Florida Democratic governor candidates call for 2018 unity

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. (AP) — Florida’s three announced Democratic gubernatorial candidates agreed on most issues at a forum Saturday, from education to the economy to faith, but got their loudest cheers when they called for ending a 20-year string of Republican governors in 2018.

Speaking to 300 Democratic faithful at the state party’s annual fundraiser, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham and entrepreneur Chris King all said Florida needs to move away from the policies of Govs. Rick Scott and Jeb Bush by getting a Democrat elected for the first time since 1994. Scott is term-limited and cannot run for a third term next year. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam is the leading Republican candidate.

All three said the state needs to raise its $8.10 minimum wage, with Gillum and Graham expressly calling for $15 an hour. All said the state needs to improve its education system by supporting traditional public schools and reversing Scott’s and Bush’s emphasis on charter schools. And all said Democrats must stop giving the Republican Party a monopoly when it comes to messages of faith.

Gillum, who has been mayor of Florida’s capital city since 2014, said the party needs to push an “unapologetic” progressive message and not cede the state’s rural and traditionally conservative areas to the Republicans.

“We are not trying to be ‘Republican light,'” he said. He got a big laugh when he said he campaigned recently at The Villages, the famously conservative retirement complex in central Florida – “Lord, have mercy.”

“Those are the folks we have to get to,” Gillum said. “You don’t lose that county and pick up that one. The person who will be the next governor will be the one who gets one more vote than the next person.”

Graham, the daughter of former senator and governor Bob Graham, said that when she hears Scott’s frequent mantra — jobs, jobs, jobs — “It means many people are having to work multiple jobs just to get by.”

“We have got to fix that,” said Graham, who served one term in Congress from north Florida. She said she introduced a bill while was in Congress that would have funded technical training in middle school.

“It’s a time in life when you want to excite kids, make them want to go to school every day and give them something to feel passionate about. We need to have technical training in middle school, through high school, through community colleges, wherever someone ambitious ends up in their educational journey to make sure the jobs that are here today, the ones we want to grow in the future, will have a trained workforce.”

King, a political newcomer who founded a company that invests in senior and low-income housing developments, said Democratic candidates have been too timid in discussing issues of faith. He got nods from the other two candidates.

“The other party has taken this away from us,” said King, who attends a non-denominational Christian church in Orlando. He said the religious right has created a limited definition of what people of faith should care about, but he will “go toe-to-toe with them” by saying people can be religious and support gay rights, affordable housing and expanded health insurance systems.

“My senior adviser is Muslim. My campaign manager is Jewish. We have Catholics and Christians. This is going to be a campaign that wants to bring people together,” King said.