Back in Buckhorn's town, Graham campaigns openly for governor
It’s a long road to the 2018 Florida governor’s race, but U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, D-Tallahassee, was on that road Friday morning, packing a roomful of civic leaders in South Tampa.
And it just happened to be in the hometown of a potential Democratic primary competitor, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.
“I don’t do coy,” Graham told the Café Con Tampa gathering, making it clear she’s running unless something comes up to change her mind.
But she did get a bit evasive when asked about a primary against Buckhorn. He’s made it clear he’s interested in the race but hasn’t gone as far as Graham in stating his intentions.
“The people of Tampa are very invested in learning about the potential candidates and are civically engaged, which I applaud,” she said of a potential primary and the enthusiastic, mostly Democratic crowd.
Graham, a moderate, business-oriented Democrat who boasts about her ability to win Republican votes and work with Republicans in the House, sits squarely on the same ideological turf as Buckhorn. But as the daughter of the iconic former governor and senator Bob Graham, she has a built-in statewide political base he lacks.
She decided not to run for re-election when redistricting made her already GOP-leaning North Florida district even more Republican.
To some extent, Graham is breaking political protocol by campaigning openly for governor while the 2016 presidential race is still underway.
Responding to a question from the crowd about the difficulty Democrats have in winning statewide races in low-turnout, mid-term elections – which has resulted in Republican Florida governors since 1998 -- she said it’s necessary to start campaigning now.
“I don’t want to look like I’m putting the cart before the horse,” she said, but years of Republican dominance of state government have harmed education and the environment.
“Since I made a decision not to run for re-election for Congress, I have been very straightforward about my thoughts and what I would like to be able to do in the future,” she said in an interview. “Everyone’s focus is absolutely on the 2016 election, (but) there is also a lot of interest in who’s going to be the next governor of Florida because Floridians see the negative impact” of one-party government.
Graham pleased the crowd with pro-transit answers to questions on transportation, and by bashing Scott on that subject and the environment, particularly the state response to a massive sinkhole in a gypsum stack at a Mosaic phosphate mine.
But she didn’t go as far as many Democrats want in response to a question from Yvette Lewis of the Tampa NAACP on a subject important to Democrats and blacks, restoration of voting rights for former felons.
Lewis said restoration should be automatic after sentences end and restitution is paid. But Graham would say only that the state needs “a process” for restoration, and that state officials should actively work on applications so significant numbers can get their rights restored, which isn’t happening now.
“Unfortunately, those that have applied are not seeing much movement,” she said.
Café Con Tampa organizer Bill Carlson said the crowd for Graham was unusually large, some 50 people, but so was a gathering a few weeks ago with likely Republican 2018 contender, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.