Twelve years ago, Barack Obama’s electrifying speech at the Democratic National Convention brought tears to Andrew Gillum’s eyes.
Now mayor of Tallahassee, Florida, and viewed as a rising star in that state, Gillum did not hesitate when asked to name his political role model.
“Elizabeth Warren,” he replied, referring to the firebrand U.S. senator from Massachusetts.
That the 37-year-old African-American mayor of a Southern U.S. city identifies Warren as his political lodestar speaks volumes about the Democratic Party's progressive shift, even as Hillary Clinton officially becomes its presidential nominee after a quarter-century of public service.
With the party in transition, Clinton’s 1990s-era brand of Democratic centrism is slowly being eclipsed by a wave of progressivism personified by Warren and by U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, a rival of Clinton's until he endorsed her this month.
Although Sanders' insurgent presidential bid fell short, leaving his supporters bitterly disappointed, a new crop of Democratic candidates seems determined to carry on his work, with Warren, 67, as their putative leader.
Like Obama in 2004, Gillum and many others at the Philadelphia convention sought to boost their profiles, raise cash and network with fellow Democrats, buoyed by the adoption of the most progressive platform in party history, with planks for debt-free college, expanded Social Security benefits and a tax on carbon emissions.
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (L) appears on stage with Nevada Senate candidate Catherine Cortez Masto at a campaign rally at the Laborers International Union hall in Las Vegas, Nevada February 18, 2016.
Clinton, too, has moved to the left, embracing many of these causes, separating herself from a more moderate brand of Democratic politics personified by her husband, former President Bill Clinton, who was pro-free trade, friendlier to Wall Street and emphasized budget discipline.
“There is an energy that’s coming from the folks that were brought to the process by the Sanders campaign,” said Sarah Lloyd, 44, a congressional candidate in Wisconsin who supported Sanders. “That can only be a positive thing for the party.”
Taking the lead
More than Sanders, Warren has taken the lead in shaping the Democrats' next generation. Formerly a professor of law, Warren conceived and set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau formed in 2011 under President Obama.
She launched a political action committee to back Democratic candidates and inspired other advocacy groups, such as the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, to solicit donations to a bloc it terms the party's “Warren wing.”
A speaker at the convention, Florida's Gillum was frustrated by Sanders because he seemed disinterested in helping other Democratic candidates, in contrast with Warren.
“Senator Sanders was content to be a movement by himself,” Gillum said. “It’s a revolution when you bring people along with you.”
Warren’s committee has donated to the campaigns of U.S. Senate hopefuls such as Kamala Harris, 51, of California, Jason Kander, 35, of Missouri, and Catherine Cortez Masto, 52, of Nevada. They and Wisconsin’s Lloyd oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the global trade deal that has split the progressive and moderate elements of the party.
The PCCC’s slate of "Warren wing" candidates supports a $15-an-hour minimum wage, campaign-finance reform and tighter rules for Wall Street.
Tallahassee, Florida Mayor Andrew Gillum speaks during the third day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S. July 27, 2016.
One of those on the slate is Zephyr Teachout, a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in New York, who has campaigned in a T-shirt that reads, “I’m from the Elizabeth Warren wing of the party” and who has been endorsed by Sanders.
“There is a rising and very important populism, talking about money in politics, talking about trade, talking about economic issues,” Teachout, 44, told Reuters. “Within the party, and across the board, there has been a serious rethinking of trade, rethinking of big banks, rethinking of monopolies that have too much power.”
Tulsi Gabbard, a U.S. representative from Hawaii, is often mentioned by Sanders supporters as one who could assume his mantle. A cable-news regular, Gabbard, 35, was one of a few Sanders supporters offered a convention speaking slot. Onstage she formally nominated Sanders for president, saying he had become a “voice for millions, connecting seamlessly with laborers in the Rust Belt and environmentalists in the West.”
Other rising Democratic progressives frequently cited by strategists include Julian Castro, 41, the U.S. housing secretary, and his twin brother, Representative Joaquin Castro of Texas, former Ohio state senator Nina Turner, 48, U.S. Senate candidate Pramila Jayapal, 50, of Washington, and former South Carolina lawmaker Bakari Sellers, 31.
Brighter than the rest?
Harris might be the one to shine the brightest. As California’s attorney general, Harris has been mentioned as a potential U.S. presidential candidate or U.S. Supreme Court justice should she win her Senate race in November.
California Attorney General Kamala Harris speaks at the Center for American Progress' 2014 Making Progress Policy Conference in Washington November 19, 2014.
She enjoys the support of Warren, Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and former New York City Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, a Republican-turned-independent, suggesting she can appeal to both the party’s liberal and moderate flanks.
She joined forces with Bloomberg in his crusade for tighter gun laws, bonded with Warren over helping homeowners struggling through the foreclosure crisis of the late 2000s and joined Obama’s efforts to overhaul a criminal justice system that tends to treat black citizens more harshly than white ones.
In one campaign ad, Warren is viewed saying, "Kamala Harris was fearless."
Harris, in turn, has backed Clinton. In an interview, she rejected the idea that the party is leaving Clinton behind even as it nominates her for president.
“I strongly believe that these two generations have much more in common than what separates them in terms of fundamental values,” Harris said.