Gwen Graham’s opponents in the Democratic primary for Florida governor tout their decades of business or political experience, with rags-to-riches biographies or stories of unlikely political success.
Graham has neither.
Instead, she’s a political blue blood who navigated the cutthroat arena of school politics, rising from school volunteer to PTA president to the chief negotiator for the Leon County School District.
Those six years in the school system, where she turned adversaries into allies with a “let’s make everyone happy” approach, provides a glimpse of a management style the current Democratic front-runner could use as governor.
“She was ‘that person’ on the other side of the table that we had to negotiate with,” said Shari Gewanter, a member of the teachers union bargaining team.
By the end of Graham’s time there, Gewanter joked, “I think I fell in love with her.”
Her years bargaining with unions and disciplining teachers served as a springboard to Congress, where she served from 2015 to 2017. The teachers she eyed at the opposite end of the negotiation table are some of her biggest supporters now and could propel her into the governor’s mansion.
“That’s her major experience, right?” said former Leon County School District Superintendent Jackie Pons, who hired Graham despite her prior support of his opponents. “I think that experience prepared her well for what she’s trying to do.”
Yet her alliance at the time with current Leon County School Superintendent Rocky Hanna, a childhood classmate and friend, challenges the Graham persona of someone who’s above politics, particularly as it relates to her handling of a sexual harassment claim that has raised questions about favoritism.
Woody Hildebrandt, a former school principal and superintendent candidate, harbors a grudge against Hanna, whom he blames for being charged with stealing school materials while ignoring theft from other employees. Hildebrandt pleaded guilty to petty theft.
He questions how Graham could have supported Hanna’s 2016 run for superintendent, considering what she knew about Hanna’s harassment case.
“I respect Gwen Graham, I respect Bob Graham. They’ve done great things for this state,” he said. “However, how in the world do you support a candidate [Hanna] that you’ve got this type of documentation on?”
The oldest of four daughters of former Florida governor and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, Gwen seemed the most interested in following in her father’s footsteps.
Those plans were postponed, from 1990 to 2006, when Graham raised a family. During this period, Graham was mostly an active parent, volunteering daily in her children’s schools and becoming PTA president. She also worked on a few presidential campaigns in 2003 and 2004.
She developed enough of a name for herself in the school district that Pons hired her in 2007.
“She was actually somebody who didn’t support me when I ran the first time — no big deal,” he said. “I just felt like that I wanted to build the strongest team that I could build, and she could fit into that mold.”
The position she was hired for — director of employee relations — has essentially one responsibility: Resolve conflicts.
It paid $84,000 and tested Graham early and often. She investigated employee misconduct, negotiated union contracts and helped roll out complicated laws passed by the Florida Legislature.
David Worrell, the mild-mannered president of the Leon Classroom Teachers Association, could have become her main adversary. As the head of the district’s primary bargaining union, he was often at odds with the administration. One of Graham’s predecessors, Worrell said, would storm out of contentious negotiations.
Yet relations between Graham and Worrell were different. They had similar mindsets and temperaments, and they became good friends. He went to her 2010 wedding to her second husband; she went to his kids’ birthday parties.
“She was very capable of seeing both sides of the issue,” he said. “Gwen was a very different sort of person in that role.”
The pair’s dedication to finding a solution that would make teachers happy was unique in the labor-management relationship.
“They would always do the thing that they thought did the least amount of pain, and I respect them for that,” said David Clark, a former district employee who worked with them to implement a new teacher evaluation system in 2011.
“There was no hostility” that sometimes comes with such rollouts, he said.
A big investigation during her first year was a pair of popular softball coaches accused of various forms of misconduct, including walking in on students while they were changing.
Rob McNeely, a lawyer whose daughter was on the team, reported the coaches to the district. McNeely said Pons, the superintendent, was “not very receptive” to the allegations, but Graham was. (Pons said he doesn’t recall their conversation but doesn’t doubt the parents’ sentiment.)
“Gwen was appropriately skeptical, but absolutely willing to check stories out, check facts out, and follow them to their logical conclusion,” McNeely said. “And in my experience, that’s exactly what she did.”
McNeely came away impressed after Graham found the coaches violated various policies. Both men resigned from the team, and one quit teaching.
Former school principal Iris Wilson remembers Graham handling a case of an employee at Wilson’s school going through health issues that threatened her employment, and hence, her health insurance. Graham, she said, went out of her way to keep the woman employed and even looked up places where she could get care.
“This was a critical decision. This is a young woman who needs insurance, multiple surgeries,” Wilson said. “Even though [Graham’s] the attorney, she still had that heart for people. ... Normally, decisions are just made — here’s the rule, we’re going to follow it.”
Within her first year, a more personal case came to Graham’s desk.
A teacher who’d had a relationship with her principal was now alleging retaliation and harassment after their relationship ended.
Graham knew the principal well. It was Rocky Hanna, her friend from Leon High School (she was two grades above him).
Records in the case indicate that Graham did not open a harassment investigation. Instead, she negotiated a settlement with the Leon High School teacher, Julie Lawson, that gave her extended maternity leave and a transfer to a coveted school.
The settlement was little-noticed until six years later, when Lawson went into her personnel file and was alarmed to find that any mention of the case was missing (it was in a separate file, it turns out).
Lawson, wanting something on the record about their relationship and settlement in case she had to work for Hanna again, hand-wrote an affidavit and filed it.
The 2014 affidavit went beyond what was in her previous record. She alleged that Hanna, drunk, had followed her home one night and “forced himself” on her.
Lawson also wrote that she told Graham about it in their meetings in 2008. By the time of her 2014 affidavit, Graham had left the school district and was campaigning for Congress.
The Tallahassee Democrat first reported the affidavit in 2015 when Hanna decided to run for superintendent.
Hanna, who declined to be interviewed and did not respond to a list of questions given by the Herald/Times, told Politico last month that his relationship with Lawson was a lapse in judgment, but he didn’t believe he’d harassed her and denied forcing himself on her.
He also said that the woman’s affidavit was a political ploy orchestrated by Pons.
“Mr. Pons used this woman to write this affidavit, which is filled with inaccuracies, to then use it against me if I ever decided to run for superintendent of schools against him,” he told Politico.
Worrell, who represented Lawson in her meetings with Graham, said he doesn’t believe the affidavit was a ploy. Worrell said that while he does not remember Lawson telling Graham that Hanna “forced himself” on her, and that Graham’s notes from their 2008 meetings do not mention the allegation, he said Lawson did worry that nothing was in her file before Hanna ran for office.
“Julie did speak to me about being concerned and wanting to put something on record,” Worrell said. “I think Jackie [Pons] has been accused of a lot of things he never did.”
Hildebrandt said he believes that Lawson told Graham about the allegations in 2008, despite it not appearing in the file.
“For a teacher to make a statement that says, ‘Mr. Hanna forcefully advanced himself on me,’ and for that to be hidden, is unbelievable,” said Hildebrandt.
Graham departed in 2013 after six years at the district. By the time she left, she had been promoted to chief of labor and employee relations and earned praise from Pons.
Graham’s campaign did not make her available for an interview for this story because the Herald/Times would not agree to limiting the scope of questions.
Instead, her campaign provided a statement about her time working for the district: “It was a remarkable experience that I will carry with me to the governor’s office.”
She’s made public education, including teacher raises and limits on charter schools, the backbone of her campaign, and she’s earned the endorsement of the state’s teachers union, which called her “the public education dream candidate.”
And some of her most ardent supporters are some of the same people who used to sit on the other side of the bargaining table.
“The very moment that she had announced that she was running, I supported her,” Gewanter said. “And I have been supporting her ever since.”