Gillum got an early start on carving path to success
By St. Clair Murraine
Frances Gillum could only laugh when a relative told her that her toddler son, Andrew, would one day be a name to be reckoned with in government.
She never had a doubt, though. It was grandmother speaking and Gillum didn’t question her vision or wisdom.
“She said, ‘One day that boy there is going to grow up and he is going to be somebody special,” Frances Gillum recalled. “He is going to be over a whole lot of people and everybody is going to know his name. I looked at her and said, yeah, right.”
Today grandma must be vindicated. Andrew Gillum is mayor of Tallahassee and before that he served four terms as a city of Tallahassee commissioner.
At age 36, Gillum is such a force in politics – especially with young voters – that Hillary Clinton has turned to him to connect with the millennial demographics during her run for the White House.
He’s already done some stomping for Clinton and he is scheduled to do a lot more.
He’s willing, too.
“I plan to work as hard as I can until Nov. 8 to help Secretary Clinton win,” Gillum said.
As politics go, Gillum knows he is playing a winning hand by assisting the Clinton campaign. In short, one good term deserves another.
“If I can be of help and then one day be able to call on them for something that our community needs; why wouldn’t I do that,” he said.
Worst case scenario, at least Gillum would have raised Tallahassee’s profile on the national stage. He has the model from his own blueprint that has brought him much success in a 13-year political career.
Gillum’s rise in politics has been moving at warp speed since he first ran for city commissioner at age 23 right after graduating from FAMU in 2003. Insiders point to his commitment to Tallahassee and his approach of people-first as reason for his ascension since he was first elected as the youngest person to hold a city commission post in Tallahassee.
The list of accomplishments since he’s been mayor a little over a year is lengthy. From making moves to boost the local economy, keeping neighborhoods safe, educational programs and finding creative ways to bring the community together he’s done it.
Nothing is too mundane or too big to try, Gillum insisted. Take for example his push to make Tallahassee a tech friendly town.
He simply wants to tap into the talent that’s being developed at FAMU, FSU and TCC.
“We want them to think twice about leaving this community,” he said. “We want them to know that they don’t have to fly off to Palo Alto, Calif., Miami, Atlanta or North Carolina in order to start their own businesses.
“We are a community that supports and inspires innovation. We are a community where if you want to create the next business that will take off, you can do that right here.”
Gillum’s concentration on economics doesn’t stop with ways to lure big business to town. Each Friday he makes the rounds, celebrating a mom-and-pop grand opening and longevity of businesses already here.
“They have stood the test of time,” he said. “They have hired the employees; they have contributed to our communities in countless ways. I want to celebrate them as much as I do the newcomers to our communities.”
And none of that should be misconstrued as a mayor doing obligatory duties, said Sharon Lettman Hicks.
“He really believes in government working for the people,” said Lettman Hicks, a mentor who guided Gillum early in his career. “It is not an act. He does not legislate as a city commissioner and now as a mayor without truly understanding the impact and the opportunity afforded the constituents he serves.”
Even as ex-felon get his attention. He’s taken a firm stance on a move to ban the box that slows the path to ex-felons getting work.
“We have to attack the policies that keep people from having access to gainful employment opportunities through efforts like banning the box,” he said.
When the hot-button issues of Florida accepting Syrian refugees came up, Gillum took a stand and said Tallahassee will welcome some.
None of Gillum’s decisions are about making sure he’s politically correct when it comes to what’s best for his city, said Lettman Hicks. His decision not to leave office to run for a congressional seat that he would have likely won, is a good example, she said.
“When I had to stand up what it meant to be a member of Congress next to what it meant to be mayor of the capital city; and which of those positions allows me to do the best job for the community that I care about, it was hands down mayor,” Gillum said.
Gillum has pushed several initiatives for families. He understands the dynamics.
He and his wife of seven years, R.Jai, have twin children Jackson and Caroline.
Family is his mojo, said Gillum, who takes the first diaper shift. He and R.Jai alternate pick-up of the children, but his evening role is to bathe them.
“My kids and my wife are everything to me,” he said. “They will have a front-row seat to what all this felt like. They are huge part of why I do this work and I want them to be with me in it.”
Gillum’s breakthrough in politics started at a time when Tallahassee politics was a hot topic with Black voters. Their focus was on getting John Marks into office for mayor at a time when thousands of protesters marched against former Gov. Jeb Bush’s plan to eliminate racial and gender preferences in state contracting and university admissions.
Gillum didn’t hide his feelings, said Lettman Hicks, who led Gillum’s first campaign. As president of FAMU’s Student Government Association, he voiced his opposition when efforts were underway to have Bush as keynote speaker for Gillum’s graduation class.
His gumption impressed Lettman Hicks, who at the time was director for People for the American Way Foundation, with responsibility for recruiting young voters. At the same time, she helped Gillum maneuver the political landscape.
She took notice of how he handled issues in front of him. He aligned himself with local and campus politics.
Even before he was elected for a second term as commissioner, Gillum moved like a veteran, she said.
“He was not just interested in being at the table with the status quo and to move a positive agenda,” she said. “It didn’t hurt that Tallahassee was a good city, period.
“He had to learn how to equalize himself at the table because he was young, but the type of policy decisions that he made, the effort he made to get community buy-in.”
His mother saw all that coming early. He didn’t want to play football like his brothers. He found reading the Bible and current events more interesting.
By the time he reached middle school he was a regular spectator at youth court proceedings. His mother figured she had an attorney in the making, but Gillum’s passion for caring about people put him on a path that led to becoming a senator in school government.
It never stopped.
“He is so passionate about people being treated right and he always wanted to be like somebody that could change the world if he could do it,” she said. “He’s always been a person that cares for the elderly and the children. He’s always been that type of person.”
Doing that has its challenges that Gillum relishes.
“What I think is exciting is every day is different,” he said. “There is not one day that I spend in this job that is like the other.”