Rep. Alan Grayson of Florida waited only hours after being sworn in to go on MSNBC, a forum he used to become a national figure during a tumultuous first go-around in Congress, and declare his return.
“As Steven Tyler would say, ‘I’m back in the saddle again,’ ” Grayson smirked during the January appearance. And so he was off, ripping House Speaker John Boehner as “a weak, weak man.”
But six months later, the self-styled “congressman with guts” has managed what seems like an impossible feat of self-restraint.
Gone (largely) are the volcanic floor speeches such as one in 2009 describing the Republican health care plan as “die quickly,” and over-the-top sound bytes, such as referring to a female Federal Reserve adviser as a “K Street whore” or comparing former Vice President Dick Cheney to a vampire.
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The antics led to Grayson’s defeat in the 2010 GOP wave, but this comeback is less noisy, focusing on local concerns such as airport closures and housing issues.
“Alan Grayson? He’s not here,” said longtime Democratic Rep. Corrine Brown of Jacksonville, momentarily confusing him with the other Florida troublemaker to become a national figure. That would be ex-Republican Rep. Allen West, who also was defeated after one term and is now a paid contributor on Fox News.
“Oh, yes. Grayson,” Brown said. “What’s a better word for matured? He’s picking his issues, I really like the new Alan Grayson.”
If there were a time to be unhinged, it is now. Grayson got reelected in a new district, which includes parts of Osceola and Orange counties, that is heavily Democratic. He beat a tea party Republican by 25 points, a dramatic reversal from the 18-point beating he took in a neighboring, GOP-leaning district anchored in Orlando.
Grayson has already drawn two GOP opponents for 2014 but the relative safety he enjoys has freed him from the constant fundraising that was driven by his made-for-cable TV rhetoric.
“The situation has changed, so I have changed,” said Grayson, a 55-year-old Bronx-born, Harvard-educated father of five. “I’m honestly happier to be able to concentrate on the public service elements of this job as opposed to the self-service elements.”
Sitting outside the House chamber on a recent afternoon, dressed in a dark suit, purple shirt, black tie and black size 13 boots, Grayson bristled at the suggestion he was tempering himself.
“I don’t think I’ve pulled any punches,” he said, suggesting that a reporter who Googled the words “Republicans and callous bigoted tools” would find an “extraordinary number of hits in the past few months.” You can also find him leading a campaign among liberals to pressure President Barack Obama to back off on calls for changes to Social Security.
But he dwelled more on efforts to prevent the closure of the Kissimmee airport due to federal budget cuts and how he worked with Republicans from the Orlando area to put pressure on the VA about a long-stalled hospital.
“A term or two always settles you in Congress,” said Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park. “He’s been more tempered and I’ve had an opportunity to work with him.”
Grayson boasted of the amendments he’s been able to tack onto bills. On the day Grayson sat with a reporter, he popped in and out of the chamber to push an amendment that would bar the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Homeland Security from contracting with corporations that have been convicted of fraud or violations of law while obtaining public contracts. “We did it!” Grayson, pumping a fist in the air, yelled to an aide.
Is there a sinister angle to it all? During a private meeting with liberals in February, Grayson outlined a plan called “Operation Bust Their Chops,” in which Democrats, now in the minority, would use the amendment process to force Republicans into voting against things that may be popular back home — funding for schools, for example.
Grayson’s national breakout came amid the 2009 health care debate when he went to the floor to take on Republican opposition. Liberals nationally rallied around him, seeing him as the rare Democrat willing to fight back, which he did with abandon. To a national audience on CNN he slashed the GOP as “knuckle-dragging Neanderthals.”
“I reached a certain point where I was mad as hell and not going to take it anymore, to use a term from the movie Network,” Grayson recalled in an interview.
But if he wagered that the public liked a guy who spoke his mind, he was wrong. Republicans made Grayson their No. 1 target in 2010 and he was defeated by Daniel Webster, a respected former state legislator from Winter Garden. Millions in outside spending (“sewer money,” Grayson calls it) from conservative groups combatted the millions Grayson raised from a national email list of 400,000 people. His career in politics would likely be over but the once-a-decade reapportionment created two new congressional districts in Florida and Grayson stepped into District 9.
Friends and aides say Grayson is grateful for the second chance and is more relaxed than his first term. It would be unwise to suggest his old self won’t emerge, but he has at least learned the limits of being always on.
“I haven’t had a near-death experience,” Grayson said. “I’ve had a death experience.”