For the charismatic, 37-year-old mayor of Tallahassee, a day in Gainesville was an opportunity to campaign for Florida governor — the job he hopes to win in next year’s election — but also a chance to reconnect with a place and some people who he describes as “pivotal.”
Following an economic roundtable discussion with University of Florida students and local leaders in business and government Tuesday afternoon — at Tower Technology Park, near Interstate-75 in Alachua County — Andrew Gillum, a native of Miami, took a few minutes in an interview to recall the six formative years he lived in Gainesville, from 1992 -1998, and the important friendships he developed as a teenager.
His family’s move to Gainesville from Miami — to be closer to his paternal grandfather, JT Gillum, who was ill at that time — “felt like moving to a foreign place,” Andrew Gillum said.
But the slower pace, compared to Miami — as well as family members and other community connections in Gainesville — were transformative for Gillum.
“People took time to ask you, “how you doin’?’” he remembered, adding, “It was pivotal to slowing down my life to a pace where I could start to pay real attention to my education, to my community, to setting goals because I got exposed to a different type of environment,” he said.
In Gainesville, his paternal aunt, Patricia Gillum Sams, a graduate of Florida State University, and his paternal grandmother, Elizabeth Gillum, a nurse who worked days at Kanapaha Middle School and nights at North Florida Regional Memorial Hospital, were an inspiration for him.
“I came here and got exposed to a little bit of a different life in some ways — my mom, however, was still driving the school bus, and my dad was still doing construction; we just had exposure to people who had more means and had gone to college.”
He also recalled a teacher at Westwood Middle School — “she had the longest hair,” he said — who made an impact when she insisted that he sign up for an honors curriculum at Gainesville High School. “She said, ‘You ought to do this; you are bright.’”
“That then put me on the trajectory in my sophomore year to taking an honors and a pre-AP course and my junior year taking AP classes and testing and getting some college credits for my AP classes at GHS,” Gillum said. “I can credit that, being pushed to take honors courses, with putting me on a pathway to going to college.”
Of his immediate family — his parents, Charles and Frances Gillum, and six siblings — Andrew Gillum was the first to graduate high school, followed by his two younger siblings, Monique Gillum and Marcus Gillum, who also graduated high school and attended college.
“My parents loved us without measure, but they had to work a lot,” Andrew Gillum said. “They didn’t have time for politics, only for work and church and family.”
He said his parents now live in Valdosta, Georgia, and other members of his family are in Miami or Jacksonville. In Gainesville, he said, there are “just some people who I love and know.”
One of those is the former Gainesville High School director of student activities, Linda Awbrey, who retired last year after more than 40 years with the Alachua County School Board. On her way to Gillum’s 5 p.m. fundraiser, Awbrey — who also spoke at Gillum’s March 4 gubernatorial campaign kickoff in Tallahassee — recalled his “immense heart and great empathy for people.”
She said she met Gillum when she taught a high school leadership class in which he was enrolled. As vice president for the Gainesville High School student body, “He was trying to get people to work together and understand each other,” she said.
Soon Gillum was elected by the Florida Association of Student Councils as state parliamentarian. “That was an unbelievable feat for North Florida,” Awbrey said. “He was so personable and got to know so many people across the state.”
She said the role of parliamentarian consisted of bringing to the governor — at that time Lawton Chiles — student proposals from throughout Florida, some of which the governor passed along to the legislature for consideration.
“Many a time I told him, ‘You will be governor of the State of Florida or president of the United States,’” she recalled.
Gillum attended Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee, and, at age 23 — in 2003, shortly before graduating college — he became the youngest person ever elected to the Tallahassee City Commission. In 2009, he married fellow FAMU grad R. Jai Howard. They became parents to twins — Jackson and Caroline Gillum — in 2014, the same year that Andrew Gillum was elected mayor. The Gillums are expecting a son.
Andrew Gillum credits the Chestnut family of Gainesville with mentoring him into a political career. Charles Chestnut III, the longtime owner of a funeral home, was among those hosting Gillum’s fundraiser at the home of Jason and Rachel Haeseler.
“My mayor, Lauren Poe, has been telling about Andrew Gillum and what a great mayor he is for Tallahassee,” Jason Haeseler said as he greeted guests on the front porch of his home Tuesday night.
Also greeting guests at the Haeseler home was Dr. Cynthia Moore Chestnut, chair of the Alachua County Democratic Party. Her stepson, Charles Chestnut IV, has served on the Gainesville City Commission and in the Florida House of Representatives. He currently serves on the Alachua County Commission.
But it was Gillum’s friendship — beginning in high school — with Christopher Moore Chestnut, the son of Charles Chestnut III and Cynthia Moore Chestnut, that drew Gillum into the politically active Chestnut family.
“Chris and I were in AP classes together,” Gillum said. “We were the only two black men in those classes, so we kind of, you know, bonded.
At that time, Cynthia Moore Chestnut was serving in the Florida House of Representatives, having previously served on the Gainesville City Commission, including as mayor.
“When I learned his mom was a legislator, when I’d call the house to talk to him, I’d spend time on the phone with her,” Gillum recalled. “It was like a big thing to be able to talk with her about important stuff like the legislature,” he said.
He described her as an “informal mentor.”
“My notion was, she wouldn’t have time, but she took time,” he said. “When she took Chris to the capitol for him to be a page for the week, she had me coming up there on the weekend. I was seeing it. I was experiencing it. And I was like, ‘Wow! OK!’”
“She totally inspired me,” Gillum said. “She was really big on education.”
“I’ve got a huge passion for education, and I think I tuned in very early just by virtue of watching at-that-time Rep. Chestnut doing what she was doing,” he said.
After a decade in the House, where she served as chair of the House Committee on Education and vice chair of the Education Appropriations Committee, Cynthia Moore Chestnut was elected to the Alachua County Commission, where she served until 2011.
When asked to comment on Gillum at the fundraiser Tuesday, she said, “I’m actually putting a cheese tray together.”