Newly elected U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham and about 30 Tallahassee-area constituents held a get-to-know-you meeting Saturday, although many in the group had volunteered for the Graham campaign. However, after her first votes as a member of Congress, many wanted to ask the congresswoman what exactly was she doing.
“We knew her one way when she was campaigning and now we’re getting down to where the rubber meets the road – how she votes on issues,” said Barbara DeVane, who organized Saturday’s closed-door session.
Graham upset two-term GOP U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland by promising to use compromise as a tool to break congressional gridlock. When she sided with Republicans on votes concerning health care and financial reforms as well as the Keystone Pipeline it ignited alarm and protests in Tallahassee’s more liberal circles.
“Gwen is very bright, very personable but she is young and she never held office before and it will take time for her to get seasoned to the reality of things like reaching across the aisle,” said DeVane.
DeVane started teaching social sciences in Live Oak in 1964, came to Tallahassee to teach middle school in the 1970s, and now her classroom is the streets; she advocates for retirees and women, children, and working people.
She dogged U.S. Rep. Southerland across the 14-county district during his four years of service, organizing protests at his appearances and district offices and once was chided by Southerland for use of foul language. Some of the folks who joined her at those events were among the cadre of volunteers Graham deployed in Tallahassee during the campaign’s final weeks to knock on doors and call people for votes.
Graham’s victory placed Tallahassee progressives in unfamiliar territory; they experienced the thrill of victory. Before Tea Partier Southerland they were represented by yellow-dog Democrat Allan Boyd, war-hero moderate Pete Peterson and conservative banker Bill Grant, who was elected as a Democrat, then flipped to the GOP in 1989. Their delegation to the statehouse has not been relevant to policy making for a generation.
The Graham votes that surprised and disappointed the group were on some of the more controversial issues on the congressional agenda; health care, Wall Street, and the environment. The specific votes carried a lot of symbolism for both the congresswoman and her critics.
Graham placed her marker as an independent problem-solver but the harsh criticism that erupted reveals the complicated dance she and her liberal base are engaged in.
Take that Keystone Pipeline vote. On issues that affect neither their constituents’ wallets nor conscience, lawmakers are usually free to use their votes for whatever purpose. Keystone isn’t one of those for reasons other than energy, jobs, or the environment.
Tallahasseans are Obama Democrats. Leon County supported the president by more than 60 percent in both elections.
Three separate people on three consecutive days talking about Graham’s Keystone vote quickly jumped ahead and asked, “Where will she be when Obama vetoes it?”
In other words, “Did we elect Bill Grant?”
“She was very hurt by her staunch supporters that we are, who worked so hard to get her into Congress would be so disappointed,” DeVane said after Saturday’s two-hour get together over burritos.
Herb Shelton’s pickup truck is a billboard of bumper stickers supporting the traditional liberal Democrat position on health care, the environment, jobs, and Rick Scott. He was the first to arrive for Saturday’s meeting, stamping his feet against the 40-degree chill while waiting for the party’s headquarters to open.
“You can’t argue with someone who voted their conscious,” he said while waiting for Graham’s explanation. “Now, that conscious just might need a little schooling but you can’t damn a person for voting their conscious.”
When Graham showed up she indicated she was aware of the challenge before her and when discussing how she intended to face it – the meeting was closed – pointed to a Florida Squeeze commentary which outlines how she appears to be walking a fine ideological line stretching from liberal Tallahassee to the eastern and western borders of the 14-county district.
Shelton said he accepted Graham’s explanation and he and DeVane indicated that the schooling has commenced.
“Gwen got to know what our burning issues are. She got to know how we felt about it,” said DeVane. “This is what I told everybody, ‘it is our responsibility to get down into the specifics, get down into the weeds on our particular concerns and issues with her.’ She asked us to stay in touch and she left the meeting with no doubt in her mind that we will.”