27-Year-Old Phil Jerez Is Working to Make Andrew Gillum Florida’s First Black Governor

Photo by Gregory Reed. Art by Alan López for Remezcla

Andrew Gillum started from the bottom and now he’s in North Florida making history. The Democratic gubernatorial candidate was born on the state’s southern coast – Miami’s Richmond Heights neighborhood – to Black parents who worked in construction and public school transportation. The first person in his family to graduate from college, Gillum, 39, relocated to Florida’s capital, where he entered politics, becoming the youngest person ever elected to Tallahassee’s City Council and eventually elected mayor in 2014. Now, the rising politico is running to be the Sunshine State’s next governor, and, should he win, the first Black elected official to hold the seat. Gillum’s progressive platform, which includes implementing a $15-an-hour minimum wage, restoring the voting rights of Floridians with felony convictions, abolishing ICE, and strengthening gun safety laws, is demanding attention, including that of Sen. Bernie Sanders, who endorsed the candidate in August. But to defeat his more well-known contenders, Gwen Graham and Phillip Levine, in the primaries on Tuesday and face the Republican nominee in November, Gillum, the only non-millionaire candidate in the race, enlisted the help of Phillip Jerez, a young Bronx-raised Dominican-American serving as the campaign’s political director.

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Jerez, who moved to Miami after graduating from Columbia University in 2013, joined Gillum’s team in April, bringing with him a combination of street and Ivy League smarts that he says better prepared him for the gig. As political director, the 27-year-old serves as the candidate’s liaison to elected officials, faith leaders, activists and organizations. On any given day, he’s traveling throughout the state, meeting with local leaders, forging relationships, identifying and relaying shared visions and encouraging them to spread that message throughout their communities.

“It’s my job to make sure our partners are doing everything they can to turn out the vote for Andrew Gillum,” Jerez tells me.

He didn’t always envision himself working in politics. The son of an immigrant mother who attended school up until the fourth grade and a college-educated father who found his credentials de-legitimized by US employers, Jerez relocated to Miami to educate low-income youth of color. As a core member of Teach For America, he taught high school-level world history, US history, and psychology for two years before he understood that politicians outside of school grounds affected the change he hoped to create inside the classroom.

“I really loved my students, but I realized that no matter what I did for one or a group of students, the systems of institutional oppression and racism exist, so I began thinking who was making the decisions affecting students in the community and what I can do about it,” Jerez says.

While continuing to educate, Jerez started participating in Miami-Dade Young Democrats, where he learned of an opportunity to work as an outreach coordinator for Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL). He applied and got the job, ushering in a new career in government. During his nearly three years as a congressional aide, his day-to-day tasks were similar to his time now as a political director: building relationships in the district with leaders that advocated on behalf of issues and people that aligned with the congresswoman’s stance. However, special projects, like a task force he participated in that aimed at improving dialogue and relations between law enforcement and the community, is what inspired him to join Gillum’s campaign when the position became available.

“That experience in Congress, and how I could use government to facilitate change, albeit slow change, showed me that politics is a means to an end, and if I can get someone in office to fight for issues I believe in, then I can see how that will translate in how we work with communities,” he said.

For the last four months, Jerez’s biggest objective has been to engage the campaign with young constituents of color throughout the state and increase voter turnout among this often-ignored block. His time as a teacher and congressional aide taught him that the absence of knowledge, or the lack of access to acquire knowledge, is what impedes change, making his role as an intermediary between the community and the government indispensable. For him, sparking conversations between Gillum and some of the most burdened Floridians could both strengthen the campaign’s platform – particularly by ensuring issues the candidate already stands behind, such as gun control and affordable housing, go beyond dominant conversations to tackle grave, though less-talked about, issues impacting communities of color, like everyday armed violence and the displacement of Puerto Ricans due to Hurricane Maria – and also allow the people to see that their concerns aren’t being sidelined.

Jerez has helped initiate these conversations with youth of color through a college tour, where the candidate has visited campuses across the state, relaying his stance on debt-free college education, increasing SHOP 2.0 vocational training in public schools and raising teachers’ starting salaries, and starting a partnership with NextGen America, an environmental advocacy nonprofit and political action committee that has invested a million dollars in the campaign to hire hundreds of organizers charged with turning out the young vote.

While polls have consistently placed Gillum behind Democratic contenders Graham and Levine, Jerez believes their approach will lead to a surprising win during Tuesday’s primaries. “We have a candidate who speaks to voters that are not expected to turn out, so we are expanding the electorate, and I really believe we are going to make history,” he adds.

For Jerez, though, the campaign is about much more than making history – it’s about making a Florida that works for all of its communities.