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."
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.
For all his sense of timing, Grayson also seems to have a self-destructive streak, often taking his rhetoric a half-step too far. He called a former lobbyist, now working for the Federal Reserve, a "K Street whore," not realizing that applying the term to a woman would be taken the wrong way—and require an apology.
In October 2009 members of the House Democratic leadership tactfully suggested that he pick his fights carefully, reminding him that his is a swing district. The issues that got him national attention might not play well at home, especially among independents, they counseled. The advice may not have sunk in, at least not right away. Back in the district, Grayson blew his top when he received a flier from a Tea Party activist who bragged about infiltrating a Democratic training session. Grayson then crashed a Republican county committee meeting at a restaurant not far from his home to denounce the action as a Nixonian dirty trick.
Even fellow Democrats have been targets. In August he called White House press secretary Robert Gibbs "Bozo the Spokesman," and accused him of spreading "Fox News talking points" when Gibbs made disparaging remarks about the party’s "professional left." Grayson even demanded that Gibbs be fired.
Grayson can be thin-skinned and holds grudges to the point of vindictiveness. He tried to have a humorously critical Republican blogger investigated by the US attorney general for the trivial offense of misrepresenting herself on her website (mycongressmanisnuts.com) as one of his constituents. Some supporters have fared no better. Several local Democratic party operatives (who declined to be named) report that Grayson’s office and campaign maintain a "no hire" list of campaign workers and consultants who have crossed him or fallen short of his standards. Grayson, however, denies that this list exists.
Inexplicably, Grayson also has a propensity to bite the media hands that might feed him. For example, he wrote on The Huffington Post, "The political reporters camped out in D.C. often act like a giant Xerox machine for the fib factory known as the national Republican Party." Grayson denounced Politico as a corporate tool for running articles critical of him. He dismissed Central Florida talk-radio as "hopelessly right wing."
Even erstwhile allies have felt his sharp tongue. Grayson has verbally slapped a succession of public radio interviewers, local and national, accusing one NPR host of being a Republican. He has rejected any questions about his positions that are premised on the conventional wisdom that he is out of step with his district or the national mood. The local alternative weekly newspaper, which endorsed him in 2008, rescinded its backing after Grayson complained about being described in an otherwise favorable profile as "a Washington, D.C., millionaire." As a result, the Orlando Weekly now refers to him as a "Tourette’s zombie," "scaaary" and "The Incredible Sulk," and runs a regular sarcastic feature, "What’s Up With Alan?"
What happens in Florida’s 8th District may send the Democratic Party a strong message for 2012. As Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos wrote in a mid-September fundraising letter on Grayson’s behalf, "If a hard-nosed progressive can win in a [previously] Republican district in a tough year for Democrats, then we not only keep a progressive leader in Congress, but we prove America wants Democrats who stand up to Republicans."
The forces publicly arrayed against Grayson are considerable. But his backers are most fearful of a darker threat, a subtle, coded subtext—one that embodies politics, ideology, religion, culture and personality—the old, familiar charge of "cosmopolitanism." That is: "He’s not like us; he’s not one of us." In ethnically diverse, heavily Jewish South Florida, a campaign theme like that would be laughable. However, in more homogeneous Central Florida, with the help of the area’s dominant daily, the Orlando Sentinel (which endorsed Webster in the GOP primary), it could be effective.
On August 23, Grayson raised an additional $261,000 with a local and national "money bomb" drive on the Internet. Still, the next evening, within minutes of Daniel Webster’s victory in the Republican primary, Webster had heard from Republican Party officials in Washington, pledging whatever resources it would take to beat Alan Grayson. "This is a target seat," Webster told his election night supporters in the gymnasium of his megachurch. "If the Republicans don’t take this seat, they can’t take the Congress."