Alan Grayson: The Counter-Puncher
Late in July, during the heat of the Congressional debate on extending unemployment benefits, Representative Alan Grayson took to the House floor and charged Republican obstructionists with keeping "food out of the mouths of children." A YouTube clip of the moment instantly popped up on left-wing websites and earned Grayson an attack by Fox News and an appearance on MSNBC's The Ed Show, where the freshman Democrat said that if you are needy, "the Republican Party is the party that doesn't want to help you."
As has become customary, Grayson's rhetoric infuriated GOP partisans. Dan Gainor, a vice president at the Media Research Center (MRC), a conservative think tank that runs NewsBusters.org, tweeted, "I'll give $100 to first Rep. who punches smary [sic] idiot Alan Grayson in nose. He's a caricature of a congressman."
Grayson shot back in his pugnacious style, dubbing the MRC a "slur tank.... This is how the right wing does it. They pay people to clean for them, to cook for them, to drive for them, and now: To punch for them. Or, more specifically, to punch me for them. We knew they're crazy. It turns out that they're also lazy. Too lazy to throw a punch themselves.... But they're forgetting something. Something very important. We punch back."
Grayson used the controversy—and a telephoned death threat to his office—to raise money on the web for his re-election campaign, with appeals from Oliver Stone and Martin Sheen. Then he headed off to a Netroots Nation convention in Las Vegas, where the assembled progressives hailed him as a hero.
You think America's culture wars are over? Come to Orlando, where the battle for Florida's 8th Congressional District is shaping up as a bellwether slugfest. It's a clash that pits a left-wing Jewish Democrat against a right-wing Christian Republican in a swing district where middle-class, suburban evangelicals are thick on the ground. The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) has named Grayson a top target for 2010, reserving $800,000 worth of airtime for anti-Grayson TV commercials; the billionaire Koch brothers, through their organization Americans for Prosperity, recently dropped $250,000 in negative TV ads as well.
Bronx-born and Harvard-educated (three degrees), Grayson, 52, is an unapologetic man of the leftor as he describes himself, a democratic populist. He opposes the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (each "a foreign occupation") and supports abortion rights, gay marriage, bilingual programs, unions, middle-class tax cuts and comprehensive, single-payer healthcare. The son of two New York City teachers union activists, he defended the embattled, now-defunct community organization ACORN on the floor of Congress, calls Arizona's immigration law "racist" and declines to join the periodic attacks on Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez. Congress has not seen his like since firebrand Vito Marcantonio represented Harlem during the cold war.
Grayson's challenger is Daniel Webster, 61, winner of a crowded, bruising August 24 primary. A soft-spoken, silver-haired champion of the Christian right, Webster served as majority leader in Florida's Senate and speaker of its House during twenty-eight years in the Legislature. A longtime advocate of home schooling and "covenant marriage," Webster was endorsed in the primary by a former National Rifle Association president and Jeb Bush, the state's popular ex-governor. Taking the opposite side from Grayson on virtually every issue, Webster has pledged to roll back Congress's "runaway spending" and stop the "bailouts, buyouts and payoffs." He has criticized healthcare reform as a "redistribution of wealth plan" and, more ominously, adopted the mantra of the Tea Party: "You know what? It's our country, not theirs. So let's take it back." The night of his primary victory celebration, held in a megachurch gymnasium, he made it a point to denounce the "Ground Zero mosque."
The race may serve as a test of the Democratic Party's Southern strategy. Thomas Schaller argued in Whistling Past Dixie that the region is a lost cause, so deeply and inherently conservative that the party should write it off entirely. Nation writer Bob Moser responded in Blue Dixie that Democrats can win using a formula like Grayson's. That is, by spending plenty of money—some of it his own—in an aggressive, sometimes negative, campaign against Wall Street, the Federal Reserve ("sucker of last resort") and obstructionist Republicans who can dish it out but can't take it.
A critical element of this strategy, which Grayson embodies, is cultivating his Netroots Nation supporters while mobilizing a committed home base of union members, prochoice activists, gays, Jews and African-Americans—along with young "Daily Show Democrats" who don't hesitate to criticize their party's leadership. A key segment of Grayson's base is Latinos; the district's slim Democratic plurality is largely a result of an influx of Puerto Rican newcomers to Central Florida.
A tall man with a lumbering, forward-leaning walk and a lacerating tongue, Grayson is on his third career, at least. He earned millions with a telecom start-up in the 1990s and in the early 2000s made a name for himself by bringing whistleblower suits against alleged Iraq War profiteers like KBR and Custer Battles. Grayson's normal outfit, despite his wealth, is a dark, ill-fitting suit from a discount chain and a garish tie—an American flag or van Gogh's Starry Night in Halloween colors. He wore one featuring Monopoly money on the floor of the House when he excoriated the Federal Reserve Board for propping up Wall Street and investing public funds in shaky real estate deals. As the midterm campaign has unfolded here, the central issue has become whether the incumbent is a prickly progressive who articulates the agenda of his party's liberal base or an arrogant publicity hound, a man ideologically and temperamentally out of step with his constituents.
The 8th—home of Disney World, Universal Studios and SeaWorld—is a classic swing district: 178,589 registered Democrats, 167,612 Republicans and 95,989 independents. The recent Citizens United decision has cleared the way for banks and corporations, frequent Grayson targets, to dump millions into the race. There's a third candidate, Peg Dunmire of the Tea Party, on the ballot, who could divide conservatives. The Grayson campaign's latest internal poll shows Grayson leading Webster 40 to 27, with Dunmire and other write-ins and independents dividing the remainder. But those numbers aside, many election watchers have pegged Webster to knock Grayson out of the House; both Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight and independent analyst Stuart Rothenberg rate the contest a tossup but give an edge to the Republican.
On the ground, however, experts and observers are not so sure. Thanks to his media profile and celebrity endorsements, Grayson has already raised more than $4 million, making him one of the top ten House fundraisers so far this cycle—so much that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has decided he doesn't need its help. More to the point, Grayson has demonstrated that he is no patsy. "Is it a necessary element of this job that I take shit from people?" he asked in an interview. "No one gets a free pass if they attack me. I don't think it's beneficial to turn the other cheek. There is no reason a Democrat has to be a weakling."