September 23, 2020

Andrew Gillum and the Long Shadow of the Florida Governor’s Race

MIAMI — Andrew Gillum sounded like a prophet. His words quick, his tone urgent, the man who nearly became Florida’s governor predicted in a podcast interview that the coronavirus would cripple the state’s tourism industry, hide in nursing homes and proliferate amid rampant misinformation.

It was a Thursday afternoon in early March. Several of his predictions would prove true: Florida now battles a dangerous surge in virus cases. But hours after the interview, the police would be summoned to a Miami Beach hotel room after a 911 call, and Mr. Gillum’s promising political career would begin to unravel.

He was found shortly after midnight vomiting on the bathroom floor of Room 1107 at the Mondrian South Beach. Another man had been struggling to breathe after a possible drug overdose.

Prescription pills were spilled on the carpet. The police identified three clear plastic bags of what they suspected was crystal methamphetamine.

“Mr. Gillum was unable to communicate with officers due to his inebriated state,” the police report said.

Mr. Gillum, the 40-year-old former mayor of Tallahassee, denied using methamphetamines and apologized for being drunk. He called the other man a friend. Quick internet searches showed that the man was also an escort. Two days later, Mr. Gillum said he would check himself into rehab for alcoholism and depression.

ImageThe Miami Beach Police Department released this photograph of the hotel room where Mr. Gillum was found in March.
Credit…Miami Beach Police Department, via Associated Press

It was a stunning and swift fall for one of the Democratic Party’s brightest young political stars. One moment, his name was floated as a contender for the 2020 vice-presidential nomination. The next, his lawyer was battling leaked hotel room photographs of Mr. Gillum naked on the floor. Still, as Gov. Ron DeSantis in recent months resisted a few basic ways to control the pandemic, some in Florida wondered about a different fate for the state had Mr. Gillum won in 2018.

On Monday, Mr. Gillum surfaced for the first time since the hotel room incident to say he had left rehab and embraced talk therapy.

“I totally underestimated the impact that losing the race for governor had on my life,” said Mr. Gillum, who for months had been unavailable for comment, in an 11-minute video on Instagram. “I didn’t want to talk emotionally or really deeply about what happened in the race for governor because it was a constant reminder of failure and my own personal failures.”

How exactly Mr. Gillum lost his way in the 16 months between his high-profile loss and that night in the hotel room might be known only to him. What was evident to those around him — and he said as much in his video — was that his life was packed with commitments that pulled him away from his family and left him little time to rest. All that, his friends believe, may have clouded his judgment.

“What’s being portrayed — I don’t know that Andrew,” State Representative Shevrin D. Jones, a friend since college who texted Mr. Gillum the day after the Miami Beach incident to offer support, said before Mr. Gillum left rehab. “I’ve known Andrew for almost 20 years, and I’ve never known Andrew to have a drinking or a drug problem.”

With few satisfying answers while their old boss was in treatment, Mr. Gillum’s former campaign operatives deployed a line he used to give about felons fighting for their voting rights: “Nobody should be judged forever on their worst day.”

Mr. Gillum’s 2018 campaign never really ended. After he conceded the race twice — first on election night, then after a recount confirmed he had lost to Mr. DeSantis by about 32,000 votes — Mr. Gillum threw himself into growing a voter-registration organization, fund-raising for the Democratic Party and commentating for CNN.

Had he become Florida’s first African-American governor, a young Democrat leading a Southern state and the nation’s biggest presidential battleground, speculation about Mr. Gillum’s future would have included the White House. Instead, he was left to inhabit the purgatory of ambitious politicians who lose and have no obvious public role to keep them relevant until the next election.

“Losing hurts,” said State Senator Oscar Braynon II, a friend. “And he lost on a big scale. That can do a number on people.”

Beto O’Rourke journaled and drove across the plains before running for president. Stacey Abrams focused on fighting voter suppression and has been making the case for why she should be Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s running mate.

Mr. Gillum, against the advice of some close to him, did not take a post-campaign break. He was often far from his Tallahassee home and away from his wife and their three young children. His father, an alcoholic with whom he had a complicated relationship, died in February 2019.

In a state with a thin Democratic bench, Mr. Gillum was the rare figure who could attract Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters. He felt he had created a movement and was obligated to grow it, said Christopher Chestnut, Mr. Gillum’s best friend since high school.

Mr. Chestnut recalled a breakfast at a Tallahassee Cracker Barrel a few weeks after Mr. Gillum’s concessions. People kept interrupting them.

“I remember early on in the primary people not answering the phone, not taking a meeting, standing us up for meetings,” Mr. Chestnut said. “Now Democrats, Republicans, white people, Black people were coming up, telling him they voted for him.”

Some Democrats suggested that Mr. Gillum push to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Others urged him to try to get a state assault weapons ban. Mr. Gillum chose to register voters, especially African-Americans and Hispanics.

Expanding the base could not only help the Democratic presidential nominee in 2020 but also Mr. Gillum if he ran against Senator Marco Rubio in 2022 as some staffers hoped.

The private sector was not appealing for someone in political office since age 23. But Mr. Gillum needed the money and exposure, so he took paid speaking engagements and the CNN gig. The deeper into the presidential primary, the more he appeared from debate halls and New York and Washington studios.

“As a Black man in politics, we don’t have the luxury to sit on the sidelines,” said Bakari Sellers, a CNN commentator and former South Carolina state legislator. “Because too many people depend on you. Not just personally, but when you lose that race, you feel like you let people down who stood in front of you.”

Mr. Gillum’s organization, Forward Florida, pledged to register or reactivate 1 million voters by 2020. It began with nearly $3 million in the bank that Mr. Gillum’s campaign had not spent ahead of Election Day, in part because the airwaves were saturated.

But the unspent cash bothered John Morgan, an Orlando lawyer and influential Democratic donor whose firm had contributed $250,000. Mr. Morgan texted Mr. Gillum last year, urging him to use the leftover funds to pay off felons’ fines so thousands of them could become eligible to vote. Mr. Morgan then went after Mr. Gillum on Twitter: “Give it to charity not yourself.”

Shortly after, The Tampa Bay Times revealed that Forward Florida — along with Mr. Gillum’s campaign, one of his former employers, a wealthy Gillum donor and others — had been subpoenaed by a federal grand jury in March 2019 for a slew of records dating back to 2015. Mr. Gillum was not subpoenaed, and no charges have been filed.

It was not the first time Mr. Gillum had come within the gaze of federal investigators. As Tallahassee mayor in 2016, he took a boat ride to the Statue of Liberty with a lobbyist who paid for the trip and with two developers who were actually undercover F.B.I. agents investigating possible City Hall corruption. The incident clouded his 2018 campaign, and Mr. Gillum, who was never criminally charged, paid a $5,000 state ethics fine last year for accepting the lobbyist’s gift.

By July 2019, Forward Florida had transferred its work to a newly created sister organization, Forward Florida Action. Unlike the political committee, the new organization’s nonprofit status allowed it to keep financial records secret. Mr. Morgan called it a “slush fund.”

“I don’t live on your plantation,” Mr. Gillum responded. (“What Andrew does any time you criticize him is makes it a race issue,” Mr. Morgan, who is white, said in an interview.)

The Forward Florida political committee has spent about $1 million on legal fees since March 2019 to two big firms, Stearns Weaver Miller and Perkins Coie, that are handling the federal investigation, according to financial disclosure reports.

Forward Florida Action, the nonprofit group, says it has raised over $1 million for more than a half-dozen partner organizations that have registered some 200,000 people, about one-fifth of the goal.

The legal and financial wrangling did not lower Mr. Gillum’s profile. He arrived with a small entourage when he headlined a Miami fund-raiser last September for Mr. Jones, the state representative. He keynoted a commemoration for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Duke University. He drew laughs on “Real Time With Bill Maher.”

Then he traveled to Miami with his wife, R. Jai, for a long weekend in March to officiate the wedding of some friends.

Before he was found drunk in the hotel room, he recorded the “Campaign HQ” podcast with David Plouffe, former President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign manager.

Mr. Gillum demanded that the nation’s leaders rise to the gravity of the pandemic. He pleaded to bolster public safety nets. He rejected the notion that Florida might have turned irreversibly red and challenged progressives to organize ahead of the November election.

“Man,” Mr. Plouffe said, “I wish you were elected governor of Florida, Andrew.”

On Monday, Mr. Gillum acknowledged that he felt guilt and shame over the hotel room incident. “My stuff had to be public and cause great embarrassment and rumors, some false, some true,” he said in the Instagram video. He thanked his wife, adding that she “knows everything that I am and everything that I am not. And she chooses to love me anyhow.”

And he said it has been difficult to be away during the pandemic — his mother fought the coronavirus for a month — and during nationwide protests against police brutality and racism.

“I know as a Black man what it means just to have to just convince people that your life has meaning, convince people that your life has purpose,” he said. “This is a tough moment not to be out in the world and contributing.”