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 5 of 5

click to enlarge PHOTO BY JOEY ROULETTE
  • photo by Joey Roulette
It may be because he inhabits an alternative universe, but in Palm Beach, Alan Grayson is absolutely confident he will defeat Murphy. “We’re ahead,” he insists, citing his own internal polls, and he says his lead is growing. While subdued, the campaign bus does not have the feel of a failing campaign, a death rattle tour. And there is some indication that they may be right.

Grayson is one of those politicians who looks better the further you get from him. So naturally, some of his strongest critics, like former supporter and major Democratic donor John Morgan, are in Central Florida. Although he has apologized for calling a female lobbyist a “K Street whore,” and for comparing the death of thousands of Americans without medical care to the Holocaust, he seems otherwise constitutionally unable to admit that he has made a mistake. Like when he referred to his 2010 Congressional opponent, Daniel Webster, as “Taliban Dan” in a commercial, on the flimsy basis that the Republican’s support for evangelical Christian marriage was like those of Muslim fundamentalists. Or for failing to close his Cayman Islands hedge fund, established while he was out of office, when he returned to Congress in 2013. Or even closing it immediately after the story breaks, and admitting that he made a mistake, rather than adamantly insisting he did nothing wrong.


A week after the Palm Beach trip, the Grayson campaign bus heads to the Tampa Bay area. The day begins well for Grayson, with an afternoon meeting with more than 60 Democratic activists at a Clearwater condo called On Top of the World. The age-55-plus complex is home to 10,000 year-round and snowbird residents, and several Democratic clubs. The audience, including some curious walk-ins, listens to Grayson for about an hour. Recently, Rubio has charged on a syndicated, conservative radio show that Grayson is “not well … an unstable person.” If so, at the Clearwater meeting Grayson must be on his meds.

“He was quite the charmer – humorous, very smart,” says Dan Bernstein, 69, a member of the Baby Boomers Democratic Club, after the meeting. “He comes across as very hardworking … He was calm, factual, sardonic.”

Surprisingly – to me – no one asks about the abuse allegations. “We're not the kind of people who pay attention to Politico every day,” explains the retired lawyer and software entrepreneur. 

After an early dinner stop at a Hardee’s Red Burrito, featuring “New Blueberry Biscuits,” Grayson is off to another town hall meeting, this one in Tampa, at the red brick Seminole Heights Library. The first-floor room is full, all 65 of the brown, molded plastic seats occupied, with more people standing against the wall. The crowd is diverse: young and old, mostly white but also black and brown. There are lots of activist-type seniors, Sierra Club members, and Sanders people, by their buttons and T-shirts. And they are obviously receptive, applauding as Grayson strides in. The candidate immediately picks up on the supportive vibe. Again, he is relaxed, confident, and funny – nothing like his angry, out-of-control, media image. This incarnation of Alan Grayson could be a U.S. Senator.

In his remarks, and an extended question-and-answer session, Grayson pushes all the right buttons for his audience. He starts with the need for gun control, rehearsing the help his office gave Orlando Pulse shooting victims and their families, including expedited visas for survivors living outside the U.S. Gun control, he tells them, “is one of the defining issues of our time.” He supports medical marijuana and solar power, and a $15-and-hour minimum wage. In answer to questions, he calls for the restoration of voting rights for nonviolent felons who have served their sentences, and better psychiatric care for veterans.

Then he dives into what he says are the linked issues of money in politics and economic disparity. “We have one last chance to avoid oligarchy and plutocracy,” he says. “The system is becoming hopelessly corrupt.” There is only one question about the abuse charges, which he answers briefly but directly. Yet Grayson seems to return to it, if obliquely. His Senate candidacy, he says, is nothing less than “a referendum on our system of government.” The forces arrayed against him, including a Democratic leadership he likens to the Soviet Union’s politburo, recognize that challenge: “If they can’t beat you, they want to destroy you.”

The crowd loves it. “He’s running on a Bernie platform, and I was for everything he spoke about,” says Helen Galletly, 50, an HR consultant. “I like that both he and Bernie are representing the people, and not the big corporations.” Guillermo Novoa, 32, a restaurant server, likes what he heard, because the candidate “seems authentic.” Novoa is persuaded by Grayson’s explanation of the abuse accusations, convinced that it is part of “a smear campaign.” Jae Passmore, 27, an African-American combat veteran, says he has been moved to volunteer for the Grayson campaign because, “time and time again he has shown that he supports Black Lives Matter. He’s willing to speak out against injustice against marginalized people.”

More critical to the primary’s outcome is the reaction of people like Linda Foxlow, 66, a Sarasota travel agent, who attended with her brother, a retired newspaper editor who asked the one question about the abuse allegations. Before she heard Grayson this evening, she says, “I was all set to vote for Murphy,” based on the TV ads she had seen. “After hearing what Grayson had to say, I’ve completely changed my mind, and I’ll vote for him. I believe in the same issues that he believes in. I really liked what Grayson had to say. I’m glad I came to the town hall.”

As the campaign bus drives through the night back to Orlando, stopping only for a McDonald’s break, Grayson is reflective, subdued and almost philosophical about the outcome of the primary. This could well be the deeply flawed progressive’s last hurrah. The effects of $3 million in television ads featuring Obama’s endorsement of Murphy, airing daily in South Florida, are “a very difficult thing to counter,” he says. “If the election had taken place three weeks ago, we would have won … We’re facing pretty strong headwinds at this point,” he acknowledges. “We’ll see,” repeating it twice more. “We’ll see … we’ll see.”

  • Photo of Alan and Dena Grayson via Grayson's campaign for U.S. Senate
Well, what he saw was a crushing defeat on Aug. 30. Alan Grayson’s willful self destruction was also evident in the race to succeed him in Congress, which was a potential minefield. Initially, the two leading candidates were Susannah Randolph, Grayson’s former campaign advisor and district director; and Darren Soto, the only Puerto Rican pol in the state senate. For a successful statewide primary run, Grayson needed support from white suburban women, many of whom backed Randolph, and Hispanics, who are strongly represented in the 9th CD. Instead of remaining neutral in the contest, Grayson backed his new wife, Dena, an MD and a Ph.D, but also a political neophyte. Thus he managed to offend both Randolph and Soto backers, who felt betrayed. In the end, Dena Grayson’s third-place finish siphoned off enough votes to ensure the election of Soto, a lackluster, middle-of-the-road lawmaker, rather than the progressive Randolph.

Oh, and there’s this: To the end of his political career, Grayson, an economist, has remained a canny investor. He loaned his senatorial effort just $350,000. This contrasts with the millions he invested in his successful 2008 Congressional race – but not his losing 2010 re-election effort, in which – coincidentally – his personal contribution was minimal.

Mark I. Pinsky is a former Orlando Sentinel staff writer, author and longtime freelance. He has chronicled Alan Grayson’s political career since 2009 for local, national and international publications and platforms. Some material above has appeared earlier in similar form in The Tablet magazine.

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