A Saturday morning NAACP forum where Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum was the only candidate to show up. (From the Hillsborough NAACP's Facebook page)
The stark image of a lone Democratic candidate for governor and four empty seats at an NAACP candidate forum has the organization's leaders furious and warning not to take black voters for granted this year.
"I wanted it to be laid very clear across the state that we in the NAACP find it very unacceptable to play those games with us," said Adora Obi Nweze, president of the state chapter of the NAACP. "They will not treat the black community like our votes don’t count."
The NAACP's Hillsborough chapter organized Saturday's event, which was supposed to feature all four Democrats running for governor.
But chapter President Yvette Lewis said the campaigns of Gwen Graham, Jeff Greene, Chris King and Philip Levine all backed out in the week leading up to Friday's event.
It left Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum sitting alone on a stage next to four empty seats.
"I felt like they took us for granted," Lewis said.
She said Greene's campaign waited until 10:59 a.m. Saturday - one minute before the forum was supposed to start - to say in a text message that he wasn't showing up.
"Technically, he canceled the minute before," Lewis said.
All four campaigns say they never confirmed their candidates were attending the event, however.
"We apologize for any misunderstanding, but the scheduling team did not confirm Greene’s attendance," said campaign spokeswoman Claire VanSusteren.
King campaign spokesman Avery Jaffe also said they hadn't confirmed, but that King "deeply understands the stakes of this election for communities of color." Jaffe said King met with NAACP leaders in Hernando County last week.
Lewis said she would not have announced and held the event had the campaigns not confirmed ahead of time.
Levine's senior advisor, Christian Ulvert, said the former Miami Beach Mayor was supportive of the event, but never confirmed they were attending.
Ulvert noted, "This past week, Mayor Levine was only candidate to attend a forum with the Lakeland NAACP — he was the only gubernatorial candidate there, and the only gubernatorial candidate to ever attend one of their forums."
Levine was in South Florida that morning, but was in St. Petersburg that evening.
Graham and Levine attended the Hillsborough NAACP's dinner last year, and Graham's campaign said she called and spoke to Lewis after the event.
Graham was in Tampa two days earlier, to tout the endorsement of Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. On Saturday, she was in South Florida for a get-out-the-vote tour.
Black voters make up 13 percent of the Florida electorate, but nearly a third of the state's Democrats. And the party has struggled to muster enthusiasm from them in years when Barack Obama wasn't on the ballot.
"For those of us who are black to be treated differently is not acceptable," Nweze said. "And we will fight with all we have … in order to make sure we’re respected."
Lewis said their failure to attend reinforced the perception that Democrats just assume that black voters will automatically vote for them.
"They just assume they’ll vote 'D' all the way down," she said.
Although Gillum was the only candidate to show up to the forum, she said people in the audience were far from making up their minds about whom to vote for in the primary. (The NAACP does not endorse candidates.)
"We’re not just going to vote for Andrew because he’s black," she said. "He needs to give us a reason to vote for him."
Lewis then brought up the the second-to-last Democrat to lose the governor's race, who infamously blew off an NAACP candidate forum in Miami in the final weeks of the 2010 race against eventual winner Rick Scott.
"You know the last person who snubbed an NAACP forum?" Lewis asked. "Alex Sink."