Alan Grayson on ‘sewer money negative ads’ and why Democrats poorly defended ‘Obamacare’

October 25, 2012

Former Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) (AP)

ORLANDO — Former Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) appears poised to win a second chance at serving in Congress. And after speaking with him for about 20 minutes, it’s clear that he’s eager to get back to fighting with Republicans.

2chambers spoke with Grayson before arriving in Florida — about why he thinks he lost his House seat in 2010, how he thinks he can help turn around negative perceptions of Congress and why he believes Democrats have poorly defended the 2010 health-care reform law.


Our interview, edited for clarity and length, appears below:

2chambers: Why the heck do you want to come back to Washington?

Grayson: Because we did a lot of good when I was in and I don’t see anyone else trying to do that right now. Among other things, we cut foreclosures in Orange County by half, by instituting a mandatory mediation program. We found a way to pass the Travel Promotion Act, which had been languishing for six years before we found a way to get it through the House. We doubled the amount of grant money coming into my district in the first year. We had a big impact and we did a lot of help for a lot of people.

Looking at the situation right now, seeing who would be in the job if I’m not, I think we’d be doing a lot of good again.

2chambers: What in your estimation went wrong in 2010? Why did you lose?

Grayson: I was hit by more sewer money negative ads from special interests than anybody in the entire country in history. Nobody before me who was a House candidate, or an incumbent had ever had $5.5 million of nasty, horrible, defamatory ads run against him before. I was a guinea pig for what the other side could get away with after the Citizens United decision.

2chambers: So you didn’t do anything to cause your loss?

Grayson: Well, I know, if you’re talking to somebody who gets mugged, they’d say, I guess I shouldn’t have been walking down that street that day? I don’t buy into that logic.

Look, the circumstances were this. I was the first Democrat to represent downtown Orlando in 34 years. They thought that that represented an easy target for them. They were utterly unscrupulous about it and they got their seat back.

As I said in my blog posting at Daily Kos, sometimes nothing works. It doesn’t matter what you do. This certainly nothing that you could have done that would have resulted in a victory that year.

Nationwide, there was a 17-point swing against the Democrats between 2008 and 2010. In Florida, there was a 24-point swing. If you look at the 25 Congressional districts in Florida, and you average out the election results of 2008 and the results for 2010, Democrats dropped by 24 points. Let’s face it: Those are challenging circumstances. In my district, if I had won every single Democratic vote and every single independent vote, I still would have lost.

2chambers: How do you think Democrats have weathered the criticisms of health-care reform since its passage?

Grayson: Poorly, because Republicans have been effective at putting people on the defensive on the Democratic side in way that they don’t deserve to be. Starting with Sarah Palin’s tweets about death panels.

I’ve tried to change that – there are a lot of good things in there, that’s why we passed it. Republicans unfortunately have imagined things that are not in the bill and quite effectively put Democrats on the defensive.

2chambers: So how would you suggest that Democrats should defend the law?

Grayson: I think that it’s clear from the polls that the Republicans and the right wing have effectively conned most of America that this bill is bad for them, when in fact it’s not. Any objective observer would look at this and say that anyone — seniors, the insured, the uninsured — huge numbers of Americans have benefited from this bill. Sometimes narrow majorities say they like the bill, more often, narrow majorities say they don’t like the bill.

This bill provides coverage to 40 million Americans who don’t have it. The bill eliminates the doughnut hole for seniors, eliminates the ability of insurance companies to pull the plug on you when costs get expensive. It eliminates their ability to limit coverage or care based on preexisting conditions. I think if most people were to look at it and say does this bill help me, the vast majority would say that it helps them.

The reason why the health insurance companies took the trouble to spend $2 million to defeat me last time is because I introduced a four-page bill that would allow anybody to buy into Medicare at cost. And I got 82 co-sponsors in four weeks. And that threw the insurance companies into a tizzy.

So if you really think that I was defeated because I was outspoken, that shows a naivete in a political system that I find ridiculous. They spent that money against me because I wanted to have an effective public option and I made a lot of progress towards doing it.

2chambers: Why would you want to return to such an unpopular or unproductive institution?

Grayson: I don’t believe that. They’re not polling me – I got tons of things done. There are thousands and thousands of people here who are in their homes today because of our work. The unemployment rate went below the statewide level for the first time in years because of the money I brought back.

Not only did I affect the health-care debate, but also passed the first bill in a century that would have audited the Fed. Now, that bill is a bill that had been languishing for 26 years. Ron Paul introduced it, it had never had a hearing, much less passed by anyone anywhere and I took the bill and got 120 Democratic co-sponsors for that bill, and we had 300 cosponsors and we got it passed.

My Pay for Performance Act passed the House in nine days. It prohibited Wall Street from using bailout money to pay for bonuses. I think that under the same circumstances, if the Republicans had been in charge, I think it would have passed if the Republicans had been in charge. I don’t think Republicans wanted to see Wall Street stuff their pockets either.

The way that people, especially candidates for Congress, whine about how they can’t get things done in Washington, says more about them than about Washington. You can do a lot of good: You just have to concentrate, you have to work hard, you have to get things done, you have to keep your eye on the ball.

2chambers: You were credited with being one of the first candidates and lawmakers who really embraced YouTube and social media. What do you make of where it’s gone in the last three years?

Grayson: We still do – our YouTube channel now has more views than any current member of Congress. I don’t think it has emerged yet, I think that most members are completely unfamiliar with it.

I think that right now it’s an excellent way to reach a certain element of the electorate and that element will expand over time. Thanks to YouTube, we have the most-watched congressional video in history: My examination of Elizabeth Coleman, the inspector general of the Federal Reserve. I asked Elizabeth Coleman, the Federal Reserve has extended its balance sheet for more than $1 billion in the last 18 months, who got the money? She’s the inspector general and she couldn’t answer the question. This is a way to bring government unfiltered before the eyes of the public, something that hasn’t been possible since the days of the Lincoln-Douglas debate.

2chambers: How are you using social media in your current campaign?

Grayson: We continue to post and draw a large audience for my TV appearances. We put our ads up, our TV and radio ads up, on YouTube and encourage people to view them. We have put YouTube clips up and asked our donors if they’d like to see more of the same, then contribute. We did a money bomb the day before yesterday that raised $100,000 for our campaign, which is more than my opponent has raised during his two years running.

Without using expensive TV time, it’s a way to get the message out, it’s a way to mobilize supporters and establish positions on issues in a clear and dramatic way.

2chambers: Your opponent, Todd Long, says you’re not spending time in or living in the district. Is that true?

Grayson: Oh my goodness, the man has run for Congress three times and he doesn’t even live in the district. 

In my case, they took my old district and divided it in half. My district was so large, it had almost 1 million people and the adjoining district had almost 1 million that they cut my old district east and west. The west part is the Republican side, the east part is the Democratic side and it should be no surprise.

I’ve owned a house in the district for 16 years, we lived within the current boundaries of the district for 10 years and the fact that Republicans in Tallahassee decided to separate me from my own voters should be no surprise. They tried to get me to run against Val Demings by putting me in the same district as her, I’m not going to fall for that.

Why don’t you ask him about his divorce?

2chambers: Why should I do that?

Grayson: Because there’s testimony that says that he gave her $300 to live on last year. That when the dog bit his daughter’s face he refused to pay for medical bills. That she had to sell her wedding ring to pay for the bills. And that during that specific time last year, in March,  he went on a vacation with to Colombia with a woman she describes as “a woman in a bikini in big boobs” and spent $6,000 in the same month that he gave $300 to his wife and kids to live on.

And he also testified twice under oath – this fiscal champion – that it would take a miracle for him to avoid bankruptcy. I guess he wants to do for the country what he’s done for himself.

[Editor's Note: When asked for comment, Long denied that he ever filed for bankruptcy or faced the prospect of bankruptcy. "I’ve been paying my child support, I’ve been current with my child support, I’ve always paid my child support," Long added. "I can’t stop the man from lying about this and other stuff. That’s just the way he is.”]

2chambers: But why go there — why bring that up if he isn’t mounting a serious campaign, as you suggest?

Grayson: I’m just trying to tell the truth. We’re going to win – I’m up by 14.5 points. I think he’s a weasel, and I don’t like that. I’d love to be able to spend this entire campaign focused on the issues.

2chambers: But tone and words you just used there is what I’m getting at – it contributes to the disaffection people have for Congress.

Grayson: People’s disaffection with Congress comes ffrom the fact that Congress isn’t doing anything for them.

2chambers: You’ve had varying careers and experiences before Congress, but the one I’m most interested in is that you worked with both Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals before they joined the Supreme Court. What’s the biggest misconception of them?

Grayson: My view of them, having worked with both of them, is not really different than views of people who observe them outside the Court. Justice Ginsburg shows a great deal of respect for precedent. If you want to have a reasoned discourse with her, then the way to do that is to discuss specific precedents. She’s objective, neutral and she’s free to reach the right decision based on the law. I think of the 11 judges who were in the court when I was there, in terms of being that way, in terms of being neutral and fair, she was at the top of the list in almost everyone’s eyes.

In the case of Justice Scalia, I don’t think the same thing. The opinions of people who’ve watched him over the years is that if you want to know which way Judge Scalia is going to rule is to look at [the names on the case file.]

Clerks are expected not to disclose inside information about the court. That applies to everybody who works for them, and it’s an understandable rule, but I’m telling you things about people who have observed them through the years.

2chambers: To this day I believe you’re the only lawyer to ever successfully win a case of contractor fraud related to the Iraq war. Do you think this is a dead issue in Washington or are there cases that still need to be prosecuted?

Grayson: I think there definitely needs to be a continuing push. I introduced two amendments regarding military contracting that passed the House that were meant to ameliorate that problem. One required the military to consider the cost for at least 50 percent of their valuation scheme when they’re doing contracts.

The other said that if you are going to give a contract to someone who isn’t the lowest bidder, you need to have approval from high up. You can do it, but we don’t want to run the risk that some GS-5 is going to toss a contract to somebody who is not the low bidder for reasons that nobody would consider to be appropriate.

Those are amendments that I think were constructive and they represent an extension of my efforts over a quarter century regarding my work on government contracting.

With regards to Iraq, obviously the work is not finished. Most of the cases are still under seal, but some have been pending for almost 10 years. The Justice Department continues to work slowly on these cases and the deterrent effect is often lost. Even when the defendant is guilty, the Justice Department won’t ask for anything simply beyond asking them to pay the money back, rather than punishing or deterring.

Share your thoughts — and travel tips — in the comments section below. Also follow the #5in5 trip on Twitter (@edatpost), Instagram (@edatpost) and Facebook (facebook.com/edokeefe).

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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