ORLANDO --You wouldn't know it by Alan Grayson's clothes -- the first-term congressman from Central Florida favors ill-fitting, off-the-rack suits, a white shirt ,and garish ties of the sort featuring Van Gogh's "Starry Night" in Halloween colors. But Grayson is a political firebrand who has become a favorite of the Democratic base, a hero of Netroots Nation, and the sweetheart of MSNBC.
When an admirer at an organizer's meeting referred to him as "our rock star," he replied, "Yeah, a rock star who can't sing or dance." But he can mix it up, at least verbally. If high school math and chess clubs had a patron saint, the socially awkward Alan Grayson
would be a contender. A veteran of both clubs at the prestigious Bronx Science High School, and a science fiction buff, he overcame his minimal social skills to acquire three Harvard degrees, a telecom fortune in the tens of millions of dollars, and every Joni Mitchell album ever made.
If you think America's culture wars are over, you should go to Orlando, where the battle for Florida's 8th Congressional District -- home of Disney World, Universal Studios and Sea World -- is shaping up as a Sunbelt Classic in the mid-term election. Liberal wild man and House bad boy Grayson, 52, is facing a tough, bellwether district re-election contest, the key to any Republican takeover of the House. Most recent polls say he is in a very difficult race.
Grayson is probably the most outspoken liberal in Congress. He opposes the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (each "a foreign occupation") and supports abortion rights, gay marriage, bilingual programs, middle class tax cuts, trade unions -- as well as comprehensive, single-payer health care. He defended the embattled, now-defunct community organization ACORN on the floor of Congress, calls Arizona's immigration law "racist," and declines to criticize Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez.
Grayson is emphatically not a Democrat who believes that being civil is a public servant's primary obligation. Republicans are his usual targets, but not his only ones. (Grayson recently called White House press secretary Robert Gibbs "Bozo the Spokesman
," and said Gibbs should be fired for doing "a miserable job.")
A former trial lawyer whose reflexive instinct is to concede nothing, he likes to counter-punch when attacked -- and doesn't mind throwing the first jab, either. During the heat of the health care reform debate, Grayson shot into the media stratosphere by charging on the House floor that the Republican alternative was to not get sick, but if you did, to "die quickly." He suggested jokingly, but without mirth, that former Vice President Dick Cheney was a vampire
and characterized Republicans as "unscrupulous...foot-dragging, knuckle-dragging Neanderthals who know nothing but 'no.'" Right-wing pundits are targets of particular scorn. Rush Limbaugh, he said, "is a has-been hypocrite loser" who was "more lucid when he was a drug addict."
Grayson's challenger is former state legislative leader Daniel Webster
, a longtime veteran of the Florida legislature, who got off to a slow start, bogged down in a crowded GOP primary that sapped his time and money. Webster, 61, served as both the speaker of the Florida house and the senate majority leader. In the legislature, he was a longtime hero of the Christian Right, an outspoken advocate of home schooling and government-mandated "covenant marriage," which would have made divorce almost impossible in Florida. In 2008, he supported the presidential bid of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (who returned the favor by campaigning for Webster in the primary) and, in his victory speech on election night, Webster denounced the "mosque at Ground Zero."
"It's no secret that I'm a follower of Jesus Christ," he told the Florida Baptist Witness newspaper. "I have been open to anyone who's open to talk about it." Webster's victory set up a schematic slugfest: a left-wing Jew vs. a right-wing Christian, in a swing district where suburban, middle class evangelicals are thick on the ground. It is already getting get nasty. The conservative billionaire Koch brothers, through their Americans for Prosperity front, have dumped $250,000 in anti-Grayson TV commercials onto the airwaves, and the Republican National Congressional Committee has reserved $800,000 in air time for more. A pharmaceutical lobbying group has just added another $600,000; the pro-business U.S. Chamber of Commerce another $100,000.
Grayson, with his penchant for inflammatory rhetoric, stumbled recently in a commercial that denounced Webster as "Taliban Dan
" for his views on marriage, which the congressman says would be at home in northwest Pakistan. "Religious fanatics try to take away our freedom -- in Afghanistan, in Iran and right here in Central Florida," the spot begins.
At first this barrage put Webster, who had pledged to wage a positive campaign, on his heels, but a backlash has set in. An array of critics, including The Daily Show's Jon Stewart, claim that the commercial is hyperbolic and takes Webster's remarks out of context. Grayson even clashed with a critical news anchor on the normally supportive MSNBC cable network. Grayson defended the ad in an acrimonious exchange with CNN's Anderson Cooper, but his campaign quietly re-cut the spot, eliminating the Taliban reference.
For his part, Webster has made little mention of his religious views, leaving the negative ads to independent groups. Instead, he argues for an unlimited U.S. military commitment in Afghanistan, which he calls a "democratic beachhead," insisting that the length of the American stay "should not be shared with the public."
Republicans, independents and even some centrist Democrats in Florida's 8th congressional district
sometimes wonder how it came to be that their Sunbelt swing district elected such a brash, outspoken liberal. Perhaps, they speculate, Grayson arrived in Central Florida in 1996 in typically cinematic fashion, in the DeLorean parked behind his house, the same time-traveling vehicle made famous by the Back to the Future movies.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has named Grayson the GOP's Number One target for 2010. Within minutes of his victory in the Republican primary, Dan Webster had heard from Republican officials in Washington, pledging whatever resources it would take to beat Alan Grayson.
"This is a target seat," Webster said, amidst his election night supporters in the gymnasium of his mega-church."If the Republicans don't take this seat, they can't take the Congress." Lew Oliver, chairman of the Orange County Republican Party, and a longtime Grayson adversary, told the Orlando Sentinel that if the GOP won every race but Webster's, "I'll slit my wrists."
Oddly, the two candidates do have one thing in common: neither likes door-to-door campaigning.
For his part, Grayson argues against Beltway conventional wisdom: namely, the proposition that Blue Dog Democrats in Sunbelt and heartland swing districts -- the most endangered species this fall, by all accounts -- are running in the wrong direction. Rather, Grayson insists the better strategy for liberal Democrats is to cultivate their base, and stop campaigning like moderate Republicans. Go on the attack, or counter attack. Run against Wall Street, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and, most of all, battle the GOP as corporate, corrupt, do-nothing tools. Florida's 8th district could offer a laboratory in this aggressive strategy. Grayson has already raised nearly four million dollars for his reelection campaign, without dipping into his own considerable personal fortune, as he did in 2008.
Despite the acrimony he generates, Grayson has his defenders, who cite his work in supporting reforms in health care, defense procurement, Wall Street reform and oversight of the Federal Reserve. He also gets credit for being the driving force behind a new public-private program to bring foreign tourists to the U.S., and especially to his Orlando district, the home of so many theme parks and attractions.
"Different people have different styles," says Florida's Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, perhaps one of the most even-tempered members of Congress. "His style has been particularly effective for him...There's no fluff when he talks about things like the tourism bill. Has he delivered? The answer is yes."