Florida Governor Hopeful Andrew Gillum on His Viral Tree-Chopping Moment after Hurricane Michael

Michelle Tauber

Andrew Gillum is locked in an intense race for Florida governor — but as the mayor of Tallahassee, his campaign took a backseat after Hurricane Michael hit the Panhandle.

Gillum, a Democrat who is running opposite Republican Ron DeSantis, surveyed the devastation after Michael made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane on October 10.

Footage of Gillum helping to clear downed trees with a chainsaw made national news — and the mayor, a 39-year-old father of three, says it was the obvious course of action.

“We went out trying to assess the impact of the storm, and we came upon a street we couldn’t get through,” he tells PEOPLE. “We saw some neighbors out in the front yard trying to do their part, so I grabbed my equipment out of the trunk and we started helping.”

It’s the same action he took when Hurricanes Hermine and Irma hit the area in previous years — though he jokes of his wife R. Jai, “My wife’s been complaining I don’t do it enough at home! Part of that is that I’m not home enough to get my honey-do list done.”

As the hardest-hit Mexico Beach area continues its long road to recovery, Gillum says, “For all the heartache and the disaster these storms wreak, if there were a silver lining is it’s that it brings people together. You saw neighbors helping neighbors. Kids in the street, talking to each other. Neighbors cooking in the cul-de-sac for all the families because everybody was out of power. It reflects what the true meaning of community is.”

Andrew Gillum during a Hurricane Michael briefing on October 10.

Before running for governor, Gillum — the fifth of seven children born to Charles and Frances Gillum, a construction worker and school bus driver — previously made national headlines when he took on Florida’s powerful gun lobby. As Tallahassee mayor, he refused to repeal an ordinance that prohibited shooting guns in city parks.

“When we waded into the NRA fight, it was not a popular thing,” he says. “People thought we were crazy to engage that issue. I found very little backup. When we didn’t repeal this ordinance, Florida law allowed me to be sued. They dragged us through court for two years. I couldn’t be represented by my legal counsel for the city; I had to find my own. I was responsible for paying a $10,000 fine.

“When people hear that you can be sued because you stand up to the NRA, I think it causes a lot of people’s blood to boil,” says Gillum, who at age 23 became the youngest person ever elected to the Tallahassee City Commission. “I know it did for me. I ‘m proud to see this issue has emerged in a way that gives you courage and say enough is enough.”

After the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Gillum says the youth movement has inspired him.

“I think we take for granted the courage that was displayed by these young people,” he says. “No less than a week after seeing their friends murdered right in front of their eyes, these young people took immediate action. They were at the Florida legislature. They traveled great distances to speak truth to power and to create real change. They went from that to inspiring a national movement of youth activism.”

As for young people voting in the upcoming midterm elections, “If there ever was a moment for them to flaunt their power and show they are a real force to be reckoned with, this is the election,” he says. “It’s an election that comes in the wake of huge organizing and activism for young people. I would hate for the epithet to be written that they had their chance and they missed it. In a state like Florida, where the race for governor these last two times has come down to fewer than 1 % of voters, young people can be determinative in the outcome. This is the moment, this is the time for young people to stand unapologetically to say, ‘We matter.’ “