Before becoming the first African-American nominee for governor in Florida, before becoming mayor of Florida’s capital city, and before becoming the youngest City Commissioner in Tallahassee’s history, he was the son of school bus driver and a construction worker. The values instilled by his hardworking parents led Andrew Gillum to become a devoted civil servant, the first of his brothers and sister to graduate high school and college.
Andrew is Fluent in Floridian. When asked about his favorite sport in the state this is what he said: “We’re really fortunate to have such a diverse set of opportunities at vacationing in our state. If I had to really be biased, I think I probably will prefer the more quiet sounds of the Panhandle, but if I’m out with my friends and college classmates, Miami Beach would be the spot.”
Something that people might not know about Andrew is that he is a Miami Dolphins fan, going back to his days growing up in Richmond Heights in South Dade. Staying true to his roots, and his mom who is a die-hard fan, Andrew grew up singing the Dolphins’ fight song on Sunday mornings.
Chris Cate: Welcome to the Fluent in Floridian podcast, featuring the Sunshine State’s brightest leaders talking about the issues most important to the people of Florida and its millions of weekly visitors. I’m your host, Chris Cate, and in this episode, brought to you by SalterMitchellPR, I talk to Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum.
In our conversation, we talk about his Miami roots, his path into politics, and about being the youngest person ever elected to the Tallahassee City Commission. We’ll [00:00:30] also talk about his work as Mayor of Tallahassee and about his run for Governor of Florida. You can hear it all right now.
Mayor Gillum, thanks so much for being on the show. Most people probably identify you in Tallahassee, but you were actually born in Miami. Can you tell me a little bit about-
Mayor Gillum: That’s right.
Chris Cate: Can you tell me a little bit about what life was like for you and your family in Miami?
Mayor Gillum: Yeah, yeah, indeed. I was born in Miami-Dade, Florida, [00:01:00] South Dade, in an area called Richmond Heights. My mom’s mother lived around the corner. I had aunts who lived on the same streets as we did. I grew up obviously not very rich in financial resources but really rich in family and love.
I was one growing up of seven kids, number five [00:01:30] in a group of seven, all boys and one girl, my baby sister. Both my parents were two of the hardest-working people I knew growing up. My mom drive school bus for the Miami-Dade school system. My dad was a construction worker. When Florida got rid of summer school, my mom took a job as a presser in a dry cleaner. As I said, they were two of the hardest-working people and really instilled in us [00:02:00] the value of hard work.
My grandmother, who was an extremely praying woman, who went to church several times a week and I’d say dragged me along with her, but the truth is I loved being with her, and even if that meant sitting hours on end at church, that experience was very, very instrumental to really shaping my own personal value set and really reminding me of what’s [00:02:30] important in life, family, and certainly faith.
Chris Cate: How excited now are they that you’re running for Governor?
Mayor Gillum: I tell you, my mom is over the moon. Obviously, she’s like any mom. She gets concerned about the negative stuff, she worries about me and my family, but she’s exceedingly proud of everything we’ve done and look forward to doing. She wants to [00:03:00] be on the front lines. She wants to be usually involved. Frankly, with our growing family, she would be enough help if all that meant were helping us care for our little twins and our third child that’s coming soon.
Chris Cate: Congratulations on that third child, by the way.
Mayor Gillum: Thank you. Thank you very much. A little boy, and we call him Nugget because we’ve not decided on a name yet.
Chris Cate: [00:03:30] You graduated from Gainesville High School, which might be a first for a Tallahassee mayor. What kind of things were you involved in as a teenager? Were you already on a path to politics at that time?
Mayor Gillum: Obviously, student government in high school is probably more akin to pep rallies and organizing events and that kind of thing, certainly not hard-hitting policy necessarily, but I was very involved [00:04:00] in my student body. I was serving student government and really enjoyed my time being able to do that. Obviously, I felt it was really instrumental to the person that I am today.
I used to, as a kid, was involved in something called Teen Court, where I would serve as a prosecutor for teens who had gotten [00:04:30] involved in crimes and that were non-violent. We would go through that process. That’s certainly shaped, a lot of who I am today was shaped by those very early experiences on student government.
Chris Cate: You went almost straight from college to elected office when you became the youngest person ever elected to the Tallahassee City Commission at 23. What was that transition like? Were you embraced immediately [00:05:00] or did it take some time to get your footing and learn how to go toe-to-toe with some more experienced city officials?
Mayor Gillum: Obviously, getting involved very young in Tallahassee provided a real unique perspective in governing. One of my favorite, I think, experiences was that of being involved in student government [00:05:30] at Florida A&M University, being on the board of trustees.
Being on the board of trustees there really taught me how to engage in really high-level policymaking decisions. It allowed me the opportunity to, while being the youngest person around the table oftentimes, really deal with some pretty heavy-hitting issues. I think it prepared me for what I would ultimately be involved in when I got elected [00:06:00] at the age of 23 to the Tallahassee City Commission.
Being involved as a student leader on campus, particularly at a school like Florida A&M University, put us really at the epicenter of government and governance in the state of Florida. If there were issues that were confronting students in higher education, we were the first to be involved in that as FAMU and as FSU.
We rallied probably more times than I would like to admit, did more marches and sleep-ins and [00:06:30] all those kinds of things because we felt that it was our responsibility to really be a voice for young people, for students at FAMU, for HBCUs across the state of Florida.
The experience getting educated in Tallahassee through the higher education system was probably the best training ground that I ever could have asked for in preparation for serving 12 years on the City Council and obviously now on my third year as Mayor [00:07:00] of Florida Capital City.
Chris Cate: I know you’ve worked to help other young elected officials across the country to the Young Elected Officials Network. What’s the most important thing that you found young politicians need to know about how to do their job effectively, or what advice do you give a new young elected official?
Mayor Gillum: I think the most important thing is to be very, very clear around what it is that you’re wanting to serve. We should be clear [00:07:30] about the things that you want to try to accomplish. I would always tell young people when I would encounter them who were looking at potentially running for office, I would say, “What do you want to do it for? Is this about a title, or is this about really being in service to people and in service to your community? If that was the focus and the reason for doing it, then I’d stand behind that 100% of the time, but if it’s about getting a title [00:08:00] and calling yourself somebody’s elected official, then this probably isn’t the work that you want to engage in.”
Then, I would tell people to really leave it on the field, that if you’re passionate about something, you’re passionate about change, the last thing you want to do is, after a vote or after that big push, leave this feeling like you could’ve done more in order to win success, that we’re put here in these positions of elected service [00:08:30] to really try to do something for other people, for our communities and for people that we care about. If we’re clear around that purpose, then we’ve got to leave it all on the field on behalf of the communities and constituencies that we’re there to serve.
Chris Cate: Absolutely. Speaking of accomplishments, what would you say has been your biggest accomplishment as an elected official?
Mayor Gillum: I think what I would say as then the biggest advantage as an elected [00:09:00] official is the power to convene people around big ideas. Whether that was launching the Digital Divide initiative that we did at Palmer-Monroe and at R. Frank Nims Middle School, or the teen center that we created in Tallahassee at the Palmer-Monroe Teen Center and the Restorative Justice program that we launched, or our Family First initiative where we’re trying to put a premium on supporting [00:09:30] families and particularly our youngest members of our family, zero to five, in early childhood education and high-quality childhood education, it’s really been my ability to bring people together around those ideas, the longest table.
Again, they’re probably efforts that anyone could think about, but it really does require the ability to bring people together around the same table to reckon with our issues and to talk about the things that we can [00:10:00] do as a community, as a collective, every one of us, to solve the challenges that confront our community.
Regardless of what side of town you live on, where you come from, we’re all one community, and we’ve got to figure this out together. I’ve enjoyed my ability as a city commissioner but also as a mayor to identify really important and key challenges in our community, and then corral people around thinking about what the solutions might be.
I’ve been particularly proud of the work that we’ve done to work to create a new economy in Tallahassee by [00:10:30] emphasizing small business growth and development in the entrepreneurial economy and the innovation sector of our city by listing up things like our Domi Station and our efforts to invest in the creative class in Tallahassee. I think that those kinds of investments are going to be important for the future of our state and certainly for the future of a city like Tallahassee that are largely [00:11:00] people considered to be just a government town.
We’re a government town, but we’re also the best place in the state of Florida to start a new business. We’re also one of two cities awarded the TechHire Designation in the state of Florida, one of 50 in the country. We’re on the cutting edge of what’s new and what’s happening in the state of Florida, and I think the rest of the state can learn a lot from what we’ve been able to do in Tallahassee.
Chris Cate: Absolutely. If you’re elected Governor, what is the biggest accomplishment that you would want [00:11:30] to have in your first 100 days in office? Is that something you’ve set a goal for?
Mayor Gillum: I tell you, first of all, it’s empowering to be able to think that far, but I think the truth is that we’ve got a lot of work to do. The last few decades in our state have really been rough for a lot of communities. There are people all over the state who are desperate to find work that pays them a livable wage and allows them to have work with dignity.
I think we’ve got to focus [00:12:00] very principally on what it means to build Florida’s future economy, one that’s not just steeped in low-wage work, but one that also creates the pathway for people, whether you go to college and get a degree and want to take your career for what it’s worth in the state of Florida by working in the entrepreneurial and the innovation sector of our state, or whether you are a high school graduate who wants to gain the appropriate skill and training to be able to go to work [00:12:30] on a job that again pays you respectively in such a way that you can make ends meet without having to work two or three jobs in order to do that and maybe save up enough to take a weekend vacation once a year.
Those are the desires of people all across the state, and unfortunately, so many of them feel left out of the state’s economy. They feel pressed down by low wages and increasing costs and the [00:13:00] inability to meet their weekly and monthly financial obligations. That’s got to be key to this state. That’s got to be key to any leadership in the state, and those are the kind of challenges I’d want to lean into as Governor of Florida.
Chris Cate: I know your kids mean the world to you. You’ve already brought them up in the interview.
Mayor Gillum: Of course.
Chris Cate: Do you think that being a relatively new dad will help you think, and perhaps it already does, think farther into the future of Florida so you can make it a better state for your kids?
Mayor Gillum: [00:13:30] Absolutely. My kids are critical to that. Our emphasis around early childhood education in large part was birthed by my wife and I’s experience with trying to find a really good early learning center for our kids. We were also really shocked by the cost of access to high-quality early learning centers in our community, and that’s a challenge that families all across the state experience. Whether you’re low-income or a middle-class family, [00:14:00] it’s really expensive to have kids in this day and age.
We’ve got to figure out a way to help lift that burden for families in the state of Florida by providing the kinds of means, testing to be able to support families who are lower-income families to get access to high-quality childhood education because it could be the one thing that disrupts intergenerational poverty in their family.
For working families, and [00:14:30] frankly I don’t mean to rehash the past around the presidential election, but we had one candidate who talked strongly and had a plan for families earning $120,000 and below to provide them the kind of assistance that they need to make sure that their kids have access to high-quality early childhood education.
Yes, my experience as a parent and as a father of young kids is instructive for some of the challenges that families in our city but all across our state experience. I’m desperate [00:15:00] to make sure that we create an education system in our state where every child begins kindergarten in our state ready to learn, that we shrink that word gap that exists between upper-income and lower-income households.
By third grade, we want to have every one of our kids reading on grade level, and we want to make sure that we got 100% graduation rate from our high schools and that we’re moving our kids either from high school into college or high school into job and eventually into career.
Emphasis needs to be placed back on [00:15:30] vocational work in our state and job-training skills, stuff that we used to have when I was coming up in Florida, a high school system shop, workshop, electrical, engineering, that, again, for kids who were not on a college [on track 00:15:45], they were able to find a skill that they can monetize and still make a good living for themselves. We need to return to that, a 2.0 version of vocation in our state, and I feel well-equipped to help lead that.
Chris Cate: Great. That sounds fantastic. My last four [00:16:00] questions are quick and they’re questions I ask every guest. The first one is, who is a Florida leader that you admire? It can be someone from Florida history or it can be someone still active in their work today.
Mayor Gillum: I think without a doubt that there have been really Trojans and real leaders in our state’s history. Obviously, Governor Collins comes to mind, Governor Askew comes to mind, but an example that I was [00:16:30] able to personally get to learn from and experience was someone like Cynthia Chestnut, who served in Gainesville as a state representative and member of the Florida House of Representatives.
Kendrick Meek and Tony Hill were also standouts for me during my days at Florida A&M University, being able to sit at their knees and learn from their example. We’ve had some really great leaders over the history of our state, and it’s time for us to restore that caliber [00:17:00] of leadership in our state capital at the helm.
Chris Cate: Yeah, definitely. What is your favorite Florida location to visit? It can be a city, a restaurant, a beach, whatever you like. I know it’s a little bit not quite the level of a-
Mayor Gillum: My God, you’re trying to get me in trouble. The beauty of a state as large as ours is that each one of our coasts presents something very different. Destin’s coastline is very different than that of Atlantic Beach in Jacksonville. Atlantic Beach in Jacksonville is different [00:17:30] than the coastline off of Miami Beach.
We’re really fortunate to have such a diverse set of opportunities at vacationing in our state. If I had to really be biased, I think I probably will prefer the more quiet sounds of the Panhandle, but if I’m out with my friends and college classmates, Miami Beach would be the spot.
Chris Cate: This next question might get you in a little bit of trouble, [00:18:00] too, but I’m sure you probably wear it on your sleeve. Do you have a favorite Florida sports team, and if so, who is it?
Mayor Gillum: Oh, man. You are trying to get me in trouble. The truth is I’ve never been able to betray my roots, which is the Miami Dolphins. I remember growing up as a kid singing, “Miami Dolphins, Miami Dolphins, Miami Dolphins Number One.” I’ll never forget it. My mom is a diehard Dolphin fan. Every year she claims, “It’s going [00:18:30] to be our year! This is our year!” It never is. Even when we’d gotten close, we haven’t been able to revisit those glory days, but it’s coming.
Chris Cate: Yeah, I hope so. I know a lot of Dolphins fans have been in agony over the years.
Mayor Gillum: Right, right.
Chris Cate: Last question: What Florida person, place or thing deserves more positive attention than what it’s getting right now?
Mayor Gillum: I tell you, the Everglades are obviously getting a lot [00:19:00] of attention. I remember as a student in elementary school taking a field trip to the Everglades, which is such an important asset in our state, but we’ve got so many important resilient places environmentally and ecologically that we could really be quite the environmental tourist destination in this country, a lot of important beautiful assets that [00:19:30] we’ve got to maintain and protect.
I’ve been heartbroken to see some of the degradation that’s happened in the last two decades to so many of those important treasures, but I tell you, the Space Coast, both its attractions, obviously the Everglades are huge attractions to our state, but I think we’re really going to have to focus in the coming future, one, how we make sure we clean up the real sad impacts on the Everglades, but I also think [00:20:00] that we have an opportunity to [re-invite 00:20:02] and [bench 00:20:03] parts of the Space Coast to turn that into a real thriving entrepreneur hub for our state.
We’ve got some great opportunities, but certainly some challenges [that we’re 00:20:15] making for this future.
Chris Cate: Excellent. I appreciate you sharing that and I really appreciate you being on the show.
Mayor Gillum: Listen, thank you for having me and wish you the very best.
Chris Cate: Thanks for listening to the Fluent in Floridian podcast. [00:20:30] If you aren’t subscribed to the podcast yet, I hope you look us up and subscribe to the show on your favorite podcast app like Apple Podcast, Stitcher or Google Play Music. If you leave a review, that would be great, too.
Thanks to my team at SalterMitchellPR for making this podcast possible. If you need help telling your Florida story, we’ve got you covered. We offer issues management, crisis communications, social media, advocacy, and media relations assistance. We also have our own in-house creative and research teams. [00:21:00] Look us up at SalterMitchellPR.com for more information. You can also find more information about the Fluent in Floridian podcast at FluentinFloridian.com. Have a great day.