Normally, news of a mayor of a mid-sized Florida city being charged with campaign contribution fraud and receiving illegal payments that he thought were from developers would hardly raise the eyebrows of any regular consumer of Sunshine State news. Promises to help move a project along in return for campaign donations? We read about that all the time.
That the charges were part of an FBI sting is an interesting twist. That they came out of a wider investigation into municipal corruption that already put another elected city official in prison is notable. That the defendant had come within a hair's breadth of becoming Florida governor a little less than four years ago made it front-page news.
Andrew Gillum's summer-fireworks rise and fall is breathtaking even in a state known for its colorful politics. Going into the race, he had impressed supporters as an inspiring, dynamic speaker with a remarkable personal story of obstacles overcome. He exuded a certain star quality. He beat better-known, well-funded opponents in the Democratic primary despite continuing reports about the FBI investigation going on in Tallahassee.
His fund-raising abilities were stellar — although some contributors, notably attorney John Morgan, the face that launched a thousand billboards, later questioned why Gillum left so much money on the table after a close election.
How close? Gillum lost the governor's race by the smallest percentage of any gubernatorial candidate in the nation that election cycle. By the smallest percentage in Florida since Reconstruction, maybe ever — 32,463 votes out of more than 8 million votes cast, easily within recount territory.
After such a close loss, he was still considered an up-and-comer. A commentator on CNN. Maybe just the guy to revive Florida Democrats' lackluster voter-registration operations. He might even go national! Even a $5,000 Ethics Commission fine the next year for taking gifts from lobbyists seemed like politics as usual and only dented him.
Gillum was a rising star right up until the morning in 2020 when police reported finding him incoherent and throwing up in a Miami hotel room where EMTs treated a man for a drug overdose. Police confiscated plastic bags of something that looked like crystal meth. No charges were filed, but not something from which a political figure might bounce back, even in Florida. Gillum announced he was entering rehab for alcohol abuse.
Then, last Wednesday, the former rising political star was in a Tallahassee courtroom in handcuffs before a federal magistrate pleading not guilty to a 21-count, 26-page indictment charging him and Sharon Lettman-Hicks, a longtime ally and Gillum's current employer, with campaign contribution fraud and 19 counts of wire fraud.
A sad trajectory
"Make no mistake that this case is not legal; it is political," Gillum said in a statement sent out after his plea. It should be noted, however, that Barack Obama administration's Justice Department kicked off the investigation and Joe Biden administration's Justice Department filed the charges. The prosecution can hardly be written off as a Republican vendetta.
For a state Democratic Party looking back on a two-decade losing streak in state elections and a slide last year to second place in state voter registration, Gillum's indictment has to be one more depressing development, though in retrospect, the warning signs were out there well before the 2018 Democratic primary.
If it makes Florida Democrats feel better, they can at least know that under Florida's winner-take-all primary system, most Democrats did vote against Gillum in the primary. He won over six other candidates by getting only 34% of the vote in a primary where only 27% of registered voters showed up. Low-turnout, winner-take-all primaries are built for creating upsets and empowering more-motivated base voters.
Gillum maintains his innocence and has yet to face trial. Still, his is a sad trajectory of a man who, for just a few months, looked like he might be the candidate to restore a competitive two-party system to Florida.
Mark Lane is a Daytona Beach News-Journal columnist. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: Mark Lane: Spectacular rise and fall as Andrew Gillum faces indictment