize charter schools, private prisons, the NRA and Trump.
They differ on degrees of liberalism on some issues. King is the only candidate to declare outright opposition to the death penalty. Gillum is the only candidate to call for Trump’s impeachment. King, Gillum and Levine favor legalizing recreational marijuana use while Graham and Greene are for decriminalization and have not shut the door on the possibility of legalization in the future.
In a party hungry for a gubernatorial victory, each Democratic candidate sees a different path to success.
Graham is the only woman in the race and the only candidate who has defeated a Republican in a partisan election. She was elected to a U.S. House seat in a Republican-leaning district in the GOP wave year of 2014 and said the experience proves she can win in a purple state in November. She’s also the daughter of former Florida Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham and has featured her father in some of her TV ads.
Her ads and speeches often appeal to Democratic frustration at two decades of losing governor’s races while also trying to tap into Democratic loathing of Trump.
“After 20 years of one-party Republican rule and with Donald Trump in the White House, we need a strong Democrat in the Governor’s office. Politicians in Tallahassee have sold out our schools, environment and healthcare to the highest bidders … I come from a family of public servants. As governor, I will defend our state from Donald Trump, restore our promise to public schools, protect our environment and expand health care,” Graham told The Palm Beach Post.
Gillum is the only African-American in the race and the only candidate with a net worth below seven figures. Though he’s only 39, he has the most experience in elected office. He was elected to the Tallahassee city council in 2003 and became mayor in 2014. Gillum has won the support of prominent out-of-state liberals, including Democratic megadonors George Soros and Tom Steyer, People For the American Way founder Norman Lear and actress Jane Fonda. He recently snagged the endorsement of democratic socialist Bernie Sanders.
Florida Democrats have long fretted about picking a nominee who’s too liberal to win a statewide general election. The moderate side has often prevailed, as when Bill McBride beat Janet Reno in the 2002 gubernatorial primary or when Patrick Murphy beat liberal firebrand Alan Grayson in the 2016 U.S. Senate primary. Gillum argues that his progressivism will fire up a party base plagued by sluggish turnout in non-presidential elections.
“I grew up the son of a bus driver and construction worker in Miami-Dade County, and I’m the only non-millionaire in the Democratic primary … I’ve shown how you can campaign and govern as a progressive, and Florida Democrats need a nominee who will motivate our voters to show up in November,” Gillum said.
King is the only candidate who hasn’t held or run for elected office. He has put forward a detailed, unabashedly liberal platform on a variety of issues and says he represents a break from politics-as-usual. In addition to supporting tighter gun control measures, he has proposed a tax on bullets, free community college and has pledged to cut Florida’s prison population in half. He has made opposition to the sugar industry a centerpiece of his campaign, claiming big sugar growers have had undue influence on both parties.
“If you want the status quo, I’m not your guy. If you want conventional politics here in Florida, I’m not the right candidate for you. But if you want to swing for the fences, if you want to dream again, if you want to show them that Democrats are excellent, I’m Chris King and I want to be your governor,” King said at the conclusion of a Thursday night debate in Palm Beach Gardens.
Levine, who often says his $133 million net worth began with “$500 and a dream,” says his two terms in Miami Beach prove that he can put a progressive agenda into action. Miami Beach decriminalized marijuana possession, made high-profile efforts to combat sea-level rise, appointed its first black deputy police chief and got high marks from LGBTQ groups when Levine was mayor. It passed a resolution supporting an assault weapons ban in 2016 and passed a minimum wage increase that was tied up by legal challenges.
“Floridians want leaders who bring more to the table than talk. This election is about putting forward a vision for Florida’s potential and people want a candidate who has a record of taking action to get things done. As a successful entrepreneur who built companies from scratch and a two-term Mayor with a record of delivering results, I offer Floridians the best and most clear path to put our state back on track,” Levine said.
Greene entered the race in June but has barreled into contention by spending more than $13 million on TV ads, many of which claim he’s the best candidate to “stand up to Trump.” Greene defends his membership in Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club as a platform to confront the president. His debut TV ad features a video clip, shot by his wife, of Greene and Trump in what appears to be a heated conversation at Trump International Golf Club in December 2016. Greene says he was arguing with the president-elect over Greene’s support for Hillary Clinton.
Greene also says his willingness to spend $100 million or more of his own money if he’s the Democratic nominee gives the party firepower it has lacked in its last five gubernatorial losses.
“When I go around the state and talk to ordinary Florida Democrats, you know what they keep saying? ‘We’re tired of losing,’” Greene said in his closing statement in Thursday’s debate. “I will take my resources — I’m the only one on the stage who has the resources — and I will spend, whether it’s $100 million, $200 million, to finally get the governorship back for Democrats this November.”
Education: Florida A&M University (B.A. in political science)
Professional: Mayor of Tallahassee; consultant, P&P Communications; former consultnat with People For the American Way Foundation.
Key quote: “(People ask) Are you too progressive for a state like Florida? My answer to that is I think the only way we win is not by shrinking from who we are but by standing up for the values that make the Democratic Party.”
Education: University of North Carolina (B.A. in political science); American University (law degree)
Professional: Former Leon County Public Schools official; former U.S. House member
Key quote: “Women bring a different leadership approach and it’s desperately needed today. I’m about solutions, I’m about getting things done …This is something I’ve done professionally my whole life, is to find a way to bring people together to actually accomplish moving the ball forward.”
Education: Johns Hopkins University (B.A. in economics and sociology); Harvard (MBA)
Professional: Real estate investor
Key quote: “I’m a Kennedy-Rockefeller billionaire that really is intent on making a difference — not a Donald Trump billionaire who basically comes up with phony universities to rip people off and doesn’t pay his workers and just is kind of the wrong kind of guy.”
Education: Harvard (B.A. in religion and politics); University of Florida (law degree)
Professional: Chief operating officer and general counsel, Elevation Financial Group, LLC; president of Elevation Property Management LLC.
Key quote: “In a nutshell, I am the candidate that says that this is a moment for new ideas and fresh ways of thinking. I am the candidate that folks say is willing to take very bold and progressive positions, not always because they’re helpful politically, but because they’re right for the future of our state.”
Education: University of Michigan (B.A. in political science), transferred from University of Florida; semester at Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy
Professional: CEO of Royal Media Partners; former CEO, On Board Media; board member, Best Buddies
Key quote: “I’m pro-people, I’m pro-business as an entrepreneur. I always say I’m not right, I’m not left, I’m forward.”
About these stories
The GateHouse Florida newsrooms, including The Palm Beach Post, are teaming up for the 2018 midterm elections. Together, our network of reporters, photographers, social and multimedia specialists and editors will provide comprehensive coverage of the candidates and issues across the Sunshine State. The goal is to give you, voters and readers, insight to make informed decisions this election year.