As Republicans embark on another year of sole-party rule in Tallahassee, the Democrats have turned to a Jacksonville native as their Senate leader.
Audrey Gibson first took over as Florida Senate minority leader in a contested election last year where she barely edged out Orlando Sen. Randolph Bracy. Since then, she shored up support, earning the unanimous vote of her colleagues in November. Now she must take a party that has held minority status since 1994 through the rocky years to come.
While this last fall, Democrats elected their most state senators since 1998, they are still just 17 out of 40 senators. And the path to a majority doesn’t look particularly promising in 2020 either, Gibson admits. Only one Republican-held seat up in 2020 was won by Hillary Clinton while Republicans are expected to compete for a couple Democratic-held seats.
Still, Gibson said she was chosen as her party’s leader because of a background in organizing she has accumulated throughout her peripatetic political life — she ran a congressional office in Compton, Calif., focused on constituent services; she ran for California’s state assembly against the most powerful Republican legislator in the state and lost, and then she moved back to Jacksonville and immediately ran an unsuccessful campaign for City Council; she finally got elected to the state Legislature in 2002.
Gibson began to make her name in state politics in 2006 as a vocal critic of the state’s juvenile boot camps after a 14-year-old boy died in Panama City, exposing the Department of Juvenile Justice to criticism from the Legislature.
An emphasis for her as the Democratic leader, she said, is working together with Republicans to find common ground on things like business development.
Since her first run for office in 1996 in California, she has made small business development and corporate partnerships a focus of all her campaigns.
Differences in opinions, she said, “never kept me from crossing aisles to build relationships across the aisle. You have to do that. You can’t just sit on your hands and lament that oh I’m in the minority and nothing will ever happen. Well nothing will ever happen unless you do it.”
Sen. Rob Bradley, a Clay County Republican who heads the powerful appropriations committee, said he and Gibson have had an easy time working together on bipartisan initiatives. “It’s really important that the regional delegations stick together when it comes to things they can all agree upon and not be separated by party. That’s a principal that Audrey and I have always honored with one another.”
Bradley pointed out that Gibson’s father actually lives in his district, so Gibson will joke with him about how his constituent would like him to vote.
“I see my caucus as having equal footing” with Republicans, she said. “I understand who is making the rules if you will or who is holding the crown, but ultimately, the power belongs to the people.”
In 1999, during her failed bid for City Council against Reggie Fullwood, who would later go on to serve in the state House before resigning and pleading guilty to federal crimes, Gibson and Fullwood first competed in a race between six candidates. After the first round of elections, Gibson quickly picked up the endorsements of three of the other candidates, including now-City Councilman Garrett Dennis.
“One thing that impressed me about her: she is a hard worker,” Dennis said recently. Since that election, Dennis and Gibson have become close political allies. “She’s smart. She’s one of the most ethical people, above-board people, in politics that I know. I often say I’m an Audrey Gibson Democrat because she knows and she studies and she knows her stuff. You don’t find that a lot in politics.
Gibson’s mother, Lois Gibson, was a legendary nursing teacher in Jacksonville. She first graduated from a nursing program in 1949, and in 1955, she began teaching at Brewster School of Nursing and at Stanton Vocational High School, both African-American schools. In 1968, she joined then-Florida Junior College as a nursing instructor, eventually rising to the level of director of nursing and then dean of health services. She died in 2015.
Meanwhile, Gibson’s father was also an important educator at Douglas Anderson, a school for African-Americans on the Southside at the time. Gibson’s brother was a standout football player, eventually playing for the New England Patriots in the 1986 Super Bowl.
After earning a criminology degree from Florida State University, Gibson moved to California where she worked at the Orange County District Attorney’s office before leaving to work for Compton’s congressman. Gibson now works as a paralegal at personal-injury law firm Terrell Hogan.
By Andrew Pantazi