PANAMA CITY, Fla. ― In what has been called the Year of the Woman, Gwen Graham’s six-year-old Chevy Equinox might have been delivering her to Florida’s governor’s mansion on cruise control.
Tall, personable and telegenic, the former north Florida congresswoman is the only female running in either party for the state’s top job. She also happens to be the daughter of Bob Graham, the two-term former governor and three-term former U.S. senator who remains the most popular political figure in the state. The name recognition and fundraising connections alone are easily worth many millions.
On top of that, her Democratic opponents in the Aug. 28 primary include a mayor whose city government is under FBI investigation, an unknown Orlando entrepreneur, and two wealthy businessmen who, until recently, both had kind words for President Donald Trump. One is an active member of Trump’s exclusive Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach.
But Graham hasn’t been cruising toward anything. After a year of campaigning, only in recent weeks has she started opening a small lead over her Democratic opponents.
Some of this is attributable to the personal wealth of three of her rivals, and their willingness to part with substantial chunks of it to further their political campaigns. “It is a five-candidate field with three self-funding candidates,” said Mac Stipanovich, a Republican consultant who was once Gov. Bob Martinez’ chief of staff.
And then there is the other part of it: “Her relative moderation does not excite the left wing of the party,” Stipanovich said.
As it turns out, the Year of the Woman also happens to be the Year of the Angry and Fired-Up Democratic Base ― and Graham does neither angry nor fired-up particularly well. In a time when the most energized Democratic activists want a champion who’s itching to fight, Graham is more comfortable talking about how she can find common ground. She’d rather offer a hug than throw a punch.
National progressive groups trying to pull the Democratic Party leftward have largely coalesced around Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum. Words that keep popping up in the endorsements include “fresh” and “energy.” Words that come up when they talk about Graham include “nice” but “boring.”
“I think it matters a great deal, because people are looking to get excited,” said former Florida Democratic Party chairman Bob Poe. “Gwen is much more of a traditionalist. In today’s environment, the worst thing that can be said about somebody is that they’re nice.”
Graham is aware of the knock. She is not crazy about it.
“That hurts my feelings,” she said when HuffPost asked about the “boring” criticism.
“I am not boring!” she told a Politico reporter earlier this year, and then repeated it for emphasis: “I am not boring. I am not boring.”
Still, she said she’s not about to change. In her view, campaigns have to be less about entertainment and more about a plan to govern. Her response is one she has honed on the campaign trail.
“We sure as heck ― and I could use a different word ― but we sure as heck have enough chaos, divisiveness, ugliness represented in Donald Trump that here in Florida, what we need to have is caring, competency, and a desire to bring people together again.”
As she is pretty much always, Graham is deeply earnest about this.
Gwen Graham was 3 years old when her dad was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in a district that included the family dairy farm along the edge of the Everglades west of Miami.
So began a storied political career that put Bob Graham into the ground-floor, corner suite of the Florida Capitol, after making an improbable jump from state Senate to governor in 1978.
That he would try such a thing was not unexpected. Both state and national politics already ran in the family. Bob Graham’s father, Ernest “Cap” Graham, had served in the state Senate in the 1930s and ’40s, and had made an unsuccessful run for governor himself in 1944. Bob’s older half-brother, Philip Graham, was the publisher of The Washington Post until his death in 1963 left control to his widow, Katherine.
In 1986, following two terms in the governor’s mansion, Bob Graham took on the sitting Republican senator and beat her, heading off to Washington, where he served three six-year terms.
It was in the last two years of that final term that Bob Graham lost the only election of his career ― or, more precisely, he dropped out months before the first ballots were cast in the 2004 presidential primary. Not long after, he announced he would retire rather than seek a fourth Senate term.
Gwen, the eldest of four daughters, said running for office herself had never really occurred to her until late 2012, following the re-election of the Republican congressman representing part of the Florida Panhandle that included Tallahassee’s Leon County, where she was working as a school district lawyer.
Steve Southerland was elected in the tea party wave of 2010, and was always seen as more ideologically extreme than his district, which included the state capital and its two universities. Graham said she was complaining about Southerland’s political survival to Steve Hurm, her still-newish second husband. He suggested she do something about it, rather than just complain.
She left her job at Leon County schools to start campaigning and, a year and a half later, pulled off a victory as improbable as her father’s 36 years earlier. In a district that went for Republican Mitt Romney over Democrat Barack Obama by 6 points, in a wave-year election that gave Republicans their strongest House majority in nearly a century, Graham narrowly won. She was one of only two Democrats to beat incumbent Republicans in the country that year.
But not long after she started her term, a court-ordered redistricting in Florida let the Republicans running the Tallahassee statehouse draw a new congressional map for the 2016 election. It gave her a district that went for Romney by 31 points, instead of just 6.
Graham decided it wasn’t worth all the effort it would take for the near-zero chance of winning. Besides, there was a much more interesting race that was coming up two years later.
The noontime event space had been, until recently, an art gallery in the newly trendy Wynwood neighborhood of Miami. On this late morning, the bare walls are decorated with a smattering of “Women for Graham” placards and a larger, rollup sign set up behind a lectern.
At the appointed hour, about a dozen women supporters have shown up and are arranged in the camera shot for the three TV outlets and a handful of print reporters. Apart from them, a few staff members and Graham herself, the room is vacant.
The “event” is an endorsement from NARAL, the abortion-rights group, which comes on the heels of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the Supreme Court. Graham’s words echo in the cavernous gallery, competing with the thrumming of the industrial-strength air conditioner that struggles to keep the South Florida summer at bay.
“I, as governor, the first woman governor of Florida, will make sure that we do not return to the days of backroom abortions,” she tells the cameras. “When I am governor, any bill that comes across my desk that limits a woman’s right to choose, I will take out my veto pen, and I will veto it.”
She speaks for 3 1/2 minutes and opens it up for questions. There is only one, from a reporter for a Florida blog. Graham answers it, then does one-on-one interviews with each TV station. She spends the next hour speaking with each and every one of the supporters there, including the year-old baby of NARAL’s political director.
Such is the glamour of a statewide race in Florida. Graham has already done dozens of such media-driven events, and many hundreds of small-group meet-and-greets. Many double as fundraisers that ask attendees for donations.
Florida, with its large transient and snowbird populations, is a low-turnout state, even in presidential elections. The figure drops dramatically in midterm years, and falls even further in primaries.
Figuring out who is likely to vote, and finding ways of reaching them, is still as much art as science. For Graham, finding them has meant putting some 100,000 miles on her SUV over the past year. That night, she’ll drive to St. Petersburg, where gun-control activists plan a noontime rally the next day at a downtown park.
It is hot and steamy by the time she walks the two blocks from the hotel where she and her staff spent the night, and Graham ― like the two other candidates awaiting their turns to speak ― is perspiring freely.
“I am not going to put my jacket on, for obvious reasons,” she says, touching the red blazer she had picked to go with the white blouse and navy blue slacks. “We are going to fight the NRA every single day. They are no longer in control.”
She is followed at the microphone by Andrew Gillum, the Tallahassee mayor and the choice of the progressive groups. He touches on the same themes, similarly promises to fight the National Rifle Association and to do something about assault rifles. The audience gives him far more applause, particularly when he hits Obamaesque lines like “this is our moment, this is our time.”
Walking back to the hotel, Graham acknowledged she does not have the performance-art skills that Gillum does.
“I get it. He’s got his speaking style,” she says with a shrug. “I just do me. I don’t try to be somebody who I’m not.”
Just doing herself means trying to win over each person she meets, for 10 or 15 minutes at a time, even if it blows the schedule. In St. Petersburg, that meant discussions with police officers staffing the rally, with several women eavesdropping on her interview with the local public radio station, and with a handful of students ― too young to vote ― who had come for the rally.
“We’re always the last to leave,” sighed one aide with a glance at his watch.
A half-block from the hotel, she passes a pizzeria with outdoor seating. She can’t help herself.
“Looks good!” she says, reaching across the slices of pepperoni to shake hands. “Guess what ― I’m running for governor. I’m going to be the first woman governor. Will you vote for me?”
The men at the table glance at each other. “Sure,” says one. “What’s your name?”
She tells them, and another nods. “Oh, like Bob Graham.”
A few minutes later, after she has left, they explain that they are electricians working at a nearby construction site. They are also big Trump supporters, and more inclined to vote for Ron DeSantis, the Republican congressman now favored to defeat state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam for the GOP nomination, thanks to an endorsement from the president.
In any event, they do not plan to vote in this month’s primary. “Not interested,” says Gregory Gates, 51, who’s from nearby New Port Richey. “Let the diehards do that.”
Becoming Florida governor without having run statewide before has never been easy. Even Jeb Bush, the son of a two-term vice president and one-term president, failed on his first attempt. The current governor, Rick Scott, managed it, but only by spending $75 million of his personal fortune.
Nonetheless, that is what four of the five Democratic candidates are attempting this go-around ― and it’s where Graham’s last name has given her such a tremendous boost. While Gillum, former Miami Beach Mayor Phil Levine and Orlando businessman Chris King all started the race in the single digits, Graham started out in the mid-teens or low-twenties.
It’s an advantage the others are acutely aware of, and clearly envy.
Gillum said his life story, with two working parents struggling to make ends meet, makes him better prepared to focus on Florida’s vast middle class and working poor. “I don’t look like, don’t have the pedigree of, didn’t come from the family background that would suggest I should be dreaming about running for governor,” he said.
Levine suggested that Graham’s family name is actually a hindrance. “I guess you’d have to ask Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton about how brand names work. Legacy brands cut both ways,” he said. “America is about fresh. America is about new.”
Graham, perhaps by necessity as much as choice, has embraced her dad’s legacy. “In my life, I feel like my name was ‘Gwen-she’s-Bob-Graham’s-daughter,’” she said, but then added: “I am Bob Graham’s daughter. I have proudly been Bob Graham’s daughter my whole life. I am 55 years old, and there’s never been a day that I haven’t been proud of him.”
Bob Graham has not run in an election since 1998. But fully half of those likely to vote on Aug. 28 have actually seen him on the ballot at least once.
And, in a race where all of the Democrats have staked out similar positions on issues such as public education, the environment, guns and health care, Gwen Graham has as a touchstone her father’s accomplishments. Among them: the start of the efforts to restore the Everglades, as well as the last significant increase in public school spending, which he engineered by vetoing the education budget and forcing a special legislative session.
A key part of Bob Graham’s legacy, of course, was his style of governing ― which was decidedly moderate. He not only supported the death penalty, he was key to making it a regular part of Florida criminal justice after the U.S. Supreme Court permitted its resumption in 1976. And while he increased the state corporate income tax, he neither tried to impose a personal income tax nor supported large increases in taxes on individuals.
That record served Gwen Graham well as she ran for Congress in conservative north Florida. And once elected, she at times voted more in step with her district than she did with Democratic leaders in the House ― a pattern that began on her first day in the chamber, when she cast a protest ballot against California Rep. Nancy Pelosi for speaker.
Her opponents, and Gillum in particular, love to cite a statistic that she voted against President Obama 52 percent of the time, including votes to require more intensive vetting of Syrian refugees and for the construction of the Keystone Pipeline.
Graham has explanations for all of those votes: On Syria, for example, she said agreeing to some vetting staved off a more radical bill that would have curtailed the flow of Syrian refugees or stopped them from coming entirely. On the pipeline, she said she would have preferred that Canada would not to have approved extraction of the tar sands at all. But once it had done so, a pipeline was the safest method with the smallest carbon footprint of getting the oil to market.
More generally, though, Graham seems genuinely offended that she would be expected to hew to anyone’s whip sheet. That behavior, she tells audiences big and small, is why Congress cannot find any reasonable comprises. She says she was appalled that so many members of both parties would simply cast a vote the way they were instructed by party leaders.
“If people won’t even read what they’re voting on, they should just be replaced with robots,” she told the Tallahassee Democrat editorial board. “Save money on salaries.”
“I’m here today not as a candidate for governor, but as a mom.”
Womanhood and motherhood are a big part of Graham’s appeal. The not-as-a-candidate-but-a-mom is a favorite whenever prefacing remarks about gun violence, but her experience raising three, now-grown children is a frequent frame of reference, whether the topic is education or health care or the environment.
This is partly out of necessity. There is a 13-year gap in her work resume, from six years after law school to when she took a job with Leon schools as a human relations lawyer in 2007. Those were her years as a stay-at-home mom. Work was running two sons and a daughter to sports and band, and volunteering for PTA activities.
Graham said she has no regrets about not being in the workforce over those years, and understands she was fortunate to have a spouse with an income large enough that she did not have to be.
Still, those years not earning a paycheck ― and the implication that raising children at home is less challenging than going to work each day ― have become fodder for her opponents.
Gillum, in an interview with HuffPost, referenced Graham’s single term in Congress, just two years, compared with his 11 years on the Tallahassee city commission and four years as mayor.
In his campaign launch in January, former Miami Beach Mayor Phil Levine, differentiating himself from Graham, said: “I’ve had that weird thing in my background called a job.”
These comments have come even though Graham is the only candidate in the race, in either party, who does not have young children. Republican Ron DeSantis has a 4-month-old baby ― he even swaths him in a “Make America Great Again” onesie for the purpose of a campaign ad ― while Democrat Jeff Greene, at age 63, has children aged 4, 6 and 8.
Not long ago, a woman running for office with children that age would have been grilled about how she could be a good parent while also seeking a time-consuming public office.
“Strange that guys don’t get asked that question,” said Steve Schale, the Democratic consultant who ran Obama’s efforts to win the state in 2008 and 2012, and who is now backing Graham.
Graham agreed that running as a woman still has challenges. “Some of the criticisms I think, at times, appear to be sexist, and misogyny is alive and well,” she said.
The flip side of that, with Trump leading the Republican Party, is that energizing women voters has never been easier for Democrats. “This election, though, is women coming forward and saying it’s time that we as women elect women,” Graham said. And then she added a favorite line from the trail that while she’s unsure whether November will bring a “blue wave,” she feels confident about this: “I think for sure it’s going to be a pink wave.”
Outside an Office Depot a few blocks from Levine’s bayfront Miami Beach home, Diane Adelfia could well represent the most common sort of primary election voter in Florida: an unlikely one.
The retired advertising executive describes herself as a liberal Democrat. She’s heard of Levine from his television ads, and could see her way to vote for him because of his environmental stances. But she mainly wishes there were more women running. “Women do have a big problem,” she said. “Women should be in office.”
She had no idea who Graham was, or that she was a woman running in the Democratic primary for governor.
Adelfia is not atypical, by any stretch. Of the state’s 21 million residents, 12.9 million are registered to vote, 4.8 million as Democrats. Of those, one fifth, perhaps one fourth, will actually cast ballots by 7 p.m. on Aug. 28.
“To be fair to her, I don’t think anybody is paying attention,” said longtime Florida pollster Brad Coker, of Mason-Dixon. He added that most primary voters won’t tune in until the final weeks, when direct mail pieces start piling up in their mailboxes.
Yet, for all her difficulties in breaking through to the typical Floridian or the most liberal wing of her own party, Graham seems to have made a strong impression with the opposition.
The Republican Governors Association, which will be supporting the GOP nominee, appears to have made its preference clear in the Democratic primary: Anyone but Graham.
Of the group’s last 30 posts on its website about Florida, 25 either criticize Graham exclusively, or criticize multiple Democratic while featuring only her photo.
“Republicans are frightened of her in the general” election, said Stipanovich, who ran former Gov. Jeb Bush’s unsuccessful run for that office in 1994. “The ‘progressives’ would vote for me before standing by and letting Putnam or DeSantis stroll into the statehouse. This primary experience is good preparation for her in the general. All in all, she is well, if not perfectly, positioned.”
One Republican congressman from Florida, speaking on condition of anonymity, agreed that Graham’s strategy makes sense, in that she cannot reasonably compete with Gillum or the others to sound like the most liberal of the pack, and that doing so might alienate independent voters, anyway. “If she tries to be like the others, she’ll get lost in the crowd,” this person said. “She’s playing to win the whole thing. That’s a smart way to do it.”
Ultimately, serious statewide candidates turn to television, as Graham did late this spring. While she is on a paper a multi-millionaire, much of that wealth is tied up in the Graham family company’s real estate holdings. Her TV buys have been modest compared with those of Levine, who is worth more than $100 million, and Greene, worth $3 billion.
Still, she is an attractive candidate for television, and her ads seem to have moved her numbers to where she may be opening up a measurable lead.
“I like where she is sitting right now,” said Coker, whose most recent survey showed her with a 9-point advantage ― the largest of any public poll ― over Levine, who had been leading through spring.
“The best thing that happened to Gwen Graham was when Jeff Greene got in the race,” Coker said. “She got on TV, Levine and Greene started stepping on each other, and the other two just don’t have any cachet.”
As the days tick down to Aug. 28, Graham seems to be spending more and more time in the SUV she bought when she began running for Congress. The miles she put on the odometer in those 18 months roaming the large, largely rural district were nothing compared with those she is racking up now.
A recent swing took her from Miami and Fort Lauderdale, across the state to St. Petersburg, then up through Tallahassee and on to Panama City in the middle of the Panhandle, covering some 650 miles over three days.
While the self-funding candidates use private jets, Graham insists on driving whenever possible to save money ― TV is expensive and crucial, particularly in the closing weeks, when voters finally start paying attention.
The hours in the passenger seat are spent calling potential donors and asking for checks, a task few candidates like and one Graham says she despises. On the final leg from Tallahassee to Panama City, she attempts to explain her low-key campaign style.
“In today’s world, people feel that politicians will promise you the moon and the stars because they want you to vote for them, but that when the time comes to do the hard work to actually get things done, somehow the moon and the stars do not come true,” she said. “I feel very much a responsibility to be talking about what I can do as governor, what’s possible as governor, and also recognizing the hard work that’s going to require.”
How will that work, given an electorate that appears to want the entertainment value of reality television and elected a reality TV star as president?
Graham’s Democratic critics insist that it cannot. The election will be about motivating the “base” Democratic voter and nothing more, and Graham’s earnest-but-quiet style will fall short against a Trump acolyte like DeSantis, they predict.
Graham cannot, and will not, accept that.
“This is not about the show,” she said. “It is about putting together the government across the state of Florida that’s going to have the competency to get done what needs to get done.”
Given Graham’s need to speak to and embrace ― literally ― every attendee at her events, she leaves the “Women for Graham” lunch in Tallahassee an hour late, and she’s an hour late when she arrives at a waterfront house in Panama City. The visit is somewhat of a homecoming for her ― J.R. Middlemas served with her father in the state legislature decades ago, and has remained a friend and fundraiser ever since.
Bob Graham introduces her. He and Adele Graham, his wife of 59 years, are spending their days on the road, too, stumping for and raising money for their daughter. He launches into a favorite family story about Gwen’s only time skipping school, in the seventh grade, when she went instead to the stables to groom her horse for a coming show.
Except, within a few hours, she started feeling guilty.
“This was before cellphones,” her father tells the four dozen gathered around him. “She found a phone, called the school and reported herself truant.”
It’s a story Gwen Graham also tells on the trail, adding the part about the three days of detention the school gave her. The tale signals her earnestness and honesty ― but also wealth and privilege. How many Floridians, after all, own a show horse?
As Graham gives her family and friends the full version of her stump speech in Middelmas’ living room overlooking the pool and Saint Andrew’s Bay beyond it, it remains striking how civil and reasonable she makes it all sound.
In the era of Trump and Trump mimics, it could be a key test, in what’s become the purplest of purple states: Are enough voters sick enough of over-the-top promises and all drama, all the time, that they will support a low-key, middle-aged woman promising competence and caring above all else? Can that approach resonate in a campaign guaranteed to bring Trump to Florida to attack and insult the Democratic nominee, whoever it is?
Graham said she is convinced the answer is yes. “I’m proud to be known as the anti-Trump,” she said. “Anybody running for office or serving in office should aspire to be 180 degrees different from Donald Trump.”