Best Laid Plans
Alan Grayson made sure his didn’t go astray. Even before losing his House seat in 2010, he had a crafty comeback strategy in mind.
Alan Grayson, Central Florida’s fiery congressman, is settled back into Washington, where he can make headlines once again from the floor of the House of Representatives and on cable television—speaking out as much for the Democrats’ liberal base around the country as for constituents in his new 9th District. After being defeated by 15 points in his old 8th District by Daniel Webster in the 2010 Tea Party wave, Grayson roared back last November, trouncing trial lawyer and radio host Todd Long by 28 points—a 43-point swing, and a remarkable reversal of fortune.
The election night victory party at the Salsa Latina nightclub in Kissimmee was jubilant, but before allowing her sometimes rumpled husband to declare victory, Lolita Grayson solicitously tucked in the ballooning front of his white dress shirt. Sartorially repaired, Grayson stepped to the podium, looking out into a small sea of supporters waving hand-lettered signs reading “He’s Back!” The Harvard-educated politician began his remarks by quoting F. Scott Fitzgerald: “There are no second acts in American lives.” Grayson smiled and said, “Clearly, he was wrong,” as cheers erupted. It was well past time, he declared, for universal health care, an immediate end to the war in Afghanistan, and for the “filthy rich” to pay their fair share of taxes. It was vintage Grayson.
So, how could such a thing happen, this resurrection of the member of Congress most reviled by Republicans and conservatives across the nation, a candidate once written off as a doomed, flamboyant, one-term wonder? Did he consciously change his approach during the campaign, and if so can we expect that strategic decision to carry over to his speeches on the House floor and his appearances on cable television?
“It’s hard to say,” the 54-year-old congressman said recently, relaxing in a favorite booth at Peach Valley Café near his Windermere-area home. “I am what I am. You’re likely to see the same degree of conviction.’’ Then he added with a laugh, “It’s not as if I’ve had a lobotomy. I’m going to be as interesting and direct as possible.”
Mapping It Out
It was the spring of 2010, and Grayson stood in his office on Capitol Hill, pointing to a large map of Central Florida. I had just asked him about his chances for re-election in the upcoming midterm election, in light of his clashes with Republican colleagues and conservatives—in particular driving the Fox News and talk radio pundit lineup to apoplexy. Grayson seemed to shrug off the question, almost as if it didn’t matter, replying perfunctorily that he was confident he would win that November.
But he was already thinking two elections ahead: The former chess whiz at Bronx Science High School outlined with his finger the new Democratic-leaning district the Republican legislature in Tallahassee would be compelled to carve out because of the latest census, explaining that this would be where he would run in 2012.
As often happens, Alan Grayson knew exactly what he was doing. Eight months after his shellacking by Daniel Webster, Grayson announced that he would run in the new 9th District, essentially the area that he had traced with his finger a year and a half before. With his high name recognition and national base of supporters that enabled him to raise millions of dollars, the announcement ensured that he would have no significant opposition in the Democratic primary, either from former Orlando Police Chief Val Demings, who was planning a congressional run, or from a Hispanic challenger in the 9th, which has a 43-28 percent Democratic edge in registration. The district is also 41 percent Hispanic by voting age population, but just 22 percent by registration.
During his first term, Grayson had carefully wooed the area’s Puerto Rican community, bringing to Hispanic constituents hundreds of thousands of earmarked dollars for federally funded education, small business and development programs. Still, there was some pushback from that same community. Zoraida Rios-Andino, vice president of the Central Florida chapter of the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights, told the Orlando Sentinel, “I have nothing against Congressman Grayson. I think he did a good job. But he should be running in another district.…That is the whole issue of the redistricting crisis: Puerto Ricans need their own congressman.” Grayson rejected that notion out of hand. “Where you’re from is not important when you’re choosing a congressman,” he said.
But never one to leave anything to chance, Grayson moved with a combination of cunning, stealth and money. Helped by a liberal, independent PAC, his campaign quietly poured more than $100,000 in negative ads onto the airwaves the weekend before the August 14 Republican primary, boxing out the one Hispanic candidate with enough name recognition to challenge him, Osceola County Commission chairman and former state representative John Quinones.
Too late, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush publicly warned Grayson to stop meddling in the other party’s contest. Thus, with few Hispanics voting in the Republican primary, and those divided between two candidates, the winner was Todd Long, whose claims to fame included failed attempts in earlier congressional runs, a DUI arrest and being found passed out on a Tallahassee sidewalk.
More germane to the congressional race, Long was a supporter of English as an official language and an outspoken opponent of immigration reform, and had made disparaging comments about undocumented workers on his radio show. In a district with so many Hispanic voters, this was a virtual kiss of death. Not surprisingly, Long’s primary victory drove Grayson’s remaining electoral threat—two Hispanics who filed as Independents—to withdraw from the race, with one endorsing the Democrat.
“Most analysts assumed Grayson would win once he was not challenged by a Hispanic candidate in the Democratic primary and once neither of the Hispanic Republicans won their primary,” says University of Central Florida political scientist Aubrey Jewett. Still, says Jewett, some observers “did hold out the very small possibility that the baggage that Grayson had from his previous time in office might mean that this race would become more competitive. The race might have been more competitive if several million dollars in negative ads had been run against him.”
Maria Padilla, editor of the Spanish language weekly La Prensa, thinks a Quinones-Grayson race, pitting an Anglo Democrat against an opportunity to make local history, would have been closer, but that the outcome would have been the same.
Before long, national political tip sheets changed their ratings for the race from “Likely Democratic” to “Safely Democratic.” This effectively waved off conservative PACs affiliated with Karl Rove and the Koch brothers, who had poured nearly $5 million into the successful effort to unseat Grayson in 2010. Soon after, party leaders effectively wrote Long off—even ignoring him when vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan came to town. In the closing days of the campaign, having raised under $100,000 (with less than $5,000 remaining by October), Long was reduced to waving signs at intersections.
Grayson agreed to one face-to-face debate in downtown Orlando at the Tiger Bay Club. The Democrat surprised many at the meeting by playing what was—for him, at least—the “reasonable card,” both in tone and content. He never raised his voice and only rarely resorted to his usual cutting attacks, although he did call Long “a towering hypocrite” and a “liar.” Long replied by calling the Democrat a “character assassin.”
Neither did Grayson take the bait of hostile questions from the floor, or react to the audible groans prompted by his answers. When asked about the budget and the deficit, he said the United States should immediately withdraw from Afghanistan, since “the war is making us poor.…Corporate welfare is making us poor.”
Long seemed flummoxed by Grayson’s temperamental change-up: At one point he told Grayson to “shut up,” drawing an admonishment from the moderator and effectively neutralizing a major rap on Grayson, the rudeness issue. Without irony, Grayson proceeded to complain about his opponent’s personal attacks. The encounter left Long almost totally marginalized.
Mellower? Not Likely
Much like a backer of Democratic President Grover Cleveland observed in 1884, Grayson’s supporters in the party’s liberal base “love him for the enemies he has made.” At the height of the health care debate in 2009, Grayson shot from the House podium to the media stratosphere when he declared, “If you get sick, America, the Republican health care plan is this: Die quickly.” Comments like this earned him fans like Al Gross, an 83-year-old retired union organizer from Longwood. “He’s a character,” says Gross, with a chuckle, “but he stands for all the right things. In his own way—sometimes loudly—he speaks out like no other representative.”
But there has been some queasiness among independents and even among his moderate Democratic supporters because of some of Grayson’s slashing jibes, including a reference to a female lobbyist as a “K Street whore,” and calling congressional opponent Webster “Taliban Dan’’ in a 2010 campaign commercial. But along with the controversy has come notoriety and during his latest campaign, Grayson raised $3.5 million. By the final week of the campaign—with his internal polls showing a growing, double-digit lead—Grayson appeared, by turns, relaxed, confident, jocular and even…mellow.
At a lunchtime fundraiser in neighboring Seminole County, Grayson compared the toxic political atmosphere to an episode of the 1960s sci-fi television series, The Outer Limits. (Several days before, on Bud Hedinger’s radio show, Lew Oliver, the chairman of the Orange County Republican Party, claimed that “Alan Grayson’s ‘negatives’ are higher than Hitler’s.”) Grayson said he wanted constituents to consider him a friend, but vowed to tell the truth in Congress as he saw it, “whether the bastards like it or not.”
For Central Florida, Grayson’s landslide victory may be more a harbinger of things to come than a crafty, well-heeled aberration. His winning coalition of Hispanics, unions, college students, gays and upper middle class, suburban liberals mirrored that of President Obama. This confluence of ethnicity and ideology—Puerto Rican votes fueling successful liberal Democratic campaigns—may be a winning formula. Witness two state House races: With strong Puerto Rican and liberal Democratic support, Joe Saunders won against Marco Pena, a Hispanic Republican, and bus driver and trade union activist Victor Torres, campaigning to defend “the working class,” was elected without opposition in either the Democratic primary or the general election.
So what does the future hold for Grayson? On the record, he says he just wants to return to Congress and do a good job for his Central Florida constituents, as well as for the thousands of progressive Democrats around the country who also see him as “their” representative. And to learn Spanish. He’s been appointed a “regional whip” in charge of rounding up the 15 Democratic members from Florida and Georgia for the House minority, considered a first step on the House leadership escalator (a job that presumably require some finesse, if not charm).
Given the demographics of his district there is little chance he will have to worry about serious Republican challengers for the rest of this decade. But for a politician like Grayson, with a consolidated base in Central Florida, and an even more liberal voting bloc in South Florida, there’s no telling what statewide opportunities might be down the road, in 2016 if Marco Rubio is tapped for the GOP ticket, or if Bill Nelson retires from the Senate in 2018. Grayson declines to rule out any such future run.
“I don’t know,” he says with a sly smile. “We’ll see.”