Thursday, September 1, 2016

Scenes from Alan Grayson's campaign bus chronicle the firebrand would-be senator's downfall

Posted By on Thu, Sep 1, 2016 at 2:15 PM

Page 2 of 5

  • Photo by Monivette Cordeiro
Along the side of Grayson’s campaign bus, above the candidate’s name, are three words: “Justice,” followed by a drawing of a red fist; “Equality,” followed by an equals sign; and “Peace,” followed by the iconic symbol from the ’60s. Inside, the vehicle is stripped-down and Spartan. The front half is tricked out as a kitchen with weathered cupboards, a sink, refrigerator and stove. There’s a drop-down table with two cushioned benches facing. On one of them, Grayson works almost nonstop on his laptop between appearances.

Absent is any entourage to speak of. The only other passengers are his young campaign manager, Michael Ceraso, and communications director David Damron, a former Orlando Sentinel reporter. On this day, as the bus heads to a local Fox affiliate for another interview, the two work on a tempered response to Murphy’s debate withdrawal, running it by Grayson for approval. Later, Grayson distills his reaction, telling reporters Murphy is just using a “lame excuse” to avoid him.

Earlier in the day, the first Palm Beach stop was at Dontee’s Diner, a popular, free-standing eatery in the parking lot of the Belmart Plaza shopping center. There, as expected, reporters from the Palm Beach Post, whose offices are almost in sight of the restaurant, and the Miami Herald try to grill him about the domestic abuse charges.

The hulking, slightly hunched candidate is clearly frustrated. Like many successful officeholders, Grayson is a relentless self-promoter; he would much rather talk about his legislative record of passing more than a hundred bills and amendments and garnering millions of dollars in federal grants for his constituents, most recently $2.2 million for Osceola County to build the state’s largest high-tech “clean room” for the Florida Advanced Manufacturing Research Center.

The online magazine Slate once described Grayson as “The Most Effective Member of the House,” which he never fails to mention in interviews. He also wants to push the main themes of his campaign, “Seniors Deserve a Raise,” an increase in Social Security payments (a slogan also printed on the side of the bus), and his “Eyes, Ears and Teeth” Medicare expansion. After some initial spikiness with a reporter, he wearily agrees to run through his response to a half-dozen abuse charges.

The attack on Alan Grayson at the Philadelphia convention bore all the hallmarks of a classic political hit, engineered by seasoned opposition researchers. In Congress, Grayson was one of only a handful of members to oppose drone strikes against suspected terrorists in Pakistan, calling a hearing to focus on civilian casualties. Grayson’s insurgent Senate campaign may have been destroyed by a similarly precise attack.

It began with an email to Politico from Grayson’s former wife, Lolita Carson-Grayson, charging four incidents of abuse, in Virginia and Orlando, over a 20-year period, and including police and hospital reports. Hungry for news on the first day of the convention, members of the media scrum were not inclined to examine each of the incidents. With four allegations, the predictable feeding frenzy consensus was that “where there’s smoke there’s fire.” 

The same Democratic oppo researchers who launched the attack may also have reminded the Politico reporter of an incident in Grayson’s 2012 comeback congressional campaign. That year, in a debate at Orlando’s Tiger Bay Club, Grayson sprung a similar police report, alleging domestic abuse by his hapless Republican opponent, Todd Long. That historical tidbit made the Grayson accusations in Philadelphia even more delectable, seasoning his just deserts with a healthy dollop of hypocrisy.

Grayson, whose political career is replete with unforced errors, then made another. He gave the story legs – and, worse, a visual that soon went viral. He showed up at a Politico technology session at the convention, where he and the reporter who wrote the abuse story became embroiled in a sweaty shoving match. Eyes glazed, Grayson threatened the reporter with arrest by Capitol Police. The encounter, captured on a Mother Jones reporter’s cell phone video, reinforced Grayson’s crazy-man image.

The blowback was instantaneous, with two of Grayson’s longtime allies, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Democracy for America withdrawing their endorsements. The Communications Workers of America, one of the few national unions to endorse Grayson, said they were reconsidering theirs. There were resignations by a number of high-level Grayson campaign staffers, along with a consultant. Several women’s domestic abuse groups, assuming the allegations were true, also denounce Grayson. Pundits and journalists, including Orlando Weekly – and me, in a WMFE-FM interview with Catherine Welch – say his candidacy is finished.

To a considerable degree, Grayson was blindsided by the Politico charges. He says the story came as a complete surprise to him, since police in Virginia and Orlando never considered the four allegations credible enough to pursue, and never contacted him about them. He says the timing of Lolita Grayson’s email to Politico, during the Democratic National Convention, was not coincidental: “You’d have to be a fool to think it was.” The attack, he says, comes from his party’s “tool chest to elevate right-wing Democrats over progressives” like himself in Senate races across the country.

Within hours of the report, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Grayson’s personal Nevada nemesis, who had long backed Murphy and urged Grayson to withdraw from the race, tells a reporter: “We are feeling really good about what’s going on in Florida with Grayson’s ex-wife telling everybody what a rat he is.”

In the play and movie A Man for All Seasons, Sir Thomas More cautions a friend who says he would cut down every law in England to help his cause. More says, “And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide?” Over the course of his volatile political career, Alan Grayson had cut down, offended or alienated almost every one of his influential friends, allies and former staffers. His disdain for those who disagree with him, or cross him, has made him about as popular among Capitol Hill Democrats as fellow Harvard grad Ted Cruz is among his among his GOP colleagues.

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