Andrew Gillum won the Democratic nomination for governor of Florida on a bold progressive platform. He championed Medicare for All, criminal-justice reform, abolishing ICE, and investing in education and clean energy. But just before he announced his dark-horse candidacy, Gillum launched another campaign—one that reveals his political acumen and suggests how he could reimagine the state’s relationship with its cities.
In January 2017, Gillum, as mayor of Tallahassee, introduced the Campaign to Defend Local Solutions, a movement to fight state preemption,when states rescind specific or broad powers from local governments. The struggle against heavy-handed state legislation quickly gained the support of a diverse set of groups dedicated to immigrant rights, fighting poverty, civil rights, labor, gun control, consumer protection, and the environment. The Republican-controlled state legislature had stifled all of these movements by preventing them from taking action at a local level. By taking on preemption, Gillum could bring them all together.
Right now, cities in Florida are barred from raising the minimum wage, establishing paid-leave benefits, imposing gun controls, creating public broadband networks, and regulating Uber, Airbnb, and drones. Private corporations are insulated from municipal laws, and cities are limited on how they can raise revenues. It’s not an exaggeration to say that in Florida—and elsewhere in the nation—state preemption has created a crisis of local democracy.
In one of its first battles, Gillum and the Campaign to Defend Local Solutions took on a draconian 2017 state preemption bill that would have prohibited municipalities from passing any law affecting private businesses. At the time, Gillum spoke out against the law, saying, “I can’t imagine a decision that I make as a mayor that it couldn’t be argued impacts business. So the vagueness of it and the wide and sweeping nature of that is a huge threat to local governments. We fear that it may impact our ability to protect our water quality, our air quality, [our workers].”
In February, Gillum debated the speaker of the Florida House over “sanctuary city” preemption. Gillum fiercely opposed a preemption bill, which passed in the House, that would have triggered a statewide immigration crackdown. Among other things, the bill would have withheld state grants from going to sanctuary cities, created a mechanism for individuals to personally sue sanctuary cities, and allowed public officials who “willfully and knowingly” failed to report so-called unauthorized immigrants or inhibited federal-immigration agents in any way to be suspended or removed from office. After a public outcry—stoked in part by Gillum—the bill was defeated.
By spring 2018, polls in Florida and across the nation showed overwhelming public support for local decision-making. Gillum sensed an opportunity. Following the Parkland school shooting, Gillum encouraged cities to pass illegal gun ordinances that violated the state’s preemption of the issue; he was essentially urging politicians to commit acts of municipal civil disobedience.
Gillum’s activism on this issue goes back to 2014, when he defended his decision to keep a local ordinance that outlawed shooting guns in city parks. The Florida Carry and the Second Amendment Foundation had sued the city, claiming the state preempted the local law. While normal state preemption removes local authority over certain issues, in this case the legislation constituted “super preemption,” meaning any official who challenged the preemption law could be personally fined or forced out of office by the governor. In the end, the court said the ordinance could be kept on the books, because it was not being enforced. Gillum and the other officials were not fined.
Beyond merely reversing the specific forms of state preemption he disagrees with, Gillum says he wants to shift the relationship between the state and cities. On the Institute for Local Self-Reliance podcast, Gillum suggested that state law be redefined as a floor that local regulations and standards can raise but not lower. For example, the ability of cities to raise the minimum wage would be guaranteed, but that would not mean they could lower it.
There’s not a single state in the country that defines its law as a floor across the board, but doing so could unleash a flurry of democratic engagement. The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit that has helped pass close to 200 municipal laws, has assisted partner networks to draft proposed state constitutional amendments to redefine state law as a floor to protect civil, labor, ecosystem, and human rights in Colorado, Ohio, Oregon, Washington, and New Hampshire.
You cannot understand Gillum’s rise without understanding his long-term organizing around local democracy. If he gets elected governor, it could revitalize progressive politics, not just in the statehouse but also across Florida’s cities.