Orlando, Fla. — One of the highest-profile congressional contests this year is a stark faceoff: a left-wing Jew versus a right-wing Christian.
As many Democratic candidates from swing congressional districts move to the center — or even further right — this year, the campaign of Rep. Alan Grayson of Florida promises to challenge the Democratic Party’s predominant strategy of distancing itself from its liberal base. In many ways, Grayson’s clash with Republican Dan Webster looks to be a cultural and ideological referendum as well as a political one.
“No one gets a free pass if they attack me,” Grayson said in an interview with the Forward. “I don’t think it’s beneficial to turn the other cheek. There is no reason a Democrat has to be a weakling.”
For his part, Webster, too, sees the race as a test for his party. “This is a target seat,” he told the Forward at his August 24 primary-night victory party, held in the gymnasium of the First Baptist Church Of Central Florida, the mega-church he attends. “If the Republicans don’t take this seat, they can’t take the Congress.”
Central Florida’s 8th Congressional District is home to numerous suburban mega-churches and thousands of middle-class evangelicals, as well as to Disney World, Universal Studios and SeaWorld. The classic Sun Belt swing district is historically Republican, but now it has a slim Democratic majority, thanks to a recent influx of Puerto Rican voters. Obama carried it in 2008, and carried on his coattails an unlikely representative: the Bronx-born, Harvard-educated Alan Mark Grayson.
The newcomer quickly made a name for himself. On the floor of Congress last fall, Grayson denounced Republican rejection of the Obama health care reform plan, saying, “If you get sick, America, the Republican health care plan is this: Die quickly.” Alluding to a Harvard study estimating that 50,000 people die annually for lack of medical care, Grayson condemned the status quo as “this holocaust in America.” Jewish leaders were outraged, and Grayson had to apologize.
Grayson has gone on to forge an unabashed liberal profile, opposing the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He supported a strong public option for health care, local unions, gun control, bilingual education and same-sex marriage rights.
Grayson was also one of the few members of Congress to oppose a bill to defund ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, now a defunct community organization. The bill, which passed, prohibited government funding of the group after a right-wing sting operation caught its staff offering illegal tax advice to purported clients posing as a pimp and prostitute. A Government Accountability Office report subsequently found no evidence that ACORN had mishandled any federal funds it received.
To the delight of progressives, the tall, gawky, Grayson frequently attacks Fox News pundits and talk radio hosts: “Rush Limbaugh made more sense when he was addicted to drugs,” he said. On MSNBC, he denounced former vice president Dick Cheney as a vampire, who has “blood that drips from his teeth.” The Democrats’ liberal base has so far rewarded Grayson with nearly $4 million for his re-election campaign.
In contrast to Grayson, who only moved to Orlando in 1996, Webster, who is 61, first moved to Florida as a 7-year-old, with his family. During his 28 years in the state legislature, he has been a reliable supporter of the Christian right in matters large and small. Florida Baptist Witness, the official journal of the state’s Southern Baptists, noted that Webster is “universally known for his Christian testimony and advocacy of pro-family issues, especially the sanctity of human life.” He announced his election bid on the lawn of the First Baptist Church of Central Florida , and on the night of his primary victory he denounced the “Ground Zero mosque.”
Webster, who owns an air conditioning and heating firm, fought to legalize home schooling in Florida and, when the measure passed, home-schooled his own six children. He also led efforts to mandate parental control of abortion for minors and to require any woman seeking to terminate her pregnancy to first undergo an ultra-sound test. He led the unsuccessful effort to allow state officials to force-feed Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged, comatose woman who died in 2005, a couple of weeks after the removal of her feeding tube.
A strong supporter of Israel who teaches a Sunday school class at his Orlando church, Webster proclaimed his faith in his farewell address to the state Senate in 2008, urging members to read the Bible. “It’s no secret that I’m a follower of Jesus Christ,” he said at the time. “I have been open to anyone who’s open to talk about it.”
Meanwhile, Grayson is running in 2010 in much the same way he won in 2008, with a counterintuitive Southern strategy. Rather than running as a tepid, timid Blue Dog Democrat, Grayson spends lots of money — some of it his own — and is not afraid to go negative: He derides Webster as “Taliban Dan.”
Most critically, Grayson mobilizes and energizes his diverse base: African Americans, Latinos, Jews, gay men and lesbians, union members, pro-choice activists and younger “‘Daily Show’ Democrats,” who, like him, do not hesitate to criticize their party’s leadership for insufficient fervor and a promiscuous eagerness to compromise. Their enthusiasm and their commitment, Grayson says, can make up for their smaller numbers in the otherwise moderately conservative district. If he manages to win despite the expected GOP wave — regardless of his margin — the lesson for Democrats will be clear.
“If Grayson wins,” said Aubrey Jewett, associate professor of political science at the University of Central Florida, “and especially if many other congressional Democrats lose, the lesson for the Democratic Party will be clear: A winning strategy for Democrats in swing districts involves energetically advocating progressive positions rather than muddling policy differences for the moderate voters.”
Grayson, 52, is an anomaly for a Sun Belt politician. His immigrant grandparents came from Silesia and Lithuania, respectively, early in the past century, and his father changed the family name to Grayson — from what, the congressman won’t say. A sickly child, Grayson grew up in high-rise public housing east of Bronx Park, his parents a public school teacher and a principal, both active in the United Federation of Teachers. Grayson’s family worshipped at a Reform synagogue in New Rochelle, N.Y., where Grayson became a bar mitzvah. His sister has spent her professional life with Associated Jewish Charities of Baltimore. In Orlando, Grayson’s family is affiliated with a small Reform congregation, although the candidate is not particularly observant, and his children attend Hebrew school at a nearby Chabad center.
After graduating from the Bronx High School of Science, the future congressman worked his way through Harvard, earning three degrees: a bachelor of arts in economics, a law degree and a master’s in public policy at the university’s Kennedy School. He went on to amass a small fortune in the 1990s with the telecom startup IDT. Grayson’s first entrance into the national spotlight came soon after, when he sued accused Iraq War profiteers on behalf of whistleblowers.
Grayson visited Israel once, about 16 years ago, with his pregnant wife, traveling to Eilat from the Galilee. Like a number of liberal members of Congress — and in contrast to many other progressives — he doesn’t include criticism of Israel in his liberal agenda.
While in Congress, Grayson has met several times with Howard Kohr, head of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and attends meetings of the group in his district. A consistent supporter of Israel and Jewish causes, he sometimes finesses controversial issues, like new Jewish housing in Jerusalem and the “Ground Zero mosque,” which he dismisses as a distraction.
Despite the sense that this is going to be a Republican year and that Grayson is ideologically out of sync with the 8th District, local experts are not willing to count him out. Thanks to his personal funds and to contributions from his enthusiastic base, Grayson enjoys a large campaign cash advantage over Webster. On September 6, at a Labor Day rally sponsored by the AFL-CIO, he said that his latest internal poll had him up 40–27, though FiveThirtyEight, a widely read blog that tracks congressional races, rates the contest a toss-up.
“Candidates such as Grayson do not need to appease the more moderate party establishment,” said Terri Susan Fine, associate director of the University of Central Florida’s Lou Frey Institute of Politics and Government. “Independents and weakly affiliated Republicans, more concerned with issues and less with partisanship, may join with other Democrats to re-elect Grayson.”
Contact Mark Pinsky at email@example.com.