After voting for himself to be Florida’s first black governor, Andrew Gillum was asked to comment on the historic nature of his run.
“We’ll worry about history later," Gillum said Tuesday morning after casting his ballot at a Catholic church in Tallahassee. "But today, we’re working to win."
Gillum held his infant son over one hip, and he and his wife, R. Jai Gillum, each held a hand of one of their twins. He seemed calm, comfortable, confident.
Thirteen hours later, he conceded the race.
"We recognize that, you know, we didn't win it tonight. We didn't win this transaction. But I want y'all to know that is just it: a transaction, that what we believe in still holds true today," Gillum said on stage, standing before a crowd of disappointed supporters gathered in the main courtyard of Florida A&M University.
"Y'all, I want to encourage you not to give up. I want to encourage you to stick to the fight. I want you to know that every step of this way — even though I won't have the blessing of serving as the next governor of the state of Florida — I still plan to be on the front lines right alongside every single one of you when it comes to standing up for what it is we believe in."
At one point during his speech, Gillum nearly started to cry.
"This was, from the beginning, an extremely, extremely difficult task," he said. "I sincerely regret that I couldn't bring it home for you."
His wife stepped forward to rub his back while he paused. People in the crowd cheered for him and screamed, "We love you!" Gillum was very much at home at FAMU, his alma mater, in the city he leads as mayor.
"I can guarantee you this: I'm not going anywhere," he said. "We're going to fight. … And I believe that ultimately we will be victorious."
Gillum faced tough odds not only as the first African American major party candidate for governor but also as he vyed to be the first Democrat to win the seat in two decades, just two years after the state swung right to elect President Donald Trump.
Earlier in the evening on Tuesday, about an hour before polls closed, a quintessential Tallahassee torrential downpour sent Gillum's outdoor election results watch party into chaos. On social media, some quipped it was a sign of the blue wave Democrats were hoping for, and others joked it was a bad omen.
After the storm passed, the party continued in the main courtyard of FAMU, where students and supporters filled risers watching big screens showing the results come in on MSNBC. As early returns looked good for Gillum, the crowd cheered and danced. When DeSantis began to take the lead, people stood quiet and anxious. Gillum campaign staff members took turns asking them to remain hopeful.
An especially happy moment came when Amendment 4 passed. The statewide constitutional amendment will restore voting rights for nearly 1.5 million ex-felons who served their time, reversing a policy that disproportionately disenfranchised black voters.
Following Gillum's concession speech, his supporters felt hopeful that Amendment 4 could help Democrats win in the future.
"I'm so glad that we were able to pass the amendment that will allow those individuals who have a felony to vote in next year's election," said Will Lyons, a doctoral student at FAMU who is from Jackson, Miss. "So, hopefully going forward, we'll be able to make change."
RACE AT THE FOREFRONT
Race has been sharply in focus through the contentious campaign. The most memorable rhetoric of the campaign revolved around it.
Just a day after the primary election, during a nationally televised interview on Fox News, DeSantis said Floridians shouldn't "monkey this up" by voting for Gillum. Despite the DeSantis campaign's assertion that the comment was not intended to be racist, Gillum said during a CNN interview, "he understood the dog whistle that he was blowing."
Then there were racist robocalls to Floridians in which a voice falsely claiming to be Gillum spoke in an offensive dialect while sounds of monkeys screeched in the background.
DeSantis and Gillum sparred over race in the two televised gubernatorial debates. Gillum slammed DeSantis for receiving donations from and attending conferences with white supremacists, including someone who called President Obama the n-word.
"How the hell am I supposed to know every statement somebody makes?" DeSantis said during the second debate in late October as the crowd at Broward College booed.
"I'm not gonna bow down to the altar of political correctness," DeSantis said.
The exchange led to a viral moment for Gillum.
He said his grandmother used to say, "a hit dog will holler," suggesting DeSantis' vigorous protests were a sign of guilt. Gillum then said: "I'm not saying he's a racist. I'm saying the racists believe he's a racist."
Both candidates accused each other of exploiting racial divisions to distract from issues.
"If you look at a candidate — not a candidate, our [next] governor now — who got elected after calling his opponent a monkey, I mean, like, what does that say about the state that we're living in?" said Nastassia Janvier, who is from Haiti and grew up in Miramar. She's a sophomore at Florida State University and the head of the campus NAACP chapter.
Reginald Ellis, associate dean of FAMU's graduate school and an African American history professor, said it was predictable that a black candidate for governor would face a racist backlash. Throughout history, he said, as black people have gained more rights and privileges, there has been a negative reaction from white people who feel their power is threatened.
"As African Americans are moving into those higher-level positions, there has historically always been some level of pushback," Ellis said.
Still, Ellis was surprised by some of the rhetoric — particularly President Trump's comment that Gillum was unqualified to be governor. Trump cited DeSantis' Ivy League education, which sounded to Ellis like an insult to FAMU and other historically black universities.
"I thought, as a nation, we'd moved much further," Ellis said, characterizing the racist rhetoric against Gillum as more "profound" and "overt" than he expected.
Black voters were impressed by how Gillum embraced his identity rather than obscuring it.
Ericka Horne is originally from Deerfield Beach but has lived in Tallahassee for a decade. A medical assistant who hopes to become a doctor, Horne volunteered for Gillum's campaign in part because she appreciated his pledge to help more people get health care coverage. She said she has experienced racism in her work.
"So often people are afraid to tackle racism," said Horne, who is black. "I loved the way that he said everything that he said. He literally embodied every feeling that I felt. And I felt like I was being heard every moment that he spoke. He actually spoke for me, and I loved that."
The joy and pride African American Floridians felt about Gillum's candidacy was palpable during two Election Day parties — a midnight rally and concert headlined by P. Diddy and DJ Khaled that lasted until the early hours, and Tuesday night's party, also held on campus.
Kiara Weir, a FAMU junior from Fort Lauderdale, ate at the dining hall next to the courtyard where the event was held Tuesday night.
"We voted. We early voted. We voted today. We voted in the grand ballroom [on campus at FAMU]. We voted everywhere," Weir said. "People went back home [to vote] because they didn't change their address to Tallahassee."
A NATIONALLY WATCHED, LOCALLY WON RACE
The governor's race was seen as one of the most important races in the country, earning both candidates lots of time on network cable shows and money from outside donors.
Gillum was on the shortlist to be Hillary Clinton's running mate two years ago. She campaigned for him, and so did President Obama and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Meanwhile, DeSantis held three rallies with President Trump — in Tampa during the primary and in Fort Myers and Pensacola during the final week before the general.
But both Gillum's platform and his vulnerabilities in the race came from the two places he has called home: Tallahassee and Miami.
Gillum's record as mayor of the capital city dogged him throughout the campaign, with Republicans focusing on crime in Tallahassee and an ongoing federal investigation into potential corruption by city officials — a probe Gillum has said does not implicate him.
His populist platform — access to affordable health care, funding for public schools, legal marijuana, higher corporate taxes — was rooted in his impoverished childhood in the Richmond Heights neighborhood of South Miami-Dade County.
Ursula Staten said Gillum's positions on those issues represented her ideals and morals. She's a Tallahassee resident and volunteered for Gillum's campaign.
"It's 2018. I mean, it's kind of sad that we're still having firsts. It's really sad," Staten said.
Of his loss, she said, "It's a start. … We've never even had a nominee. It gives us a strong base for someone else."