Before he was a candidate for governor, Andrew Gillum was a Gainesville star

Andrew Gillum attended Gainesville High School from 1994 to 1998. Some of his roles included sophomore class president, senior class president and student body vice president. 

The stomp of teenage feet sounded like stampeding elephants to Linda Awbrey.

It was the 1997 Florida Association of Student Councils conference in Jacksonville, Awbrey said. She remembers a school superintendent shouting that the commotion must have been a fight among the hundreds of high schoolers there.

When Awbrey looked down from the top of the boat in the St. Johns River, she didn’t see a fight.

She saw a conga line and 17-year-old Andrew Gillum leading it with at least 800 people behind him on the deck.

Awbrey, Gillum’s former student government adviser, wasn’t surprised he decided to run for governor. She said that the same person she met in 1994 was the man running to be Florida’s first black governor.

Tallahassee Mayor Gillum conceded to Ron DeSantis Tuesday night in the midterm election. DeSantis won with 49.6 percent of the votes while Gillum had 49.2, according to The New York Times.

But as of Thursday, a vote recount will happen.

Gillum lost by fewer than 36,000 votes, or .44 percentage points, which automatically triggers a recount, the Orlando Sentinel reported. A statement from Gillum for Governor communications director Johanna Cervone said there are more uncounted ballots than originally reported.

Awbrey drove to Tallahassee to watch the live election results with her former student. The next day, she felt disappointed as she drove back to Gainesville, the city where she first met Gillum.

They met in the parking lot of Gainesville High School in 1994, she said. He had moved from Miami only two years before.

He spoke with the energy of a 14-year-old. But he had the vision of a person much older, she said.

Awbrey, 64, overheard Gillum talking to other freshmen at orientation. He expressed his excitement to work with all types of people.

“I thought, ‘Wow. This kid is 14, 15 years old and he’s talking like this,” she said.

Awbrey watched Gillum’s enthusiasm become contagious among the freshmen, she said. If she didn’t overhear them, Awbrey may have never encouraged him to run for student senate.

Gillum’s high school friend Dejeon Cain, 34, said Gillum and best friend Christopher Chestnut were “fireballs” at their school. When Gillum’s name appeared under the yearbook’s homecoming pageant, student government and 10th-grade club photos, Chestnut’s followed.

Cain learned more than 20 years ago that Gillum had a charismatic way with words.

“We always knew that he was going to take us all somewhere,” Cain said. “He just would come up with stuff that no one else would.”

Awbrey remembered one of these feats — he worked tirelessly to provide free tickets to the junior prom.

“His four years in student government at Gainesville High School and the opportunity given him, he took it and ran with it,” Awbrey said. “I don’t know that would’ve happened at a school that’s four times as big, say, in Miami.”

Cynthia Chestnut, a former member of the House of Representatives District 23, said Gillum and her son would share ideas about student government and Advanced Placement classes while eating pepperoni pizza, their favorite food.

+1 
Before he was a candidate for governor, Andrew Gillum was a Gainesville star

Gillum's peers voted him "best personality" for the senior class superlatives. His high school friend Dejeon Cain said Gillum was known around the school as a "go-getter." 

“The two of them were not involved in sports at all,” Cynthia Chestnut said, “and the other students sort of looked up to them and respected them for being in student government.”

Gillum and Christopher Chestnut were the only two African Americans in AP classes then, Cynthia Chestnut said. Christopher Chestnut served as the student body president while Gillum was the senior class president.

Cynthia Chestnut said she doesn’t consider herself a mentor of Gillum because he was already attuned to politics.

“I was just a mother talking to one of her son’s best friends,” she said.

The two later ran Chestnut’s unsuccessful senate campaign where Chestnut said her son and Gillum were able to cut their teeth on politics.

Cynthia Chestnut said she was surprised by Tuesday night’s initial outcome, but after spending all day Wednesday preparing provisional ballots, she has not lost any faith.

“I know people voted, and they voted for Andrew Gillum,” Cynthia Chestnut said. “And we just have to prove it.”

On Oct. 26, Gillum returned to Gainesville one last time before Election Day. With megaphone in hand, he looked out at more than 200 students and Gainesville residents chanting “Bring it home.”

As a high schooler, Gillum and his friends bowled in the Reitz, he said in an interview in October. They spent Saturdays at the Oaks Mall food court, even though he said he didn’t have money to shop.

He said he hopes he inspires young people who come from a humble background like his.

“My very political career to this moment was launched by young people getting involved and being engaged in a process when people counted us out,” Gillum said.

Tuesday morning, Awbrey realized that Gillum is now 39, the age she was when they met.

When Awbrey looks at him, she sees the Tallahassee mayor, a Florida A&M University student government president and the same 14-year old from the parking lot, all at once.

Contact Angela DiMichele at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @angdimi

Angela is a third-year journalism student. She is the general assignment and Santa Fe beat reporter as well as a staff writer for the honors college magazine, Prism. She enjoys watching Broad City and attending concerts in her free time.