Most of the houses, the ones still standing, are crowned with blue tarps, and the heavy-duty trucks are still clearing massive trees snapped like matchsticks on the back roads surrounding the Sunrise Worship Center in Jackson County.
For many members of the almost-all black audience who came to hear Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum speak Monday on the penultimate day before what voters have been told is the most important election in their lifetimes, Gillum represents more than the opportunity to make history by putting an African-American in the Florida governor’s mansion.
The Tallahassee mayor also carries the promise of delivering what some of the region’s black residents feel has been lacking in the aftermath of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Michael, which made landfall in the Panhandle as a Category 4 hurricane on Oct. 10.
“We need more support in the black areas,” Lori Hall, 42, told The News Service of Florida after Gillum addressed dozens of area residents during a final bus tour Monday. “It’s like we’re forgotten about.”
Gillum veered from his typical stump speech, in which the gubernatorial candidate points out that he’s visited places like Calhoun County, The Villages and other conservative locales, to target the folks in the audience, some of whose homes still lack power.
“Marianna, I want you to know that, even though this area is often referred to as the ‘Forgotten Coast,’ you’re not going to be forgotten with the Gillum-King administration,” Gillum, 39, said, referring to his running mate, Chris King.
Florida “cannot be all that she needs to be if we’re leaving whole parts of the state” behind, he said.
“We can’t reach our highest heights of potential. If we get parts of our areas that have been devastated by hurricanes, and we’re not real smart about how we reconstruct these areas, you start to lose population. Folks start to go other places. Jobs and industry decides that they don’t want to open up again. They’ll go someplace else. That won’t work for us. That won’t work for you. So you need a governor that’s going to go to work on your behalf to make sure that we get you back to 100 percent, that will get you back whole, that will make this an area that works, for everybody,” Gillum said, eliciting a roar from the crowd.
Gillum is facing off Tuesday against Ron DeSantis, a Republican backed by President Donald Trump, in one of the most closely watched governor’s races in the nation.
Trump traveled to the Sunshine State twice last week to boost enthusiasm for DeSantis and for Gov. Rick Scott, who is running against Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.
Meanwhile, former President Barack Obama held a rally Friday for Gillum and Nelson in Miami.
Gillum’s drawn other A-list support as well; he’s been joined by black and Hispanic athletes and celebrities on the campaign trail since his surprise Aug. 28 victory in a crowded Democratic primary.
Over the weekend, for example, actresses Eva Longoria Bastón, America Ferrera, Rosario Dawson, Zoe Saldaña and others campaigned with Gillum’s wife, R. Jai, in Kissimmee, home to a fast-growing Puerto Rican population.
After traveling to Marianna on Monday, Gillum was slated to go to Monticello, Madison and Crawfordville --- North Florida towns not far from the mayor’s Tallahassee base. He was scheduled to close out the last day before the election with a “Bring It Home Midnight Rally and Concert,” featuring rapper Sean “Diddy” Combs, Angela Rye, DJ D-Nice and others at Florida A&M University, where Gillum began his political career as student body president.
And Gillum’s election-night party, which will also take place at FAMU, will have some star-power, as well. California billionaire Tom Steyer, founder of the progressive NextGen America organization that focuses on college-age and young voters, will join Gillum and King, after meeting with students near Florida State University.
Democrats across the state --- and the nation --- are hoping Gillum can help their party reverse course after being shut out of the governor’s mansion for more than two decades.
Holding a blue Gillum sign inside the church, Rosa Pollock said she is “just elated” that the mayor came to her town.
“I’m 72, but right now I feel like about 20. It just gave me so much energy,” Pollock told the News Service.
The windows on her Marianna home are still missing, and a large tree is resting beside the house, but the roof is intact, Pollock said.
Gillum hasn’t won her support because he’s black, but because of “what he’s saying he can do to help this area,” she said.
“I learned a long time ago not to see color. … But I am so proud, on the other hand, that he is like me,” Pollock said. “His blackness is just the icing on the cake. That’s a smart young man. Trust me. He knows what he’s talking about. And I can feel his sincerity. I can feel that. I’m pretty good about being able to tell that about people. “
Pollock, a longtime Democrat, said she sees a boost of enthusiasm this year, compared to previous governor’s elections in Florida.
“Because everybody’s like, oh no. We’ve got to get this thing changed. We’ve got to turn these red states back to blue,” she said.