« Obama endorses Gillum in Florida governor's race | Main | Previewing the first Rick Scott-Bill Nelson TV debate »

Andrew Gillum's ground game goes back to his college days, observers say

Andrew Gillum takes selfies with supporters outside his Broward County campaign office. [DAVID SMILEY | Miami Hreald]

When then-Gov. Jeb Bush proposed ending affirmative action in Florida's universities in 2000, he found himself answering to more than a thousand angry Florida A&M University students who descended on the Capitol.

One of the students behind the protest? A young Andrew Gillum, then a FAMU student leader with his sights set on higher office.

Gillum, who was one of a handful of students who later met with Bush, ultimately failed.

But in Gillum's college career, there are signs of the activism and political skills that would later help him rise to become today's Democratic nominee for Florida governor, observers say.

"I think FAMU really cultivated the desire for him to participate and become the public servant he would become," said Larry Rivers, who was then chair of the Department of History, Political Science, Geography & African-American Studies.

Gillum graduated from FAMU, the historically black university just minutes away from Florida State University, in 2003, majoring in political science.

While there, Gillum organized student protests, urged his classmates to vote and became student government president.

Rivers remembers a young Gillum coming into his office frequently to talk about the issues of the day.

"He was a very inquisitive guy - the guy who would ask a thousand questions," Rivers said.

To Rivers and others, Gillum seemed destined for political office.

Gillum said as much in 2000, telling the Tampa Bay Times that the organizing skills he was learning in college would help him possibly make a run for the state House or Senate.

The one thing holding him back, he feared, was being black in a political world that was overwhelmingly white.

"There's still that glass ceiling that says, 'You're not going there,'" he told the Times then. "You're not going that far."

It's that battle that has helped shaped the identity of FAMU, however. The school played a big part in the civil rights movement, with FAMU students  triggering bus boycotts and lunch counter sit-ins.

"Unlike FSU, FAMU has seen itself as a vessel for social change, because of the civil rights movement," said former Leon County Elections Supervisor Ion Sancho, who met the future mayor when he was a college student trying to get his peers to vote. "And Andrew was steeped in that same tradition."

Sancho, who supports Gillum today, said he saw back then the same skills that helped Gillum win the Democratic primary this year.

"He was an excellent organizer. He actually liked getting into the field, interacting with people, coordinating individuals," Sancho said. "I think that’s his speciality - his ground game."

But there were signs that Gillum had the political drive well before settling into college life.

"Everyone knew Andrew Gillum at Florida A&M from his second week on campus on," said Christopher Chestnut, his childhood friend from Gainesville. "Andrew started campaigning for student senate the week before school started, since before he moved into the dorms."

Should Gillum win the general election in November, he'll have his turnout skills to thank, based in part to his alma mater.

FAMU students and alumni are excited about one of their own potentially becoming the state's first black governor, and on Friday, several dozen crammed into a ballroom on FAMU's campus to discuss how to mobilize people they know for November's election and send tens of thousands of texts to potential voters.

Co-hosted by NextGen, an organization with billionaire backers that has poured millions into Gillum's race, students tapped out hundreds of texts a minute through an automated messaging app, asking would-be voters about their stances on issues like "Stand Your Ground" and encouraging them to vote this cycle.

It was a new age get-out-the-vote effort, and several students said that the text-banking brunch was the first such direct political organizing event they had seen advertised on campus in years. Many said that they had found out about it on Instagram.

Friends Sidney Martinez, 20, and Lex Jones, 19, said they were drawn to the event because they wanted to be more involved in politics.

"Everyone voted here for Gillum," Martinez said.

Herald/Times staff writer Elizabeth Koh contributed to this report.