When Gwen Graham ran for Congress in 2014, she touted the “North Florida Way,” a self-described independence from party-line politics.
The Democrat quickly lived up to it.
Graham voted against giving Nancy Pelosi another term as House speaker. She voted for the Keystone XL pipeline. And she voted in favor of measures limiting Dodd-Frank and Obamacare.
And that was just in her first week in office.
Now, those votes are being used against her — evidence, opponents say, of her not being liberal enough to be governor.
“Graham stood with Republican leaders over President Obama and Florida Democrats,” said a TV ad in May sponsored by a super PAC that supports her rival, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum. “Gwen Graham is not the progressive she claims to be.”
The issue for Democrats is how Graham represents two political movements that have swept the party since the election of President Donald Trump.
She’s the only woman running for Florida governor in a year when women have been winning Democratic primaries across the country.
Yet she’s arguably the most conservative of the four Democrats in the race, in a year when some party members feel they need a solidly liberal candidate to capitalize on anti-Trump sentiment.
It’s “absolutely a balancing act,” said David Johnson, a Republican strategist.
But if she can survive the primary, “I think she’d be a very formidable general election candidate,” he said.
Graham, 55, says she doesn’t regret any of the votes she cast during her two years in Congress (except one), explaining that she carefully researched and considered the issues.
“Every vote that I cast, I voted as I believed was in the best interests of my district or Florida,” she said.
A mother of three and former administrator for the Leon County School District, Graham models her political viewpoint on her father’s. Like Bob Graham, the moderate Democrat who was widely popular as governor and senator, her frequent talk of bipartisanship can sound like she’s from a different political era.
“You’ve got to find a way to sit down and still continue to have a conversation,” she said. “Because it’s the only way you’re going to get anything done.”
Her first run for office was in 2014, to represent a mostly conservative North Florida congressional district that spanned 14 counties (she lives in Tallahassee). Her unlikely win over a deeply conservative, two-term Republican incumbent was one of the very few bright spots for Democrats that year.
And she quickly went to work with a practical, centrist attitude that sometimes bucked her own party:
▪ She voted to raise the number of hours worked to qualify for Obamacare, from 30 to 40 hours per week after hearing stories of companies cutting back employees’ hours to avoid paying for their insurance.
▪ She voted against Pelosi for House speaker, a promise she had made on the campaign trail, arguing that both parties needed changes in leadership to stop the gridlock in Washington.
▪ She voted for the Keystone XL pipeline, because she said it was a safer method of transporting oil than by train, which was an alternative to the pipeline. President Barack Obama vetoed the bill.
▪ She voted to ease some banking regulations that were part of the Dodd-Frank financial law.
▪ She voted against the Iran nuclear agreement, arguing that it validated that nation’s nuclear program and freed up billions for the country to use against the U.S. and its allies.
Responding to attacks on these votes, Graham points to the rest of her record in Congress. She was consistently pro-choice on abortion issues, was part of the House sit-in to advocate for gun control and voted with Obama more often than not, including several times for Obamacare.
“I am proud of my progressive values, the things that I stand for,” she said. “I’m also proud that I’m someone that looks at the facts of the issues and wants to be able to make decisions that, even though they’re very complicated, they’re very difficult, that, at the end of the day, they’re in the best interest of people.”
She added, “I’m OK with people disagreeing with me on that. But I’m not OK with it being ugly and nasty, because that’s just not appropriate, nor is it how I’m wired.”
Matthew Isbell, a Democratic strategist who supports Graham, said she did a fine job representing her district.
“There’s no honor to me in getting elected to a conservative district, voting way out of step of your district, and then being replaced by an even more conservative Republican,” Isbell said.
Graham chose not to run for re-election after her district was redrawn to become even more right-leaning. It’s now occupied by Rep. Neal Dunn, R-Panama City.
Women have been highly successful winning primaries nationwide this year. Women voters have been turning out in high numbers, sometimes outpacing male voters by 10 percentage points. Screven Watson, a former chair of the Florida Democratic Party, said there is a “trust factor” with women candidates after years of men running — and ruining — elected offices.
He estimates that simply being a woman running against a man this year is worth four to five percentage points, big numbers in Florida, where Gov. Rick Scott won both terms by a single percentage point.
“She’s got hurdles to climb because of her previous service,” Watson said. “If she climbs them, she becomes a pretty good general election candidate.”
So what was the one vote Graham regrets in Congress? She said it was to fund a study looking at the impact of social media on violence in society.
She walked away from the vote thinking it was a waste of money, since “everybody knows that there is a significant impact.”
In retrospect, it was a minor bill, but she said it’s a significant example of how she thinks through an issue.
“I questioned this vote because I didn’t think it did enough,” she said. “It didn’t take any real action to stop violence.”