By Reggie Connell/Managing Editor of The Apopka Voice
Gwen Graham sits awkwardly on the cement floor of an unfinished house in South Apopka. Habitat for Humanity has a custom that volunteers sign some part of the house they work on, and Graham wants to nail it, so instead of just signing her name, she writes a message. Despite running out of ink with two sharpies, she finishes the job with a contractor’s pencil.
“May your new home bring you much joy and peace and good health and happiness.”
Never mind that there were reporters and cameras present to watch Graham struggle with the pens or the optics of sitting on a bare living room slab or even that carpet will eventually cover her well-crafted words. This was about message and substance over visuals and perception.
A creed the Graham campaign seems to live by.
In a word, Graham is real. That may seem like a strange way to begin a feature on a candidate running for the Governor of Florida, but it describes her well. And in a time in politics when candidates take polls to decide which color tie to wear, real is unusual.
Real is unreal.
Graham spent the day in South Apopka Friday volunteering at the Arbor Bend housing development, which is a 34-home community built by Habitat for Humanity of Greater Orlando. It is combined with Juniper Bend, a 24-home community across the street from Arbor to bring affordable housing to South Apopka, which is critical to this struggling neighborhood. Throughout Florida, affordable housing is a concern, and it is the primary reason Graham chose the Habitat project.
“If more of the politicians in Tallahassee spent a day working to construct affordable housing, they’d see just how much more we could accomplish working together on progressive solutions to help Florida families,” Graham said in a news release after the event. “They’d quit stealing from the trust fund and invest in Florida. The affordable housing trust funds belong to the people of Florida who fund it with their tax dollars. As governor, I will respect every dollar the state spends and use them to support families, not special interests. I will veto any raids of the Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust Fund and work with the legislature to invest in affordable housing for Florida families.”
Graham, despite running in a heated contest for the Democratic Party’s Gubernatorial nomination against three other opponents, takes time away from a traditional campaign schedule to work or volunteer at ordinary jobs for businesses or non-profits in Florida. She calls them “workdays”. This was her 56th since serving a two-year term in Congress which ended in 2016.
“You learn so much on these workdays,” Graham said. “But when I made the decision to run for office, I was advised not to do them because they were so closely associated with my father.”
Her father is former Florida Governor and US Senator Bob Graham, an iconic figure in Florida and perhaps the most successful and popular politician in the state’s history. Graham totaled 408 workdays during his campaigns and time in office, and never lost an election.
“I watched my father and I recognize through his public service and his doing workdays not only about the specific job… like caulking skills, installing hurricane protectors strips, those kinds of things, I’ve gotten really good with the nail gun… that you gain an even better understanding of how to work together to make the decisions that are positive for people’s lives.”
Although it’s not her house and I’m a reporter, Graham treats me like a guest in her home upon my arrival. Despite my protests as an ethical and objective journalist, she gives me a hug and invites me inside.
“So tell me about yourself,” Graham said to begin the conversation… once again breaking the norms of an interview, but after settling into a more traditional reporter-candidate relationship, I found Graham to be plain spoken, but substantive. Laid back, but thorough. Warm, but focused on the issues. Passionate, but pragmatic about solutions.
“As governor, you’re in a position to make decisions that are going to be positive in people’s lives, and that’s why I’m running,” she said. “As governor I can be working every day, waking up and figuring out how we solve the issue of affordable housing… how do we make sure we’re supporting our schools? How do we make sure we’re protecting our environment? How do we get the infrastructure support and resources to improve it across the state of Florida? How do we have an economy where you can work one job and have enough income to not have to get a second job? I’m running because we’ve got to get our state government back focused not on the special interests, but on the people of Florida.”
On Graham’s campaign website, she lists economy, education, environment, and healthcare as her priorities. But in this interview, education was a recurring theme throughout Graham’s responses, and her focus is on Florida’s teachers and students.
“Public education is a passion of mine,” she said. “I was honored to be able to work in our public schools for many many years. I understand how hard our teachers are working, and they’re doing it because they love our kids and want to make a positive difference in their lives. But they’re being asked to do so much more, and under so much more pressure and with so few resources. We’ve got to end this teaching to the test culture that’s taken over our schools where teachers who just want to teach are being forced to teach to these tests that are not providing them with the information that they need to have for their kid’s education. Our education system has become an industry in Tallahassee where people are making money for the testing cultures and the for-profit charter schools. When I’m governor, I’m going to get the focus back on how to make a positive difference in people’s lives and education is number one.
According to a study published in USA Today on May 16th that compares the education budgets of all 50 states, Florida is 42nd in teacher salaries ($48,134), 40th in per pupil expenditures ($9,737 per student), and 42nd in graduation rates (77.9%). Graham has vowed to change those numbers, but where will she find the money to accomplish this?
“Remember the promise of lottery dollars? That lottery dollars were going to be added to education? I call it the lottery shell game. We are going to start doing what the people of Florida want us to do, as in fully funding education, adding money to our public education system through the lottery dollars.”
Despite her casual approach, Graham is a competitor. In 2014, during what could be described as a wave election for Republicans, and in a section of Florida that can also be described as a reliably Republican region, Graham was one of only two Democrats in the nation to defeat a Republican incumbent. Graham defeated self-proclaimed Tea Party candidate Steve Southerland with 51% of the vote in the Florida 2nd District that Southerland won in 2012 with 53% of the vote.
How did she do it? Graham says it was people skills, interpersonal relationships, and honesty.
“I’m a people person. You’ve probably determined that already. This is how I am. This is who and what I am. I am passionate about making a difference in people’s lives. I’m passionate about building those connections and those friendships and relationships, and people know that. I am a person of my word, and I’m a person that does what I say I’m going to do.”
There is no candidate in history that does not include honesty, and ‘doing what they say they are going to do’ as part of their core beliefs. But with Graham, there is an authenticity to those words that makes her believable.
“One of the disappointments I face, even though it makes me feel good, but it’s a disappointment that you have people say, ‘you know you actually do what you say you’re going to do.’ People are surprised by that because they have candidates who run for office and they say all these things and then they don’t actually do what they say when they get to the office. You’re never going to get that with me. My word is what I’m committed to doing for the people of Florida and so when I campaigned in 2014 in a very conservative North Florida Republican congressional seat, people knew that about me. They could sense that. They could feel that and when I served in Congress I did what I said I was going to do. So that has been a wonderful opportunity for people to have trust again and people running for office to have the ability to rebuild what I think has been lost. There’s a lot of cynicism for our public officials today and I am disappointed in that because when you’re running for office and serving in office you’re there to serve the people that gave you the right to be there. You’re working hard every day for their benefit.”
While in Congress, Graham was ranked as the ninth most bipartisan member of the U.S. House of Representatives during the 114th United States Congress (and the second most bipartisan member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Florida) in the Bipartisan Index created by The Lugar Center and the McCourt School of Public Policy.
She was seen as a consensus-building, bi-partisan, moderate, which is a valuable reputation to have if you are negotiating policy, pursuing practical legislation, or governing. But in the political climate of 2018, coming off the heels of one of the most contentious election cycles in American history, is consensus-building, bi-partisan moderation going to be a winner on the campaign trail?
It is Graham’s contention that voters have had enough of negative, combative, and insulting political campaigns.
“Our politics have become too divisive,” she said. “Far too negative. Far too ideologically driven and that’s hurting the people of Florida. It’s hurting the state in general.
Graham relishes the thought of working with a range of opinions to forward ideas and is in strong support of a tactic whose time seems to have come and gone – compromise.
“One of the things I love doing is working with people who disagree with me. Because one of the things you have to do in order to get policies implemented and not just fighting about it is to get as much buy-in as possible. Get people around the table who come with many points of view and figure out how to walk out of that room with the best solution. Compromise is a good word. It’s something that we need to bring back and fight for finding those solutions that through compromise are going to help the people of Florida.”
Midway through the discussion, Catherine Steck McManus, the president, and CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Orlando walks into the house. Graham seeks her out and hugs her.
“This is the other great part of the workdays,” Graham says. Meeting peopled like Catherine. She and I have been talking some about not only the challenges of affordable housing but so much that’s going on that’s making life challenging for the people of Florida. She’s someone that I’ll go back to when I’m governor to have a better understanding of affordable housing.”
McManus was also pleased to see Graham and surprised at the time commitment she took at the Habitat project.
“It’s not every day that you have a candidate for governor ask to help on a construction project,” McManus said in a statement after the event. “We’re not just building houses — we’re building homes. A Florida family who may be living in substandard housing today will soon call this community home. The stability they’ll receive from a new home will help them gain greater work opportunities, help their children in school, and help their entire family succeed. Gwen is seeing those benefits firsthand today — and we hope she’ll use the lessons learned with Habitat for Humanity of Greater Orlando to help families across our state.”
Graham seems to be implementing those lessons even while still on the site.
“Who can live on $8.25 an hour? Graham asks rhetorically. “We need to raise the minimum wage so people can actually make a paycheck that allows them to make ends meet. Almost 50% of working Floridians are one paycheck away from financial distress. We should all want someone to be able to get the healthcare they need, pay their bills, not to worry ‘should I pay my rent or pay for my food?’ I was talking to Catherine earlier. She works with people who are applying to get into these homes and she said that some of them can’t pay the combined costs of utility bills, food, and rent… so they’re making choices, and having to figure out which to pay. Think of the stress in your life if you have to determine how, with this paycheck, you are going to keep the lights on, feed your kids, and pay for your medicine? We can do better. We have to do better for people.”
Near the conclusion of our discussion, I told Graham I only had a couple more questions, and then she could get back to her nail gun.
“You can ask me as many questions as you like, I’m just going to drink a little water,” she said, picking up a bottle from the floor. “I’m not sure if this is mine, but it’s good.”
Graham’s Press Secretary Bettina Weiss asked if she wanted her to get a new bottle for Graham.
“No, this is good. I don’t care.”
Even with a bottle of water, it’s substance over optics.