ON A WET, BLUSTERY FRIDAY night in Orlando, Representative Alan Grayson is on stage at Sea World, looking like a funky magician. The tall, fifty-one-year-old Democrat who serves Florida’s still fairly Republican Eighth Congressional District is dressed in a black suit, fuchsia shirt and tie, and black cowboy boots.
“I wanted to have a conversation about the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” he tells his audience. “I’m not referring to myself.”
Nor was he alluding to any GOP politicians, though some people might have thought so for a second, since Grayson made news last fall by calling Republicans “foot-dragging, knuckle-dragging Neanderthals” on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show. That (some would say accurate) insult was aimed at GOP members blocking progress on health care reform. It followed his now fabled broadside from the House floor, describing the Republican health care plan as: “Don’t get sick, and if you do get sick, die quickly.” When Republicans demanded an apology, he responded: “I would like to apologize. I would like to apologize to the dead.” To wit, the 44,789 Americans who die every year because they have no health insurance.
But this evening at Ports of Call, Sea World’s quaint series of conference halls masquerading as ship hangars, a more chivalrous, even self-deprecating Grayson has appeared, and he’s eschewing name-calling. His audience, about a hundred mostly fifty- to eighty-year-olds, is seated in folding chairs beneath huge conch shell lamps suspended from the tall ceiling. They’re homeowners from Williamsburg, an Orlando suburb where tracts of one-story houses outnumber the pines and palm trees of this drained swampland. And the 800-pound gorilla? “I’m referring to the sad fact that our homes have lost a lot of value the past two years,” the Congressman says.
Everywhere he goes—Orlando, Washington, D.C., the House Financial Services Committee on which he sits—people avoid the topic, Grayson tells the audience, even though it’s a crisis of “tragic proportions.” From mid-2006 to 2009, the value of American homes plummeted $6 trillion—a drop of $20,000 per person. “My house is now worth less than the mortgage on the house, and my $200,000 down payment is out the window,” he says. In Florida, 45 percent of homeowners have mortgages exceeding their home values. Only Nevada and Arizona are worse off. And nobody seems to have any idea what to do.
So tonight, the Congressman with Guts, as Grayson dubbed himself for his 2008 campaign, has come to humbly seek constituents’ thoughts on the matter. He opens the hangar floor to comments.
“I agree with your facts, but I don’t think it’s a problem!” shouts an old guy wearing a checkered green shirt over a striped one.
Another, sporting the windbreaker and docksiders-with-no-socks look, grumbles that the housing market will work itself out as long as the government doesn’t get involved.
A woman politely wonders if most foreclosure victims were speculators, who lost second or third houses.
“My answer is that the great majority of people who lose their houses either lost their job or they got really sick and couldn’t pay their bills,” Grayson replies.
His fight for a second term surely in mind, Grayson takes the opportunity to note that last year he convinced a Florida circuit judge in Orange County to make banks offer, and pay for, third-party mediation so delinquent mortgagees could negotiate a solution short of foreclosure. “I’m proud to say that that program has been adopted throughout the entire state by order of the Supreme Court of Florida,” he says, drawing a round of applause.
A woman asks about health care reform; he tells her he hopes Congress will pass a bill. “I think we need it badly,” he says. “I don’t think you can solve your problems by ignoring them. Now let’s get back to housing.”
But Orlando is Tea Party country. Now, a feisty white-haired man wants to talk about taxes, specifically the expiration of Bush-era tax cuts for people earning more than $250,000. He sounds angry. “Explain to me how you’re going to create jobs by taxing small business owners. They’re not going to hire people if their taxes are raised,” the man says.
“I don’t want to talk about taxes tonight,” the Congressman replies, then offers a rejoinder. He himself co-owned a small business, IDT, a discount telecommunications provid er, in the 1990s. “And I can tell you that we did not make our decisions about whether to hire people based upon what the tax rate was. We made our decisions about whether to hire people based upon whether we could make a profit on their work.”
“Well, they’re not hiring today, why is that?” the man retorts.
“They’re not hiring today because they can’t make money on the people whom they hire,” Grayson says sternly. “If they’ve got no customers, and nobody’s buying anything, then they’re not going to hire. Look at homebuilders, for instance. Homebuilders aren’t hiring today because they can’t build a house they can sell. But again I appreciate your question,” he tells the man, almost sweetly. “I’m giving what I think is a very honest answer, which you may not have heard from other people.”
People such as Ric Keller, the conservative Christian, pro-Iraq War, anti-tax Republican whom Grayson—a Bronx native, Harvard-trained lawyer, and liberal Democrat running in a GOP-majority district—beat by four points in November 2008. In that race, Keller suffered from his Bush ties, a marital infidelity scandal, and the Cheeseburger Bill, which aimed to shield fast food chains from lawsuits. That bill left Keller open to charges he’d become a corporate lackey in exchange for large sums of PAC money.
The tough-talking New Yorker possessed major federal watchdog credentials that trumped any Keller might have had. In 2006, Grayson won a whistle-blower case against Custer Battles, a security firm found guilty of bilking $10 million from the U.S. occupation authority in Iraq. Orlando news coverage of the case gave him local celebrity; he capitalized on it with a series of campaign ads casting himself as a crusader against corrupt war profiteers, the likes of whom were endangering our troops by selling useless body armor and parachutes that wouldn’t open.
Grayson expects a difficult reelection battle. District 8 now has roughly the same number of likely Republican and Democratic voters, but many Dems tend not to vote in midterm elections. Grayson is sure that his (as yet undetermined) GOP challenger will benefit from big investments of PAC money by Wall Street banks and other corporate entities gunning for a whistle-blowing Democrat from central Florida.
Whether he survives will depend on how much enthusiasm he can build for his brand of Democratic populism, a unique blend of egalitarianism, policy-wonkism, and political theater. Last year, one of the bills he authored would require paid vacations for anyone working at a company with more than 100 employees. Another called for prohibiting “unreasonable and excessive compensation” for executives of companies receiving federal funds under the 2008 Emergency Economic Stabilization Act. He also introduced a resolution urging all high schools to teach the U.S. Constitution.
This past January, anticipating the Supreme Court decision overturning campaign finance restrictions, he introduced six bills. Among them was the Corporate Propaganda Sunshine Act, which would force publicly traded companies to notify the Securities and Exchange Commission of expenditures totaling more than $1,000 “for the purpose of influencing public opinion on any matter other than the promotion of the issuers’ products or services.” His End Political Kickbacks Act would prohibit federal government contractors from making campaign contributions, bar their employees from making more than $1,000 in political donations per year, and outlaw the solicitation of political donations from federal contractors. The Business Should Mind Its Own Business Act would impose a 500 percent tax on corporate contributions to political campaigns.
And on this night at Sea World he’s emphasizing his collaboration with Texas Republican Ron Paul on a bill that would force a Congressional audit of the Federal Reserve’s $2 trillion balance sheet.
“The Federal Reserve completely changed the way they did business two years ago and started handing out money to their favorites, which are always people on Wall Street, always the big banks, never the community banks,” he says. “If we subsidize the big bad banks that failed this country and brought us to the brink of national bankruptcy, it’s going to happen over and over and over again.”
After some banter on the virtues and evils of dollar devaluation and zero-down mortgages, Grayson wraps up the show.
“Um, if you want to put in a good word for me with your neighbors for November this year, I would really appreciate it,” he says. “I won by only 4 percent in 2008, and I’d kind of like to keep the job.”
As Grayson stands by the conference hall door, merrily greeting exiting homeowners, an old man hobbles by and says: “You guys are bankrupting us.”
Then the man who tangled with Grayson over taxes and small businesses asks: “Can we expect increased civility from you on the House floor from now on?”
Grayson’s smile fades. “Why do you say that? What have I done that was uncivil?” he asks, sounding hurt. Like saying the Republican health care plan is “to die early,” the man replies.
“You’re misquoting me,” Grayson says, explaining it was “Don’t get sick but if you do, die quickly,” and that it was tongue-in-cheek.
“Well, you’ve been known for some outspoken things,” the constituent continues.
“Outspoken, yes. Uncivil, no,” Grayson insists. They end up thanking each other for coming.
But most aren’t angry at the Congressman. One retiree is fired up about the New York attorney general’s securities fraud charges against Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis and wants more indictments. “They’re people mishandling our money, and lying. It’s outrageous,” he declares.
“Right. Nobody’s been held accountable,” Grayson replies. “That is a deep, deep problem, and I’ve made that point over and over in our hearings.” He suggests a YouTube clip. “It’s me grilling the head of Citibank, Vikram Pandit—Pandit the Bandit—for getting this absurd, ridiculous, deal from the Federal Reserve where the Federal Reserve picked up $230 billion worth of bad mortgages from Citibank in exchange for nothing. Literally, nothing!”
Another man is upset about the Supreme Court’s campaign finance decision and wonders what can be done. Grayson asks him to sign a petition at savedemocracy.net in support of six bills he’s introduced to counteract the ruling.
“We’re giving people information all the time about what’s going on and what we’re doing to fight back,” Grayson says.
“Is it possible?” the man asks, sounding doubtful.
“Yes,” Grayson replies swiftly. “No question about it.”
Finally, the Congressman’s black boots propel him to his assistant’s red Prius and he rides off into the night across Sea World’s vast, abandoned parking lot. He’s headed home to see his wife, play with his five kids, and perchance muse on his next YouTube-able bombshell from the House floor.