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POLITICO Magazine: Alan Grayson’s last stand

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Elections

The Democrats’ enfant terrible spent years trying to push the party leftward. Now it could be passing him by.

ORLANDO, Fla.—The Tiger Bay Club of Central Florida—overwhelmingly affluent, white, white-haired and Republican—seemed an unlikely venue for a debate over the future of the Democratic Party. But on August 2, some 60 club members sat around lunch tables listening to firebrand former Congressman Alan Grayson and incumbent Representative Darren Soto duke it out over who will represent Florida’s strongly Democratic 9th Congressional District come January.

Soto, age 40 and of Puerto Rican heritage, has packaged himself as part of the Democrats’ young and diverse “new generation,” as embodied by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York and other up-and-comers. Grayson, 20 years older and white, was once the Democratic Party’s pre-eminent enfant terrible, but now finds himself in danger of becoming eclipsed by a party he has long tried to propel leftward.

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The debate opened a window into the inner struggles of the Democratic Party—and Grayson’s own struggle to maintain a place in it after a controversial near-decade in congressional politics. He is challenging Soto in a primary on Tuesday, trying to reclaim the safe seat he gave up in 2016 for an ill-fated U.S. Senate run.

Like many Democratic candidates in the current election cycle, Soto now supports “Medicare for all,” comprehensive reproductive rights, a $ 15 minimum wage, LGBTQ rights, free community college tuition, gun control and a path to citizenship for Dreamers. All are issues that Grayson (along with Senator Bernie Sanders) championed since his first House election 2008. Soto even endorsed Grayson’s own campaign pledge to expand Social Security and Medicare benefits for seniors. “Why shouldn’t we embrace good ideas?” Soto asked at the debate.

But Grayson was clearly annoyed and having none of it, refusing to be placated by watching his agenda get co-opted. He pounded Soto’s record in the Florida Legislature, which included votes to expand gun rights and limit reproductive rights. When Grayson brought up Soto’s vote years ago for mandatory transvaginal screening before abortions, Soto simply replied, “I regret it,” and quickly reminded the audience that he, not Grayson, now had the endorsement of Planned Parenthood—and that of most local and national progressive groups that previously backed Grayson.

There were a few substantive policy differences: Grayson wants Immigration and Customs Enforcement abolished immediately, while Soto wants it reformed. Grayson banged the impeach-Trump drum, while Soto, at the direction of House leadership, has voted twice against impeachment, waiting until special counsel Robert Mueller’s report is released.

The main contrasts were more personal. Alluding to Grayson’s history of incendiary rhetoric, Soto said he wants to “give the district the dignity and respect it deserves,” and that Democrats would be better off “with adults back in the room” instead of a member “who would run after every controversy.” He made a passing reference to an ethics scandal Grayson faced after his election to the 9th District in 2012, relating to a Cayman Islands-based hedge fund. Soto also contrasted his support for the #MeToo movement with Grayson’s description three years ago of his now-ex-wife, Lolita, as a “gold-digger”; during their acrimonious marital unraveling, Lolita accused Grayson of domestic abuse, though no charges were filed. Grayson provoked loud groans from the audience with an equally low blow, alleging that Soto had abandoned his intoxicated wife at DisneyWorld last April, just before she was arrested and jailed overnight. (Soto, who has said his wife was under stress at the time, did not rise to Grayson’s bait at the debate.)

The debate was a fitting encapsulation of the predicament Grayson finds himself in. He has never been so in line with the Democratic policy positions. Yet the party’s leftward lurch, one Grayson has championed and Soto has more recently embraced, might not be enough to overcome Grayson’s flamboyant, sometimes bullying reputation. Soto is favored in the primary and has the backing of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the tacit support of the Democratic National Committee. In an early-August Spectrum News 13 poll, Soto led Grayson, 45-38, with 17 percent undecided. All of which suggests that maybe history has passed this left-wing provocateur by—and raises the question: Now that the party has embraced most of his formerly out-there ideas, do Democrats need incendiaries like Alan Grayson anymore?

***

In 2012, Florida’s Republican Legislature, grudgingly and under court order, redrew the 9th District to favor Democrats and, specifically, Hispanics, who compose more than 45 percent of the district. It comprises all or part of three Central Florida counties between Orlando and Tampa, straddling the politically pivotal I-4 Corridor. In 2016, Soto won a crowded Democratic primary with 36 percent of the vote, and the general election with 58 percent.

Soto, who is the first person of Puerto Rican descent to represent Florida in Congress, is not shy about emphasizing his father’s Puerto Rican birth and his own close ties to the island. He was endorsed this summer by San Juan’s mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto (no relation), who called the congressman a “champion” for Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, and by Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló. There has been talk here that thousands of Puerto Ricans who fled to Central Florida after the hurricane could help Soto in the primary. The Grayson campaign estimates that the actual number of hurricane refugees who have registered Democratic in the district at fewer than 400. Still, the Spectrum News 13 poll found that 54 percent of Hispanic voters in the 9th District were likely to support Soto, compared with 31 percent for Grayson.

Politically, Soto, who declined an interview request for this article, is a long way from Ocasio-Cortez. In the course of his 10-year Florida Legislature stint, he supported the state’s notorious NRA-drafted “Stand Your Ground” law and another law, “Docs vs. Glocks,” that tried to prevent family physicians from asking patients about the presence of firearms in their homes. For this, the Florida NRA endorsed him with an “A” rating, during his tenure in Tallahassee up until 2015. While in the state Legislature, he also supported a law that would equate abortion with murder.

“Soto has an altar-boy reputation,” says Maria Padilla, a former Orlando Sentinel reporter and editor of a Hispanic weekly who now edits the blog Orlando Latina. “He was a very centrist, moderate guy—which is not a sin in the Puerto Rican community, which tends to be socially conservative. So, being perceived as anti-choice was not so much of a problem.”

Now, facing the base voters who dominate Democratic primaries, Soto says his positions have “evolved” since his time in Tallahassee. But even in a state that has seen several recent mass shootings, his campaign website does not mention gun control among his legislative achievements. Regarding abortion, his website now pledges, “In Congress, I always stand up for the right of women to make their own health and family planning decisions—and I will continue to fight tooth-and-nail against any effort to defund Planned Parenthood and take away comprehensive women’s health services.”

Grayson, by contrast, made his name as a first-term congressman in 2009 by describing the Republican alternative to President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act as: “Don’t get sick … And if you get sick … die quickly.” He also compared Vice President Dick Cheney to a blood-sucking vampire, and the Tea Party movement to the Ku Klux Klan. But from his first congressional term, Grayson, who has three Harvard degrees, also proved to be an equal-opportunity offender, sometimes turning his sharp, trial-lawyer tongue and acrimony on liberal, Democratic allies, too. This left deep scars and led Hill critics to compare him—at least in terms of arrogance—with Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.

Former Orange County Mayor Linda Chapin, a former Grayson supporter, now has harsh words. “Alan used to be smart and edgy and funny,” she told me. “Now he’s just smart and mean.”

National Democratic leaders have left no doubt regarding whom they favor in the 9th District, just as they did in 2016, when they tried hard to keep Grayson from the U.S. Senate nomination. Vice President Joe Biden, who supported Grayson in 2010, endorsed Soto, as have Representatives John Lewis and Nancy Pelosi. In May, Pelosi told the Tampa Bay Times, “I love Alan Grayson. He was a very progressive member of Congress. … I wish he would run in a different seat. I would love to have him back.” But she added that backing Soto in this race was important to the party “generationally, and also in terms of issues that relate to Puerto Rico, which are a priority for us to address.”

None of these critics and defectors, Grayson says, “swing any votes.” He discussed the campaign with me in July at a restaurant near his Orlando home. He agrees that Central Florida’s Democratic Party has moved in a progressive direction. In his first primary in 2006, his opponent “was adamantly anti-choice,” and, he says, “At least in this area, you don’t see those kinds of Democratic congressional candidates anymore.”

But Grayson gives Soto no credit for leftward campaign moves. According to Grayson, it’s neither sincere nor pragmatic—it’s pure opportunism. Grayson suggests Soto’s professional handlers, and possibly national party strategists, are responsible. He points to Soto’s Federal Election Commission filings from the past two reporting quarters, through late July: Fifty-nine percent of Soto’s $ 1,109,213 in contributions comes from PACs, including the sugar and utility industries. In Soto’s 2016 House run, he accepted $ 3,700 in donations—the limit permitted by law—from now-Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ family PAC, and hundreds of thousands more from PACs supported by her close associates in the charter school movement. (The DeVos family owns the Orlando Magic basketball team.) Despite not agreeing to sit for an interview, Soto did tell me he has returned the 2016 DeVos contributions, and that he no longer accepts sugar or utility PAC contributions. According to the FEC, Grayson, a self-made millionaire, has raised $ 828,534, mostly from small contributions, just as during his 2016 U.S. Senate run.

Grayson toned down his abrasiveness during his last two congressional terms and worked with the Republican majority to pass, he says, 121 amendments and bills, and to bring hundreds of millions of dollars in federal pork to Central Florida. But at our interview, he still casually dropped disparaging observations about both allies and adversaries—especially Soto.

***

Grayson is confident about his chances, yet philosophical about possibly losing this time. It would not necessarily be the end of his political career—“I could run for state office or federal office”—he says, but winning this time would give him “the advantage of helping people in their lives,” he says.

There are many factors at play in the race besides how progressive each candidate is. For Soto, the challenge will be to mobilize Hispanic voters, particularly the Puerto Rican community. Hispanics make up just 22 percent of registered Democrats. Historically, off-year primary voting counts are lower still. With Soto on the ballot, that could change. But Padilla, for one, cautions against writing Grayson off. His consistently liberal positions have generated support among unions, especially the Service Employees International Union—a key part of his coalition.

Padilla adds, “There are people, Puerto Ricans among them, who like Grayson. He’s a combative, assertive, aggressive SOB. I think they like that.”

Soto is betting against it. One of his TV spots contrasts his campaign with unnamed “politicians who like to bully and shout.”

“I would be surprised if Alan would have a chance to win,” says former Orange County Commissioner Bill Segal, a centrist Democrat. “He is a knowledgeable guy, a tremendous intellect, but he is extremely abrasive. Impulse control has never been his strong suit.”

Mark I. Pinsky, a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and Orlando Sentinel, is a writer and author in Orlando.

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