Orlando — Thanks to overwhelming support from a growing Puerto Rican community in Central Florida, Alan Grayson, the pugnacious Jewish Democrat ousted in the Tea Party wave of 2010, is returning to Congress after a historic landslide.
Grayson’s success comes after the 18-point shellacking he took as an incumbent congressman two years ago. This time, he won by a margin of 62% to 38% in a newly drawn Orlando-area district, after a two-year effort to woo Puerto Rican voters.
“Florida’s non-Cuban Hispanic voters — and even an increasing number of Cubans — typically vote Democratic,” said Aubrey Jewett, professor of political science at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. “They supported Alan Grayson’s re-election in large numbers, and seem quite willing to form an alliance with Jewish Democratic candidates.”
At his election night victory party, at a nightclub called Salsa Latina, in Kissimmee, Fla., Grayson, facing an amped crowd of Latinos, seniors and young people on the small dance floor, began his remarks by quoting F. Scott Fitzgerald: “There are no second acts in American lives.”
Grayson smiled and paused a beat for effect. “Clearly, he was wrong,” he declared. The crowd erupted in cheers. A tall, volatile man with thinning hair, Grayson shot to instant celebrity soon after being elected to Congress in 2009 when he charged that the GOP alternative to Obamacare was to avoid getting sick. Beyond that, he warned in a 2009 speech from the floor of the House, “the Republican health care plan is this: Die quickly.”
Grayson’s pugilistic approach to politics earned him a bevy of supporters who loved him for the enemies he made. But the right-wing Tea Party surge of 2010 overwhelmed him in his closely balanced district and sent him to defeat.
His return was a product of cunning, stealth and money.
Grayson, 54, first used a fat campaign war chest and high-name recognition to pre-empt the Democratic field in the new, strongly Hispanic district he announced for shortly after his 2010 election loss. The winner of the GOP primary (in which few Hispanics voted) was an underfunded, ultra-conservative, Anglo trial lawyer named Todd Long — a twice failed congressional candidate with a DUI conviction who had to be removed by police from a Central Florida mall and in 2007 was found passed out on the sidewalk in Tallahassee. A vociferous opponent of immigration reform, he supported English as an official language and made disparaging remarks about undocumented workers.
“Todd Long is too extreme for Central Florida,” Grayson crowed in a post-primary press release exulting in his opponent’s victory. “He wants to raise the retirement age to at least 70, privatize Social Security, dismantle Medicare, eliminate federal student loans and drill for oil in Florida, both offshore and onshore.”
Some Republican Party decision makers appeared to agree. Long was quietly elbowed off the stage when GOP vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan spoke at a campaign event in Orlando. Several days later, Long told a conservative radio interviewer that he felt like he had been thrown overboard by the Republican Party. By the closing days of the campaign, Long was reduced to waving signs at intersections.
Long also made religion a conspicuous part of his campaign. He told the editorial board of the Orlando Sentinel that Grayson was “the most anti-Christian congressman probably we’ve ever had in our history.” In a subsequent interview with Hispanic radio, Long charged that his opponent wanted to “kick Christianity out of this country.” Notwithstanding the slur, Grayson agreed to debate Long on Rosh Hashanah. (“I’m no Sandy Koufax,” he acknowledged.)
A graduate of the Bronx High School of Science, Harvard University and Harvard Law School, Grayson made several small fortunes before entering politics: in the telecommunications boom, on Wall Street and in his law practice, suing defense contractors for Iraq War profiteering. He largely self-financed his successful 2008 campaign and, once elected, built a national following among the Democratic base through speeches — which some considered outrageous — on the House floor.
Out of office for the past two years, Grayson nevertheless remained in the media spotlight through more than a dozen of appearances on MSNBC; an impassioned defense of the Occupy Wall Street movement on HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher” and his support for the family of Trayvon Martin, the African American teen who was shot to death in Sanford, Fla., not far from his district. This exposure helped Grayson raise $3.5 million. Grayson enjoyed additional support from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which selected him as one of three “Majority Maker” candidates and poured some $2 million more into advertising for him. Long raised a paltry $91,000.
Grayson’s enduring, grassroots support is undeniable among working- and lower-middle class voters, and among the area’s small trade union movement. Notwithstanding his liberalism on other issues, his strong ties to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and down-the-line support for Israel on the 2008 Gaza War and on Iran, made him a liberal many pro-Israel activists—and donors—could also get behind.
Grayson made relatively few public appearances during the campaign, but at almost every one, someone would wait patiently in line to thank Grayson for using federal pressure to slow down bank foreclosures in the state while he was in Congress. His volunteers made an estimated 200,000 phone calls and walked most neighborhoods in the district.
The candidate’s image among conservatives as an unhinged wild man notwithstanding, Grayson appears to have carefully plotted his political comeback even before he was ousted. In a 2009 interview with this reporter, already aware of the political dangers he faced in his closely balanced district, Grayson was already gaming the race for 2012.
Pointing to a large map of Central Florida, Grayson explained that whatever happened in the upcoming 2010 midterm election, the Republican legislature, in order to preserve area GOP incumbents, would be forced to carve out a new, predominately Democratic district that would include a part of his old district. The seat would be perfect for him in 2012, he said. What he neglected to anticipate was that some in the media and in the Hispanic community would claim that it was designed for a Hispanic.
The new 9th District is 43.4% registered Democratic, compared with 28.2% Republican. Hispanics constitute 41 % of the voting-age population but just 22% of registered voters. Grayson bridled at the implication raised in local media shortly after he announced his candidacy for the new district— soon after his 2010 defeat — that he was somehow hijacking a “Hispanic seat.”
In fact, Grayson was largely able to pre-empt any Hispanic candidates in the 2012 Democratic primary, because while in Congress, he assiduously cultivated Central Florida’s largely Puerto Rican, Spanish-speaking community. He brought hundreds of thousands of dollars of federally funded Spanish language, education, small business and development programs to the area — and not in just his district.
Grayson also supported issues important to Puerto Ricans, like a referendum on the island commonwealth’s status and on the cleanup of Vieques, the island just off Puerto Rico long used by America’s military for bombing practice. He collected his chits last April, when he was endorsed by the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques, a leading civic organization in Puerto Rico that lauded Grayson as a “staunch advocate” of its cause.
It’s clear that this kind of attentiveness to Hispanics will be increasingly crucial for Florida candidates whatever their own ethnic background. The state’s Hispanic population grew by 44% over the last decade, and the Puerto Rican population alone — centered largely in Central Florida — grew by 76%, said Jewett, the University of Central Florida political scientist. A growing percentage of these residents are also actually showing up to vote. Currently 14 % of all registered voters are Hispanic, but they were 17% of the electorate in this past election. Thirty-nine percent are registered as Democrats, 29% as Republicans — a flip on the greater support Republicans enjoyed among members of this ethnic group until 2008.
“The main question about this alliance,” Jewett said, “is whether Hispanic support would stay as strong if a Hispanic Republican were running against an Anglo Democrat, Jewish or gentile.”
At his Salsa Latina victory party, Grayson accepted congratulations from half a dozen local Puerto Rican politicians. Then he pledged to continue his fight for universal health care and to reform tax policy. “Even the filthy rich have to pay their fair share!” he exclaimed, demonstrating, more or less, that some things about Alan Grayson just don’t change.
Contact Mark I. Pinsky at email@example.com