Ask Andrew Gillum when he caught the politics bug, and it’s more than likely the Tallahassee mayor will talk about his early days at Florida A&M University, when he led protests from the State Capitol in a few blocks away and was ultimately elected student body president.
But the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, who then served a decade on the city commission before being elected mayor, has long based his political identity on his humble roots far from the state capital. How did Gillum, as the son of a school bus driver and construction worker who grew up in Richmond Heights, end up in politics at the highest level of state?
The answer lies 150 miles southeast of Tallahassee, during Gillum’s teenage years after her family moved to Gainesville. There, as one of only two African American male students in his high school AP-level classes, he met and befriended the son of a state lawmaker who – long before Gillum went to college – helped open some of Gillum’s first doors in Tallahassee. Politics.
“I had never known anyone so close to the government,” Gillum said recently. “I certainly don’t think I would have been so receptive to the idea that he was accessible to me, as I had never known anyone so close to the government.”
Gillum’s family moved to Gainesville in 1992, Gillum said, to be closer to his ailing grandfather.
Gillum, who turned 13 that summer, quickly moved on to Westwood Middle School, where he asked for more snacks from vending machines as a senior rep for Grades 6-8, he said. told the Gainesville Sun.
“At that time, it seemed like something major to have Skittles, Snickers and real Doritos, and not generic taco chips, in vending machines,” Gillum told the newspaper in 2003. “We had it. some diversity – Skittles and Snickers, but not the Doritos. “
But it wasn’t until he entered Gainesville High School in the fall of 1994 that he met and befriended Christopher Chestnut, the son of two local politicians. Her mother, Representative Cynthia Chestnut, had served as city commissioner and mayor before becoming state legislator in 1990, while her father, Charles Chestnut III, served on the Alachua County commission.
Andrew and Christopher eventually became best friends, but made an odd pair in Gainesville, by Chestnut’s own admission.
“He was the teacher’s favorite – all the teachers loved him,” he said. Gillum – in penny loafers, khakis and her tucked button-down shirt – cut a serious figure at Gainesville High. Chestnut, on the other hand, “was like the professor’s antagonist, so we had a love-hate relationship.”
Gillum and Chestnut also clashed on occasion in a Youth Disciplinary Court, where Gillum would serve as prosecutor and Chestnut, foreshadowing his later work as a lawyer, would take on the role of defense attorney. But the two ultimately bonded about being the only African American boys in their AP classes and of mutual interest to the student government.
Chestnut, however, had already grown up steeped in politics because of his family. Soon Gillum would find his way there too. They began to work together on campaigns as a hobby, helping her mother get re-elected to return to Tallahassee or organizing events at the Chestnut House.
Gillum, who lived a 12-minute bike ride away, has become a regular visitor.
“When you saw one, you saw the other,” said Cynthia Chestnut, who still lives in Gainesville. Whenever he came, “he would look for me to get into politics, which was important to keep in mind when entering politics, what I thought about various issues.”
Cynthia Chestnut “was the first government official I know personally,” he said, recalling the times he went to the Chestnut house to talk about politics even when Christopher was not there.
Cynthia Chestnut also opened doors for her son and his best friend, literally. They came on hiatus to visit Tallahassee during the session, where they got a close look at the state government.
“I chaired education, so they met a lot of people – it was a good show for them,” recalls Cynthia Chestnut. She also shared offices with then-representative Willie Logan, a brief president-designate from Miami for whom Gillum would later work during Logan’s unsuccessful independent candidacy for the United States Senate.
These early trips, said Gillum, were his first time at the Capitol or Tallahassee. Cynthia Chestnut “was the front door for me,” he said. “She was the entry point for me into politics – in a real way, not just the student government rallies, the prom plan… other than her, I wouldn’t have been exposed to that.”
“I could see the influence of the government exposure ‘on Gillum,’ Christopher Chestnut recalls.” He was just absorbing it all. “
Gillum eventually graduated as vice president of the student body from his senior year of high school. He was also elected by the Association of State Student Councils as the State Parliamentarian, responsible for presenting proposals from students from across the state to the Governor, then Lawton Chiles. Through this work, he would rub shoulders with another future Florida politician, Representative Carlos Curbelo, recalled Chestnut, “both star in statewide leadership.”
Gillum’s decision to date Florida A&M, Cynthia Chestnut’s alma mater, firmly anchored him in the once-unfamiliar state capital and cemented his political path. He interned on legislative committees and helped lead a sit-in in then-Gov. Jeb Bush’s office on Capitol Hill about his overthrow of affirmative action policies before launching his career at the city commission.
But the impact of those first visits to Capitol Hill is still visible in his now unlikely bid for governor of Florida. The Chestnuts collectively donated thousands of dollars to its main campaign. Christopher Chestnut walked the election campaign with Gillum, but not in an official capacity, and continued to volunteer for the general, he said.
(Chestnut has meddled with the Florida bar on several occasions since he began practicing law – he pleaded guilty to a bar violation in 2015 for failing to notify a client of a wrongful death claim and was publicly reprimanded, though the bar has dropped complaints that included improper solicitation of clients and false statements in court. The attorney, who practiced law in Gainesville but moved his practice to Atlanta, also has two disciplinary proceedings against him still pending before the Florida Bar.)
If Gillum were to win the governorship, said Christopher Chestnut, Gillum would have the advantage of a front row seat in the Legislature that few have observed so soon.
“The Capitol was tangible for him,” he said. “He’s been there before.