Gwen Graham’s campaign to represent the 2nd Congressional District in Washington came floating quietly down the Apalachicola River Friday morning.
But by the time Nov. 4 rolls around, from all indications - including the enthusiastic reception the Democratic hopeful received in Battery Park at a barbecue lunch – it should be a rollicking ride down the rapids for voters in Franklin County and the rest of this sprawling North Florida district.
Part of an early August electioneering swing billed as “Grilling with the Grahams,” the day began with a tranquil gathering of the extended family at Hickory Landing, just south of Sumatra, where Gwen, two of her three sisters, their children and the grandparents, joined in a morning paddle around Owl Creek.
What made it more interesting than what might be the case with less prominent families is that at the helm of the canoe that Gwen Graham steered was her father, Bob Graham, a popular two-term Florida governor and three-term U.S. senator, who looked pretty fit at age 77.
Graham’s wife, former Florida First Lady Adele, was the only family member not to opt to go paddling, instead lending enthusiastic moral support by sharing a cheer from her youth at Miami Edison High School, which she modified for the occasion.
By taking paddle in hand, Gwen Graham and her entourage anchored her environmental message in a key geographic aspect of North Florida life. It was by no means her first visit here – she’s been currying favor by talking with area folks on several occasions last year, including the 2013 Florida Seafood Festival.
It was, however, a chance to start churning electioneering water in a race that will pit a first-time political candidate, and first time female hopeful for the once solidly Democratic district, against Steve Southerland, a two-term Republican incumbent, first elected in 2010 in a Tea Party surge that helped capture the House of Representatives for the GOP.
“You can’t replace this,” said Gwen Graham, as she overlooked the tranquil expanse of river where the canoes had just been. “Floridians are about what is most precious to Florida, and that is the scene you see before us. It’s the most spectacular, pristine treasure. It’s a treasure not only to North Florida, but for our country.”
Before any more breaths could be taken away by the majestic beauty, she made quickly clear she believed that environmental preservation did not have to come at the expense of jobs. “With the right creativity, we can do both,” she said. “Ecotourism, for this precious and unique area, can bring people to North Florida.”
In a county overflowing with registered Democrats who have increasingly favored Republicans in national elections, Graham, a labor attorney with the Leon County School District, is working to chart a course that stresses her interpersonal skills and desire to put the practical needs of constituents ahead of partisanship.
“It’s all about relationships,” she said. “I connect very directly with people, and that’s the kind of representative I want to be, to represent North Florida as they deserve to be represented. Don’t you think that’s something Congress needs today? We need to put aside ideological rigidity. So many members of Congress, on both sides of the aisle, are unwilling to be open to considering other points of view.”
The implication that Southerland is a card-carrying Tea Party spokesman could hardly be missed, just as he is likely to try to stress there is little room between Graham, and the politics of former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and President Barack Obama, two personalities that have seen dwindling popularity in the district.
A key to the city for former governor
Bob Graham, a governor who Floridians have consistently found immensely popular, underscored this anti-partisan theme in his remarks to the barbecue lunch at Battery Park. Following a rousing introduction from Apalachicola Mayor Van Johnson, who gifted him with a key to the city, Bob Graham offered a summation of the type of approach that granted him 38 years in public office, beginning with state representative in 1966. In fact, his wife sported a large wooden button from that race nearly five decades ago, with the name “Gwen” taped over where “Bob” used to be.
The race is about “restoring people’s confidence in the national government,” he told the audience that filled the Battery Park community center. “The whole system has become almost dysfunctional, full of people who are there in order to scream and yell about their ideology.”
In an interview following the lunch, Bob Graham addressed both the matter of his daughter “riding on his coattails,” so to speak, as well as the political changes that have swept over the state since he retired from the Senate in Jan. 2005.
“I am very proud of my daughter,” he said, noting that she did not discuss her plans with him prior to embarking on her candidacy. “She’s running as Gwen Graham, on her own life experience, and what she can bring to the position.”
During his active years in politics (he continues to remain active, co-chairing theNational Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, among several high-profile positions), “Florida was a solidly Democratic state,” he said. “The population of Florida has changed. It’s not as Southern as it used to be. People have brought down their political experiences (from other states).”
He said such demographic changes have been significant among older voters, many of whom have retired here, and then deftly steered the discussion into a criticism of the privatization of Medicare and Social Security, which he said puts these systems “under assault” from the ups-and-downs of Wall Street.
In his introduction of Bob Graham, Johnson brought home the local touch to a man he said “has played a role in nearly every major public policy issue in modern Florida's history.”
The mayor recalled how as governor, Graham’s administration “was here for the people of Franklin County during the aftermath of the 1985 Hurricanes Elena and Kate that ravished Florida's Gulf Coast during Labor Day weekend and just days before the Thanksgiving Day holiday, respectively.
“Elena devastated the local shellfish industry, covered and killed a large portion of oysters with silt that churned in Apalachicola Bay from the waves of storm, destroyed reefs and left thousands of seafood workers unemployed,” Johnson said. “And what Elena missed… Kate finished.”
“Governor Graham and his administration stood resolute in their commitment to help this community rebound,” he said. “Unlike the chaos that gripped the state of Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Gov. Graham was here for the people of Franklin County.”
The mayor also noted that in 1983, the Graham administration provided the city with economic assistance that helped renovate the Gibson Inn, and which once paid back, helped replenish the city’s revolving loan fund.”
On a personal note, Johnson said in 1979 Graham appointed his mother, the late Mrs. Azalee Johnson to the CETA District II Advisory Board, because of her interest in the employment needs of Franklin County in her capacity as president of the Franklin County Branch of the N.A.A.C.P.
‘This is in my heart’
“Could I be a luckier daughter?” asked Gwen Graham, after hugging each of her parents, as she stepped up to the mic, and onto the Apalachicola stump, for one of her first public speeches here.
“This race is about everyone in the district,” she said, noting that she’s already put over 31,000 miles on her car crisscrossing the territory. “I’m sure there’s going to be tens of thousands more by Nov. 4.”
She recalled how she was 15 years old when her father ran for governor, prompting a dinner table discussion where her young sister wailed that “But Mom, I don’t want to move to Tallahassee!”
“Don’t worry, Sissy,” replied Adele Graham. “Daddy’s not going to win.”
Bob Graham went on to 26 years of unbroken voter approval. “When Grahams run, Grahams win,” said Gwen Graham.
She recounted her campaign work over the last 16-plus months, and summarized a few agenda items under her campaign theme of “The North Florida Way.”
She said jobs, education and a focus on seniors will be her priorities, and that she will take what she has gleaned from meeting people with her to Washington.
“This is in my heart,” said Gwen Graham. “What’s in your best interest? It’s about the people who give you the honor to serve. We need to put aside the ugliness and negativity for one another. Once you get elected, you check that at the door.”
Graham closed with two stresses, essential to a campaign where fundraising totals, so far in the $2 million range each, are neck-and-neck, as are the polls. She urged her supporters to get out and vote, and she made a point of noting, three distinct times, that she would be “grateful for your vote.”
“We are going to win this race, together, but we’re not going to win it if anyone stays home,” she said. “We’re going to surprise a lot of people nationally.“
Gwen Graham, who like her husband and son is every inch over six feet tall and likely more, noted that because of an apparent gawkiness when she once took the dance floor, her campaign staff have asked her not to dance while campaigning, for fear that “my dance style could be used against me..
“I believe I’m slightly better than Elaine on ‘Seinfeld,’” she joked. “But I have been on dance lockdown.”
The next time the public will see her dance, Gwen Graham closed, is on Election Night.