Alan Grayson: The Counter-Puncher
Grayson is certainly pulling no punches at a Latino town hall meeting on a sunny Saturday morning in late May at the Englewood Neighborhood Center in East Orlando. The seventy-five people packed in rows of metal folding chairs want to hear about an array of issues of interest to area Hispanics. Grayson is clearly in his element. Although he does not speak Spanish, he tells the crowd he has visited every country in Latin America, and he refers to trade unionists there who were "martyred" by repressive, right-wing regimes in decades past. The district is nearly 25 percent Hispanic, and he boasts that his campaign registered 5,000 new Hispanic voters in 2008. Grayson acknowledges that an overwhelming majority of the district's Hispanic voters backed him in the general election.
This Latino forum is a perfect showcase for Grayson to highlight his accomplishments in repaying that support. He has deftly cultivated his local base with his success as a master of the Congressional earmark process. Grayson notes that he has doubled federal grants coming into the district, from $100 million to $200 million—creating or saving thousands of jobs—and that overall federal spending in the district is up 500 percent. Outside Congress, he prevailed on state judges to require banks to mediate with homeowners before foreclosing. Grayson ticks off other winning efforts for the Latino community: passage of the Puerto Rico Democracy Act, which provides for a referendum on the island's future status; a cleanup of military bombing ranges in Orlando, as well as on Vieques in Puerto Rico; a $200,000 grant for small-business training, administered through the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metro Orlando; and a $500,000 grant for Spanish-language materials for the district's libraries.
Grayson's message is "We deliver," shifting to the third-person political for emphasis: "Alan Grayson delivers. I want people to know how hard we work. Latinos are concerned that they get their fair share" of government spending. Still, he cautions, there are larger battles, including compassionate, comprehensive immigration reform (although most Hispanics in Central Florida are already citizens). The problem in Congress, he says, is that Republicans "don't like brown people."
Like a more seasoned politician, he strives to make personal connections with his audience. His wife, Lolita, he volunteers, is a Filipina immigrant. One of his favorite anecdotes involves New York Congressman and Puerto Rican native José Serrano. As a boy attending Bronx's PS 43, Serrano caught the eye of Grayson's father, the principal, who helped Serrano progress through the school's bilingual education programs. Now a veteran legislator, Serrano never fails to recall "the love and support" from Grayson's father when introducing the Congressman. Standing shoulder to shoulder at the Latino Forum with Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico's nonvoting representative in Congress, the lawmaker receives Pierluisi's blessing: "Alan Grayson is your champion, a great Congressman and a fierce advocate of the middle class. Alan Grayson speaks from his heart. He says things in plain English. Some people don't like that."
Riding a wave of favorable national publicity from his successful battles against alleged Iraq War profiteers, and dipping into his considerable fortune, Grayson upset the favorite in the 2008 Democratic primary, Charlie Stuart, a stereotypical centrist Democrat. In the general election, Grayson used millions of his own dollars to wage a slick, negative, TV-based campaign against the Republican incumbent, Ric Keller. Grayson stuck close to generalities, apart from his opposition to the Iraq War, and attacks on Keller, a politically damaged empty suit. Thanks to Obama's coattails, he won by four points.
"He was the beneficiary of some key variables over which he had no control," says Terri Susan Fine, associate director and senior fellow at the Lou Frey Institute of Politics and Government at the University of Central Florida.
Grayson's second stroke of luck came eleven months later, and for this one he can fairly claim some credit. On September 29, 2009, he walked onto the House floor and launched himself into the modern media firmament. For weeks the liberal base had been frustrated about how Senate Republicans had been blocking healthcare reform. Using an easel and poster boards, his voice dripping with sarcasm, Grayson advised Americans to avoid illness at all costs:
"If you get sick, America, the Republican healthcare plan is this: die quickly! That's right. The Republicans want you to die quickly if you get sick."
For many progressive Democrats, it was as if a painful boil had been lanced. The YouTube clip went viral. Finally someone in Congress was fighting back. Republicans reacted predictably. "This is an unstable man who has come unhinged," raged the NRCC. "The depths to which Alan Grayson will sink to defend his indefensible comments know no bounds."
Surprised by the intense reaction, Grayson nonetheless enjoyed the ride. Before the healthcare controversy could subside, he used his newfound platform to double down, lighting into Dick Cheney, who had been hectoring Obama on national security, charging the president with giving "aid and comfort to the enemy," the legal definition of treason. On Hardball With Chris Matthews, Grayson compared Cheney to a vampire: "I have trouble listening to what he says sometimes because of the blood that drips from his teeth while he's talking."
Interviewers loved Grayson as much for his unambiguous and unapologetic answers as for his outrageous gibes and inflammatory rhetoric. He regularly teed off against Fox News ("a lie machine") and its stalwarts Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, and he liked to point out that Nickelodeon has higher ratings than Fox. "Both run cartoons all day, but the ones on Nickelodeon are funny." He described Rush Limbaugh as a "has-been, hypocrite loser" who "actually was more lucid when he was a drug addict." He told an interviewer, "If America ever did 1 percent of what [Limbaugh] wanted us to do, then we'd all need painkillers."
Left pundits and activists admire Grayson just as much for the bold and often inventive stands he takes on policy matters. As Arianna Huffington, co-founder of The Huffington Post, where Grayson frequently blogs, puts it, "He's a colorful character who for the most part has done an effective job of speaking for the average American who feels victimized by an entrenched political and economic establishment that seems to be run by and for the powerful." In Congress, Grayson's strategy is a mix of pragmatism and idealism. In committee hearings he has an uncanny ability, with his precise questions, to make Wall Street executives and Fed officials extremely uncomfortable. And on the House floor he sometimes assumes the mien of a stand-up comic. He backs the most liberal versions of the Obama legislative agenda until the final vote, but in the end he always supports the compromise version. Unwilling to quit, he then introduces idealistic measures, closer to his own views but with little chance of passing in that form:
§ The "Medicare You Can Buy Into" act, Grayson's version of the public option, which would enable anyone to buy into the Medicare program.
§ The "Pay for Performance" act, which would limit the pay of executives from corporations that accepted federal bailout money.
§ The "War Is Making You Poor" act, which would cut unbudgeted funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and at the same time eliminate federal income tax on individuals earning less than $35,000 a year and couples earning less than $70,000.
§ The "Audit the Fed" amendment, co-sponsored with Republican Ron Paul, which would have opened the Federal Reserve Board to an audit by the Government Accountability Office.