Democrat Andrew Gillum’s breakthrough victory in the Florida primary this week made him the party’s third African-American nominee for governor in 2018.
If that number doesn’t strike you, consider this: In the history of the US, voters have elected only two African-American governors. The first, Virginia’s Douglas Wilder, took office in 1990. Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who won consecutive terms in 2006 and 2010, is the only other. (Louisiana’s Pinckney Pinchback briefly served after being elevated during Reconstruction in 1872 and David Paterson, of New York, became governor after Eliot Spitzer’s resignation in March 2008.)
Wins for Gillum, Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Maryland’s Ben Jealous this fall would not only be milestones in their respective states but also would register as perhaps the most stinging rebuke to date of President Donald Trump’s brand of racially divisive politics.
The three Democratic nominees are each, to varying degrees, fierce advocates for a brand of progressive politics that is on the upswing among Democrats this primary season. That intersectionality is crucial to how Gillum’s campaign views the electorate.
“Black voters, and particularly black women, are the bedrock of the Democratic Party, and it’s incredibly important that our candidates and policies reflect that in 2018,” said Gillum spokesman Geoff Burgan. “But it’s also critically important for us to recognize that issues of economic fairness, race and gender all align under the progressive umbrella – and those policies are winning at the ballot box.”
Jealous and Abrams have sent similar messages, helping to establish themselves as part of a new class of progressive leaders, along with US House candidates Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York and Rashida Tlaib in Michigan, who in winning defied a lingering conventional wisdom that said their politics could not attract – or by its nature excluded – racially diverse voters and candidates.
“What we know is that being anti-Trump but yet moderate on critical issues like health care, immigration, minimum wage and criminal justice reform is not a winning combination for Democrats,” said Quentin James, executive director of The Collective PAC, which is dedicated to electing progressive African-American candidates, praising the three nominees as bold progressives.
“We may sound like a broken record,” James said, “but that is the winning formula for us in November.”
Their success so far has further tamped down the post-2016 scrums among Democrats who viewed the ongoing debate over the future of the party as a replay of that year’s primary.
The recent political histories of the 2018 gubernatorial class, and how they’ve been embraced by leading Democratic officeholders, tells the story.
Jealous backed independent Sen. Bernie Sanders for the Democratic presidential president in 2016, becoming one of his most vocal surrogates. But Abrams and Gillum – who both supported Hillary Clinton – have, like Jealous, received hearty endorsements from the democratic socialist from Vermont, along with moderate potential 2020 players like Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California. Abrams also got Clinton’s nod on the eve of the primary. Sanders, meanwhile, campaigned for Gillum and Jealous, who both back “Medicare-for-all” single-payer health care, his signature policy priority.
As Abrams told Time in a May profile, “I was a Hillary surrogate who has hired Obama folks and Bernie folks and Clinton folks.” Abrams describes herself as a progressive, but she and her campaign are careful to avoid what they view as dead-end debates about party “wings.”
“Stacey Abrams isn’t going to be distracted from talking about things like good jobs, fully funded public education and Medicaid expansion, all of which would serve all Georgians, including vulnerable communities and communities of color,” said Abrams spokeswoman Abigail Collazo. “That’s why the campaign has particularly invested in engaging communities who’ve been left behind by traditional campaigns in Georgia.”
Andrea Cristina Mercado, director of the progressive group New Florida Majority, said race and issues of representation are inextricable from the core political questions of the day – and she urged candidates up and down the ballot to approach them that way.
“The winning strategy for Democrats in Florida, Georgia and Maryland is running people who voters can both see themselves in and see a better future in the policies they offer,” Mercado said. “Black voters and other voters of color are stepping into elections more than ever and are raising the standards to earn the votes they cast.”