Grayson, Soto duke it out during debate at Central Florida's Tiger Bay Club

As he seeks to return to the U.S. House, liberal firebrand Alan Grayson is banking on Central Florida Democrats wanting a quick impeachment vote on President Donald Trump, rather than taking the wait-and-see approach of Grayson’s congressional successor Darren Soto.

In an exceedingly contentious Democratic primary, Grayson also views himself as better able to work the halls of Congress, where Soto is wrapping up his freshman term, and confront issues of their district, such as securing housing and jobs for Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria.

But to political experts, Soto appears to be a pretty good fit for the Democratic-leaning District 9 seat, bringing state legislative experience and Puerto Rican background to the race.

Two years after giving up the seat to make a failed U.S. Senate bid, Grayson’s large persona remains out-front in the campaign in the district that includes Osceola County and parts of Orange and Polk counties.

“Alan Grayson is involved, so that usually means there should be some fireworks,” said University of Central Florida political-science professor Aubrey Jewett.

Grayson and Soto have both dropped the gloves in ads and while appearing on stage together in advance of the Aug. 28 Democratic primary, with Republican Wayne Liebnitzky of St. Cloud awaiting the winner in the general election. Liebnitzky lost to Soto by 15 percentage points in 2016.

At a debate last week hosted by the Tiger Bay Club of Central Florida, Grayson and Soto sparred over how to address immigration, who can do a better job of bringing federal dollars to the district and Soto’s voting record in the Legislature. Soto attacked Grayson on issues such as living outside the district. Grayson accused Soto of ignoring constituents by holding a fundraiser shortly after Hurricane Irma hit Florida and as Hurricane Maria was leveling Puerto Rico.

Grayson, running as an outsider, called the government handling of people fleeing Puerto Rico “a total failure,” which he placed largely on Soto’s shoulders.

Soto, who is Florida’s first congressman of Puerto Rican descent, said he repeatedly fought for housing extensions for Puerto Ricans who came to Florida and called Grayson’s criticism “Monday morning quarterbacking.”

They also disagreed on how the Democratic Party’s approach to Trump.

Grayson, 60, who is trying to recapture the seat that he held for four years, maintains that the top priority for Democratic voters is the behavior of Trump.

“To Democratic voters, that is the issue,” Grayson said. “Our polling shows that impeachment is the number one issue among Democratic voters: higher than health care; higher than the economy and jobs; higher than guns.”

Soto, 40, maintains that helping hurricane-displaced Puerto Ricans who have settled in Central Florida, along with issues such as jobs, education, health care and immigration, are the priorities of District 9 voters. He also argues Congress should wait until an investigation of Trump is completed before engaging in talk of impeachment.

“We have an investigation going right now,” Soto said. “And should (Special Counsel Robert) Mueller find that President Trump committed high crimes, I’d be the first to vote for impeachment.”

Grayson called Soto’s approach “appeasement.”

“I would have voted already to have him impeached,” said Grayson, who contends Trump should face impeachment on issues ranging from efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act to “cheating and colluding with the Russians.”

Jewett said national polls show both candidates have a point, as most Democratic voters would like to see Trump impeached, yet they also think that immigration is a top issue, followed by health care, education, and gun control.

“Grayson's emphasis on impeachment suggests he is still the fire-breathing progressive and is seeking to rally and excite those voters and aggressively and personally attack opponents —- in this case Trump,” Jewett said. “Soto's emphasis on issues suggests that he is focusing on progressive policy areas that may be more achievable rather than something that is pretty unlikely to happen since it would take a super-majority vote in the Senate, and Republicans currently have a majority, and even if they lose the chamber will still be pretty close to 50 —- barring some unforeseen bombshell revelations that may. of course, still happen.”

Meanwhile, Soto’s contrition about some of his votes from his early days in the Florida House —- he voted in 2008 to require women to have ultrasounds before abortions, before rejecting the proposal two years later, and in 2012 received an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association —- has garnered him support from former Vice President Joe Biden and groups such as the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the Human Rights Campaign, the Pride Fund to End Gun Violence PAC and the gun-control organization co-founded by former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

“Many of us changed our opinions on this after Newtown in 2012,” Soto said of former pro-gun votes and the massacre at a Connecticut elementary school.

Planned Parenthood said, for example, Soto has been "a strong supporter of women’s health and we know [he] will continue to be a dedicated advocate for Planned Parenthood health centers and the people they serve.”

As Soto responds over his repositioned stances, Grayson said there is “a sort of hopeless, defensiveness to all his messaging.”

“Everything that we see from him is trying to somehow inoculate against the inevitable charge against his record,” Grayson said.

Grayson acknowledged he has a “lengthy and tedious record.” But also, he says he has a history of legislative successes to run on.

Grayson, a Harvard-educated lawyer from New York City who co-founded New Jersey-based telecommunications company IDT Corporation, became a progressive darling during the 2009 health care debates when he described the Republican plan as "if you do get sick … die quickly."

At the time, Grayson represented the former Congressional District 8 and became a target of national Republicans.

After being defeated in 2010, Grayson ran for the redrawn District 9 and won terms in 2012 and 2014. But as Grayson set his sights on the U.S. Senate in 2016, he carried personal baggage.

Grayson provoked an exchange with former Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid in 2016 following a report that the party establishment was backing Congressman Patrick Murphy in the Florida Senate race. Reid reportedly said he wanted Grayson to lose, claiming Grayson had “no moral compass.”

Grayson first marriage ended in 2015, after 25 years, with an annulment in which he at one-time summed up his ex-wife in a televised interview as a “Gold diggers gotta dig.”

Grayson married his girlfriend Dena Minning Grayson in May of 2016, as she ran in an unsuccessful bid for his congressional seat.

The New Jersey-born Soto, who spent five years in the state House and four in the state Senate, has also seen his family life attract some media attention.

In April, his wife Amanda was arrested at Disney Springs on a charge of disorderly intoxication.

When Grayson brought up the arrest last Thursday at the Tiger Bay debate, the moderator called that “a low blow.”


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