For nearly eight years, U.S. Rep. Ric Keller has been dutifully filling his seat in Congress, representing Central Florida as a staunch conservative. He's been a reliable mouthpiece for the Bush administration, toeing the GOP line on immigration, gay marriage, war and stem cells.
At times he's been good for a few eye-rolls. His 2003 sponsorship of the Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act — aka the "Hamburger Bill" — was followed by his own inability to cast a vote on the issue, as he was in the hospital for heart issues. Last year, Keller made national news for objecting to a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq. In explaining his position, he came up with a long-winded analogy that his constituents could relate to. Or not.
"Imagine your next-door neighbor refuses to mow his lawn and the weeds are all the way up to his waist," he said. "You decide you're going to mow his lawn for him every single week. The neighbor never says thank you. He hates you and sometimes he takes out a gun and shoots at you. Under these circumstances, do you keep mowing his lawn forever? Do you send even more of your family members over to mow his lawn? Or do you say to that neighbor, ‘You better step it up and mow your own lawn or there's going to be serious consequences for you'?"
As Keller approaches the Aug. 26 primary with $1.1 million in net receipts — this after breaking his own promise to limit his terms to four — he faces a crowd of contenders from both parties who smell vulnerability. Do they stand a chance? That's for you, the voters, to decide. What's for sure is there is going to be a rumble in District 8.
"Oh, man! That's rough!"
Congressional hopeful Mike Smith's baby face is twisted into a sour pinch. It's Tuesday morning and Smith — along with his campaign manager, Shirin Bidel-Niyat — has agreed to meet me at Volcano's Coffee Bar downtown to talk about his chances.
"What did you order?" he asks Bidel-Niyat, regaining his composure. Turns out that his pomegranate iced tea was too sweet.
"Should we do background off the record?" cautions Bidel-Niyat.
The reason for her concern probably stems from Smith's own characterization of himself as coming from a staunchly conservative upbringing. Although Smith's campaign mailers tout him as a "strong Democrat," both he and his wife of 15 years, Sandra, were maximum donors to Charlie Crist's 2006 Florida gubernatorial campaign; he gave $500 in 2005 and 2006, while she gave $500 in 2006.
That's probably more a sign of moderate leanings than arch-conservatism, as Smith has contributed in the past to Democrats Bob Graham and Bill Nelson. He's a former prosecutor, a lawyer and a 37-year-old father of two, he says, not a politician.
"A year ago I was nowhere," he says. "I just decided that I had had enough of the past six years, so I was going to run for Congress myself."
Smith's campaign is characterized by an aw-shucks down-hominess intended to make him accessible, something he says Keller has never been. His Ocala upbringing and residence in Winter Garden could give him a leg up with the uneven District 8's rural fringes. He's also earned endorsements from unions including the Sheet Metal Workers and the American Postal Workers. He's received $489,581 in individual contributions, $19,000 from political action committees (including the National Air Traffic Controllers and Radiation Therapy Services Inc.) and $6,900 from himself.
"We are doing it in what I call ‘the old-fashioned way,'" he says. "We've been trying to contact voters one by one, giving them the opportunity to meet me."
His message has centered on the economy, which he says "squeezes the middle class, so they're getting hit from both sides. We've reached a point where America has become unaffordable."
His solution? Take the billions spent in Iraq and use it to hire teachers. For the record, Smith is pro-choice (a personal issue, one he "completely respects both sides of"), for gay unions that don't involve religious sanction and against offshore drilling.
Asked about the crowded District 8 playing field, he bites his tongue, only saying that he's taken aback by some of the things the other candidates are saying.
"Let me put it this way," he says, smiling. "I wouldn't be in this race if I didn't think we could win."
It's difficult to know what to expect when you enter millionaire Washington, D.C., attorney Alan Grayson's campaign headquarters on East Colonial Drive. What used to be a doctor's office has been hastily transformed into a war room. Grayson lost by 12 percentage points to Charlie Stuart in the 2006 District 8 primary. This year, he's not taking any chances. There are at least 30 people milling around.
"People want to do this," says Grayson. "People want to see a progressive Democrat go to Congress from Orlando. I don't have to shanghai or waylay them or anything of that nature. People have stepped forward. It's really an encouraging thing to me."
The real change this time for Grayson — beyond shaving off his beard — is his organization. Two years ago he was struggling for name recognition; now he's everywhere. His jarring television ad -— featuring a cash-filled suitcase slammed shut in a clandestine airplane hangar — is all over television, and his cavalry of supporters, some of whom are paid, is visible at most political events. John Cusack's publicist recently granted him exclusive screening rights of the film War, Inc. for a fundraiser. Grayson's brought in $63,788 in individual contributions, $5,000 from a political action committee (IDT, the company he founded) and has $600,000 in candidate loans.
Grayson credits his improved standing to the people he's surrounded himself with — notably State Rep. Scott Randolph and Democratic strategist Jim Kitchens — and his left-of-center message, which stresses ending the war and making health care universal. According to Grayson, it's working.
"That's what our polls say, yes. I'm way out ahead, according to the polls. And why not? Look at us!" he laughs.
Grayson can come off as abrasive, even combative, when discussing what he perceives as his right to the congressional seat, even going so far as to disparage the qualifications of his competitors. Grayson's legal attacks on war profiteers like Halliburton subsidiary KBR were well-documented in Vanity Fair last year; he launched a Fortune 500 company selling phone cards in the '90s, he started the Alliance for Aging Research 22 years ago, and he worked as a janitor and security guard to pay his way through three degrees at Harvard — but whether he deserves to be elected or not, campaigning can require a gentler touch.
"These are things that have had a tremendous effect on people's lives," he says. "I don't want to sound conceited, but I created these things. These are things that started at zero and I made them."
Grayson tends to delegate a lot of the legwork to his supporters and volunteers. You won't find him knocking at your door on the weekends.
"I find I don't have to," he says. "There are so many events. It's a lot more efficient to go to an event with 150 people, and I can speak to them, than it is for me to go door to door in any given neighborhood. It's gotten difficult to do. And it's more practical when I've got huge hordes of volunteers to do it for me."
And they are enthusiastic. Toward the end of this interview one shows up and taps his office window. She doesn't even live in the district, but was so motivated that she came down to the headquarters to volunteer. Hilariously, she nearly lifts her new Alan Grayson T-shirt. "I brought the twins!" she laughs.
"There's not many things that get me to go really red in the face," says business consultant Charlie Stuart from across the table at Panera Bread. "But impugning my character and my family in this community after 70 years of heritage, that's one of them."
Stuart lost to Keller in 2006 by 7 percentage points, and he's fighting back against what he considers personal attacks from Grayson this time. He's noticeably upset and a bit on the defensive. (He makes it clear that he is not against embryonic stem-cell research, despite Grayson's claims.)
"Our campaign position is our opponent is Ric Keller," Stuart clarifies. "We're fighting for our community, and we have to overcome Ric Keller to benefit our community."
The Stuart name is all over Central Florida's political landscape. His brother Jacob is the president of the Orlando Chamber of Commerce; his brother Robert is an Orlando city commissioner; and his brother George Jr. is a former state senator. A self-styled moderate, Stuart is seeking to undo the "partisan-
ization" of politics in Central Florida, a region he says would be better represented by somebody who isn't a liberal with a capital "L."
"We want somebody from here who we know, who will represent us," he says, "and at least for the freshman, sophomore or junior terms is going to know who they are and know where they come from."
Stuart's individual contributions total $615,146. He's taken $40,500 from political action committees (the American Sugar Cane League and Dairy Farmers of America among them), has contributed $4,600 of his own cash and has a candidate loan total of $29,996. He's been talking to conservative groups like the National Federation of Independent Business, the Club for Growth and the Florida Banker's Association in an effort to eat away at Keller's support. (Another of Grayson's criticisms is Stuart's Republican financing.) Of Keller, Stuart says, "If you're going to be ineffective, you probably ought to be likable. If you're not likable, then you've got a problem."
And likability is Stuart's strong suit. He says he's personally spoken to "two or three thousand people" and that he wants to be a standard-bearer of accessibility. He is a regular, Christian guy.
"I am actually capable of taking my personal spiritual views — principle-based and faith-based — but they are still my personal spiritual views and not my public policy," he says.
He sees marriage as both a civil and a religious affair, and believes that the state should honor same-sex unions. And although he is ostensibly pro-life ("There's pro-life and there's pro-choice. I'm the other one"), for practical reasons he doesn't support overturning Roe v. Wade. His key issue this race — beyond actually winning, he jokes — is free or low-cost children's health care.
"I am who I am," he says. "I don't take any position, principle-based, any position for any reason. I am a Democrat because that's who I am."
Attorney Todd Long is running alone against Keller on the Republican primary ballot; he's also running late to a 10 a.m. meeting on the fourth floor of his Maitland office building.
His pretty blond assistant decides to fill the time over a cloudy, glass-covered boardroom table with her thoughts on the race. She has a "bless his heart" admiration for Democrat Quoc Van's intersection sign-waving, and she's seen and heard a lot from Grayson. He interrupts all her shows — Project Runway, Shear Genius and Flipping Out — and, she says, he must be doing well with the gays and the ladies.
Long arrives to the discussion with a knowing wink and a swished-up flat-top haircut. "Ah, the Democrats," he says.
"I did a radio show for a couple of years `A Different Direction, WFLA-540 AM`," he says. "Mostly it wasn't blasting the Democrats. It was criticizing my own Republican Congress that was in power for 2001 through 2006. So I want you to know that I don't have the values of that Republican Congress at all. As you can see, I've got two small kids, so I've got a personal interest."
In the numbers game, Long seems like a long shot. Keller's sitting on a million dollars in campaign cash, while Long has ponied up $177,200 of his own money to match $110,119 in individual contributions. He's received $5,000 from political action committees. But it's not all about the numbers, he says. Long is firing up the grass roots.
"Grass-roots Republicans aren't wanting big businesses to be super-wealthy. That's not their values," he says. "They want balanced budgets, they want energy policy, they do want secure borders and an end to illegal immigration, they want rule of law."
Long's approach has been enough to scare Keller into retaliation. Early in August, Keller sent out a negative mailer that resembled a police report — mug shot included — detailing Long's bouts with the bottle: a 1998 drunk driving arrest and conviction, a 2005 drunk and disorderly trespass at the Mall at Millenia and a March 2007 incident that found Long passed out on a sidewalk outside a Tallahassee high school. Long responded in an open letter to the Orlando Sentinel, saying, "I take full responsibility for my past mistakes. As President Bush has done with his own challenge with alcohol, I, too, have worked diligently to overcome this issue. … Although I could retaliate by bringing up Keller's personal issues, I choose not to. Instead, I will continue to address his record."
That record, he says, is one of broken term-limit promises, not raising automotive-efficiency standards and no voice on energy policy.
"He's running on fighting crime," Long says. "He should be running for sheriff. You don't fight crime in Washington."
Long cites Mike Huckabee as an influence, because he's somebody who acts on his Christian values but isn't afraid to disagree with the opposition. He's pro-traditional marriage and pro-life.
"But I will say this," he says. "A lot of times when I see Christianity hit politics, I do not like what I see at all. It really seems to target homosexuals, like that is the sin of all sins. For the Bible, sin is sin."
"There should not be any condemnation towards people or hatred towards people from the Christian community," he adds.
"Well, I'm not a lawyer!" laughs Alexander Fry, the self-appointed "dark horse" of the Democratic race, taking a sip of his coffee at a Starbucks on South Orange Avenue. "And I'm all about campaign finance reform and basically recognizing what's wrong with government. I'm the least eloquent of the crowd."
Fry is a winsome smartass, in addition to being an "optical engineer for a local defense contractor."
Does that mean he wears glasses at Lockheed Martin?
"Yes," he says. "But when I turn into Superman, I take them off."
"I'm not exactly popular at Lockheed Martin," he adds, noting that only about 400 of the 5,000 employees at the Sand Lake plant are Democrats. "When all the bigwigs come to town and you put bumper stickers under their windshield wipers? They don't like that. I'm not winning any friends."
So why is he running?
"Well, according to the law, all you need to do is be 25 and a citizen of the United States and live in your district," he says. "So, you know, I've got a lot of problem-solving skills. And basically, I've written a book."
That book, Carnival of Freaks: The One-Man Plan to Save America, is a combination of personal history and thoughts on policy, including religion, guns, election laws and war.
"I'm not going to talk about losing my virginity," he writes, "because this is a tell-most book, not a tell-all book. My forays into fornication are between me and all associated parties (all women, by the way). Sorry, you're getting more out of me than any other political candidate on earth, so show some gratitude and feel the love."
He and his father-in-law spend eight hours a weekend hammering down campaign signs. "I'm not going door to door bothering people," he says. "I went around trying to collect signatures for like four hours one day and I got like 15 signatures. I did the math. I might as well just pay `the $9,912 filing fee`. Two young kids, a wife, a full-time job — I don't have time to spend six weeks walking aimlessly." Fry's taken in $4,880 in individual contributions and donated $19,804 to his own campaign.
He's betting that people are weary of the charade anyway. The worth of a candidacy should not be measured by financial quantities, he says; a first-term congressman isn't going to be heading up any real policy, the political action committees aren't doing the public any favors, and who's going to pay for universal health care?
Fry's a "moderate." He's pro-choice and pro-gay rights. That's about it.
"I want to know who these 28,000 people are who are going to vote in the primary," he says. "Half of them work for Stuart `‘The old lady wiping his ass 60 years ago is going to be his donor/voter,' Fry opines` and the other half are employed by Grayson."
"It's just a big crap shoot," he adds. "I mean, I'm not out there taking any polls, because those cost like $26,000, according to Alan Grayson."
"I'm just hoping people will realize that I've got so much common sense that I'm the obvious choice," he says.
If you drive, you've seen him. This Thursday morning at 9 a.m., law student and weight-lifting champion Quoc Van is working traffic at the intersection of Conway Road and Curry Ford Road. There's no policy being thrown out, no promises being made; just his name and a reminder to vote Aug. 26.
"There's a message that's actually being sent," he explains. "Everyone sees us week after week for a couple of days. First time, people are like, ‘What the heck is he doing?' Second time, it's like, ‘Yeah, who cares?' And then after a while, you have a dialogue that's not the same as everyone else. It's their imagination, what they want to take from it."
At political events, Van makes a lot of his first-generation Vietnamese-American status — his parents fled Vietnam in 1979 and came to America in 1980; he was born in the U.S. in 1983 — and his respect for the American dream. In order to achieve it, Van wakes up at 6 a.m. every day, campaigns on the streets for eight to nine hours (with a couple of half-hour breaks) and goes to bed by 10 p.m. His political team consists of his sister, his mother and one 19-year-old friend. "We do the work of a crew of about 40," he says.
Van is the only candidate who managed to gather the 4,317 signatures required to get on the ballot for free (he lost count after 5,800). "They told me I wouldn't be able to do it," he says. "And I showed them." He's recei