Transcript:

Marc Steiner: Good to have you all with us here. We’re about to have join us here Rachel Gilmer, who is the Co-director of the Dream Defenders, joining us from Miami, Florida. Rachel, always good to talk with you, and welcome back to The Real News.

Let’s start with what we’re seeing right now, just very quickly. We’re seeing dogs walking under my desk, that’s what I’m seeing. We’re seeing a really tight race, and I’m … just your sense. You’ve been out in the street, you’re part of the organizing team for Dream Defenders. Talk a bit about what you’re seeing, and what your sense is of where this is going.

Rachel Gilmer: Florida is always super-razor thin margins, so I’m not going to do any predictions yet. Waiting for all the votes to come in, but we do know that we’ve seen historic turnout: young people, in particular. Dream Defenders organizes young Black and Brown people, and as of last week, more young people had turned out than in all of early voting. On college campuses where there’s polling sites in 2018, the right was fighting to get college polling sites shut down. We ended up winning that fight, and then in some of the polling sites on college campuses, we’re seeing nearly 100% turnout. At University of Central Florida, the largest university in the country, they had 100% voter turnout.

That’s a really exciting sign. I mean, young people, our generation, is the most progressive, the most diverse generation. We have a really clear vision about the transformation that’s needed in this country, and so I’m feeling confident and ready to go, and just kind of waiting to see what the results are. 

But excited that we’re seeing young people engaging in the political process in ways we haven’t seen in previous cycles at the same level. And so, I just think there’s a lot of possibility, not only for what that means this year, but for the future, in terms of changing the political landscape in this country.

Marc Steiner: We talked earlier, and we talked for a few minutes on the phone. We were talking about the Puerto Rican vote and the vote of immigrants. Your work in Dream Defenders, I mean, that’s a big piece of what you’re doing is bringing this vote to bear and organizing. Talk a bit about that work you’ve done and how you see it unfolding today, and in these last couple of weeks.

Rachel Gilmer: Yeah. Dream Defenders is part of a seven-organization coalition called Florida for All, that’s been working to build the long-term strategy to build independent political power for our communities in Florida. We’ve been under trifecta Republican control for 20 years despite, actually, Republicans being the minority in terms of voter registration.  Democrats are actually registered in higher numbers, yet we don’t see that in terms of actual election outcomes because Republicans have figured out how to maintain control over the state, while being minorities, actually.

And so, our organizations are focused on how we expand the electorate, get more and more people engaged in the political process, and really figuring out a long-term strategy to flip the state. Part of that is engaging new populations. The immigrant population in Florida is incredibly diverse. Right here in Miami, we have Haitians, Cubans, Venezuelans, Puerto Ricans; and these communities are all incredibly diverse, do not hold the same politics. So, we’re really focused on how do we engage communities, bring more people in, and really build a political bloc that’s able to contend for power in the state.

We’re seeing that the right is very threatened by that. In 2018, when our governor won … a Republican beat Andrew Gillum by 20,000 votes. That’s literally, I always say this, literally smaller than a Beyonce concert. That is like .3 percentage points. He immediately … That same election cycle, we passed Amendment 4, so what did the Republican legislature do? They immediately figured out how to restrict implementation of Amendment 4, which would have brought 1.4 million people into the electorate. 

So, there are just huge possibilities to be engaging our communities, and we’re seeing the Republicans respond by trying to figure out further disenfranchisement strategies, further strategies to figure out how they can maintain control in the wake of growing communities that are becoming more and more politically active.

Marc Steiner: I’m curious what you think the strategy is going forward. I mean, we don’t know, yet. The race looks really tight in Florida, from what I’ve been watching in different sites before we started talking. I mean, 50% the last time I looked, or 50 points or something for Trump, and 49-something for Biden at the moment. I don’t know if Dade County has come in, or Orange County around Orlando, which are sites that would probably go for Biden. You can talk a bit about that.

But I’m wondering, in that context, where you see that struggle going in Florida after this election. What you’ve just described is a real kind of battleground between communities of color, and other communities, trying to fight for their rights to be heard and actually govern themselves. So, where do you see this going?

Rachel Gilmer: This is a long-term strategy. I think what’s giving me a lot of hope is this year, when we saw the uprising, the largest uprising in U.S. history quite possibly, we saw young people taking to the streets in very rural parts of Florida where we hadn’t seen protests like the protests we were seeing, I think, in recent history at all. So, that gives me a lot of hope, the fact that young people are taking to the streets in even parts of Florida where our organizations don’t have strongholds. They’re like the red parts of the state. 

So, it’s exciting to see that there’s organizing potential and that young people … I was politicized around Occupy. That was 10 years ago, and when I was politicized, I didn’t believe in elections. I thought that, and I still think, that both parties … the electoral process is the problem. But what’s exciting is, I think, we’re seeing young people refine their political analysis and realizing that they have to engage in elections, that there’s an opportunity to be in the streets. We need to be in the streets, but that we actually have to figure out how to translate that into political power, and get people in positions of power who can actually move the agenda that we’re demanding in the streets.

This is a long-term strategy, and I think eventually I would love to figure out how to get young people in our base to actually run for office. 40% of young people, I think, are actually registered as non-party affiliates, which is a sign that they’re actually disillusioned by both parties. So, I think there’s actually huge potential to really build the voting bloc around a real, radical, transformative vision for the future of the country that neither party is actually speaking to right now. And young people are equally disillusioned by just the political establishment as a whole.

Marc Steiner: That’s really fascinating, because it seems like … One thing I’m thinking a lot about is that people talk about a war between the states. I think we’re seeing a war within the states, and especially in places like Florida, and Georgia, and other cities in the South; and some out west where there’s a real battle going on. Not generational, but around race and class, that’s really shifting. So, when you look in places like Orange County, and Orlando, and Dade County, which is where, if the Democrats pull this out, it would be because of those counties. What do you see in your work? Where do you think things are?

Rachel Gilmer: Like I said, I’m waiting for every vote to come in. But some exciting things are that Pinellas County, which is on the west coast of Florida in the Tampa/ St. Pete area, that is actually looking like it’s going to go blue, which is huge. It went towards Trump in 2016. Duval County, where Jacksonville is, I believe also went for Trump in 2016, and is now looking like it’s going to go blue.

So, that’s very exciting, and then, yeah. Of course, Miami is an incredibly important [inaudible 00:08:02] and that the right has really been trying to chip away: particularly at Latino voters. And doing all sorts of red-baiting, and these racist dog whistles, to try to divide communities and win Latino voters to their side. During the coronavirus over the last few months, when Florida has had some of the worst outcomes in the country, when our County Commission here in Miami-Dade was trying to pass paid sick leave, the right shut it down by just calling it socialism.

So, I think we really have to figure out a deep organizing strategy to get people to understand our economic agenda. Really, the right is very much trying to get people to vote against their own interests, to get people in poverty to not vote for things that would alleviate poverty by creating divisions between Black and Latino voters, using anti-Black myths, by calling things socialism. The only solution to that is deep, deep organizing that actually helps build support for an economic agenda and helps clarify what it is our movement is about, and bring more and more people into it.

Marc Steiner: I’m very curious to explore, while we have time, the questions raised about deep organizing and what that means post-election. We don’t know how this election is going to turn out. I think America is on a real precipice, and it is your generation and others who are the leaders and doing the organizing. 

So, how do you see that playing out after this election? What do you have to do so that when you describe what just happened in Miami and Dade County, where the right was able to stop that effort, how could you change that? What [inaudible 00:09:49] when you talk about it, where it failed, what is your organizing, what’s the strategy that would ensure that that can’t happen again?

Rachel Gilmer: Yeah. I think Florida is a really challenging place, like I said. We’ve been under trifecta of Republican control for 20 years, and that’s not a coincidence. That’s because the right has invested deeply in Florida. The Koch brothers put more money into Florida than any other state in the country. We have one of the highest-funded Republican parties. And so, I think it is that slow bread-and-butter work of figuring out how we build up infrastructure and how we invest in like going door to door, and just talking to people. 

I think many people in my generation have, I think, got in … Obviously, social media has been something that’s been … really has pushed our movements forward, but I think it’s also allowed us to kind of skip some of the bread and butter organizing that you just can’t skip, like building a base to actually bring people over to our movement. So I think, honestly, like knocking on doors, building support for our political agenda through conversations, figuring out [fights 00:11:05] on a local level. 

It’s really exciting that here in Miami, we actually … Our primary for Miami-Dade mayor, it went to a run-off between the most conservative person on the ballot and the most progressive person on the ballot. And if the most progressive candidate wins, then Daniella Levine Cava … I mean, there’s huge openings on a local level to try to be able to push past, to try to organize and make some real reform and some real change here.

That starts with building a base and building power, and then working to push politicians. And that means getting folks active after the election. I think so many people are socialized like, “Oh, November 3rd happens and then I’m done.”  We actually need to socialize people to be like, November 3rd and the work gets started.

Marc Steiner: I’m curious, because you’re in Miami. I’m curious to see how you see the election happenings. I do know what you said earlier about the Koch brothers, that the Koch brothers and Karl Rove and his REDMAP organization have gotten millions and millions and millions of corporate dollars to ensure that the right wing can control politics in [inaudible 00:12:10] states like Florida, like Indiana, like Michigan, Wisconsin. So, what’s happening with that race in Miami, which I have not been following, I will admit. But I’d like to hear your analysis on what’s going on, and how that talks about a larger picture maybe in the battle against all the right-wing money.

Rachel Gilmer: I think people are fed up, and we’re in a very polarized, political environment. We’re seeing lots of young people, as I said earlier, out in the streets. I think we, as organizations, are trying to figure out how to pivot that towards political power. And I think we’re seeing elected candidates who I think represent our movement in ways we haven’t seen before.

Daniella Levine Cava comes from progressive organizations, ran for a County Commission seat, sat on the County Commission, is now running for mayor. So, I think it’s a sign of actually our movements grabbing hold of the political system, and actually having candidates who represent our interests on the ballot.

I think we’re in a polarized political environment, so it’s really about … Yeah, but there’s like lots of people who are … I think the polarization is also representative of people being fed up on both sides, and there’s like … just who can organize people in our direction? It’s a battle against the polarization in many ways.

Marc Steiner: When you see, since we don’t know the results we have, but when you see the organizations that you’re in a coalition with, that kind of span the spectrum of Black organizations and various Latino organizations and other groups, how do you see that coalition holding together? And is there a coalition-building that can actually become a political force, do you think, out of the work you are all doing on the ground?

Rachel Gilmer: That’s exactly what we are trying to do. Amendment 4 was an example of this. Florida Rights Coalition, led by formerly incarcerated people, has been pushing for this for 10 years. A coalition of organizations came behind Amendment 4, collected a million petition signatures, got it on the ballot, and then it won. So, I think more and more ballot initiatives.

And really, I think, we’re seeing the right respond. One of the amendments on the ballot this cycle is to actually make it so that citizen ballot initiatives have to be passed twice. So, if that existed now, it would mean we would have had to have passed Amendment 4 in 2018, and then do all the work to pass it in 2020 in order for it to become law.

So, I think our organizations are figuring out both a defensive strategy, we have to figure out how to defend against the right continuously trying to attack; and figure out how to maintain minority control while figuring out how to build political tentacles across the state to bring more and more people in, and really build an offensive strategy around our vision. 

Marc Steiner: I think that one of the difficult things here, in any political community organizing at the moment, is thinking through how you … is figuring out a strategy that you battle the power of the right. Because clearly, in places like Florida, they have gained control. You just said they control the Governor’s Mansion, both parts of the legislature. It’s a real fight, but it seems to me that the numbers are on your side, not their side.

Rachel Gilmer: Yeah, right. I think the other dynamic we’re up against in Florida is the Biden campaign didn’t really, and the Democratic Party didn’t really, have a ground game in Florida. Much of that was left up to our organization, which I think is just another dynamic that makes it hard for us to win elections. I think part of the reason our organizations came together to form this coalition is, Florida is such an important state nationally, and so we see millions of dollars pour into this state on the presidential election cycles and then immediately dry up.

So, it’s very hard for … and then much of that money ends up going to national groups that parachute in, and don’t have a long-term investment in figuring out … in our communities. They don’t have long-term relationships in our communities to really be building the type of political power necessary to be able to flip these elections long-term. So, part of the reason our organizations came together was to actually combat this dynamic, because we found that we were so often in competition with one another, sort of moving from cycle to cycle, moving from campaign to campaign, as opposed to thinking long-term: how 10 years out do we get a people’s governor elected. What is the 10-year strategy to do this? 

This is slow work. The right had a 30, 40 year strategy. So, a lot of what we’re really thinking about is how do we come together? We need a really robust movement ecosystem. What are the type of capacities we need to build? The right has a policy machine, and donors networks, and grassroots organizations.

Turning Point USA is literally all over college campuses across the state. They have policy organizations, they have candidate recruitment organizations. And so, our organizations are really coming together to think about what is that type of infrastructure that’s needed to actually move a long-term strategy. This isn’t just election cycle from election cycle. This is a long-term strategy to build the type of political power needed to actually be able to transform the state. And that’s like a 10, 20, 30-year project.

Marc Steiner: Despite Donald Trump sitting where he sits and the power of the right growing, you don’t sound pessimistic, Rachel, about the power that you represent and of the people you’re organizing with. When I think about … and you’re right. They did have a 30, 40-year struggle to kind of take over. As I said to somebody today, they learned from Saul Alinsky, and they learned from Fannie Lou Hamer in Mississippi, and they learned from us how to organize. And then they did it, right? So, we have to kind of have to relearn that, and reorganize that to build a power so we actually do have kind of a people’s power.

Rachel Gilmer: I’m feeling confident in the fact that our organizations have talked to millions of voters, that we just had a [inaudible 00:18:08] movement moment in which we saw millions of people take to the streets all across the country. And I’m feeling confident that that’s going to translate into political power and results tonight. So, thank you again for having me.

Marc Steiner: No, thank you. You represent what the future is, in terms of building a movement in this country and making things change. I deeply appreciate the work you do, the stuff you’ve been writing, your organizing with the Defenders. You’re really doing an amazing piece of work, and we really do appreciate it.

I know you’ve got to run, but I appreciate the time you’ve taken and I look forward to many more conversations. And really, finally, what you all do in Florida, because I mean this is just the beginning. No matter what the hell happens with the Electoral College in Florida, this is literally the beginning of your struggle.

Rachel Gilmer: Yes, most definitely. Well, to check out more about our coalition, you can go to floridaforall.vote and learn more about the effort that is happening now. It [inaudible 00:19:04] with Dream Defenders, again, it’s a group of organizations coming together and really trying to build a long-term plan to flip Florida. And then you can go to dreamdefenders.org and learn more about the Dream Defenders.

Marc Steiner: Rachel Gilmer, it’s always great to talk with you. Really good to see you, and maybe when COVID is over, we’ll see you in Florida.

Rachel Gilmer: Yes, I hope so.

Marc Steiner: All right.

Rachel Gilmer: Thank you all so much. Thank you.

Marc Steiner: Thank you. Thank you.

Rachel Gilmer: ‘Bye-bye.

Marc Steiner: ‘Bye-bye. We’ve been talking to Rachel Gilmer, who joined us from Florida. She had to go. She’s working the polls and organizing in Florida, and she had to run. So, before we hit our next segment, which is coming up shortly, I think that maybe.

Marc Steiner

Managing Editor

Marc Steiner, interim co-Editor at TRNN, is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on issues of social justice. He walked his first picket line at age 13 and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested for Civil Rights protests, in the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught Theatre for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993 through 1997 his signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR – which Marc co-founded – and Morgan State University’s WEAA.