TALLAHASSEE — Gwen Graham's glass is half full.
The former congresswoman's optimism might seem hard to believe to those who don't know the Tallahassee Democrat, who lost a crowded gubernatorial primary to Andrew Gillum in August and then watched Republican Ron DeSantis win the general election.
The former congresswoman spent much of her childhood in the public eye as the daughter of Bob Graham, a former Florida governor and U.S. senator.
But the gubernatorial primary, which she lost by 3.1 percentage points to Gillum, cast a spotlight on the younger Graham and not her iconic father, whom she holds out as the paragon of what she and other politicians should aspire to be.
In a wide-ranging and frank, four-hour interview with The News Service of Florida, Gwen Graham, bespectacled in clear, hipster frames, reflected on her primary loss — "It's painful" — and her new role as a member of the board of Ruth's List, an organization that backs Democratic female candidates in Florida.
Her position on Ruth's List board will allow Graham to keep close contact with major Democratic contributors, remain active in Florida politics and use her experience to recruit and mentor other women.
At a Cuban restaurant where they know her by name, Graham, 55, showed her playful side by vogueing in a friend's faux fur coat between frequent refills of sweet tea.
The interview ended as a "turning 40" birthday party began. A petite woman approached and threw her arms around the neck of the 5-foot-10-inch Graham.
"I'm so sorry," she said, as Graham — who freely admits to being a "hugger" — stooped down and embraced the stranger.
The News Service of Florida has five questions for Gwen Graham:
Q: Tell us about your new role at Ruth's List and why that's important to you.
GRAHAM: I never thought I was going to run for office. It was never a life plan of mine. It wasn't until 2013 when I realized what I love to do, and what I know I'm passionate about, is to help people, to make a difference in people's lives, where you can. I'd seen through the years my father and his ability to help people and his connection with people. So, out of the blue, I decided to run for Congress. I realized right off the bat the challenges that women have to put themselves forward to run for office. Ruth's List was a group that remains, to this day, devoted to helping women run for office. … It wasn't until I had my first financial report, and I had raised quite a bit of money, and it's a shame, it shouldn't be that if you can raise money, you're a viable candidate, but in today's world, that's what people look for.
(What do women bring to politics that's different from men?)
I think sometimes too much of running is putting somebody up on a pedestal, making them a celebrity, or whatever. No. No. We're all human beings and all valued for different reasons. How does someone who's running for office use that opportunity to be there for someone? … From my own personal experience, my ability to sit down with people that disagree with me and actually have a cogent conversation about what needs to be done, where we disagree, where we can find agreement, those conversations need to be going on every single day here in the state capital, in Washington, D.C., anywhere where decisions are being made. Because it's a whole lot better to get 80 percent of what you want than nothing. I saw it in Congress, that women across party lines could talk to one another, and there was a collegiality that was present between Republican and Democrats in Congress, women. We need to build on that.
Q: Is it painful for this to be the "year of the woman" and to have lost?
GRAHAM: Any time you face a loss, it's a sadness. But I am a glass half-full, silver-lining person. I can always find the silver lining. I'm looking forward to learning. You learn from your experiences in life, and then seeing what the future holds. … I am so proud of the campaign we ran. If you had asked me five years ago if I would be running for governor, this was not a life plan for me. But I do know that the campaign we ran, the people that I've met all across the state of Florida, it's a wonderful opportunity to be able to be a voice for what I believe in — which is what elected office is about, hopefully, bringing together people who care about the state of Florida and want to make a difference for the state of Florida. That's why I ran. I realized this. I did not run for the title. I ran because I recognized what a difference you could make as governor, in helping in a significant way across the state. That's why I was so excited about the people I was meeting on the campaign and the wonderful ideas I was considering for how to make a difference for Florida. And on Aug. 28, I immediately turned my focus to making sure Andrew Gillum was elected. … I always thought we were going to win. When I realized we weren't — I had two speeches, concession and victory, ready to go — I turned to my team and I said, I'm not going to do that. I'm going to get up and I'm going to speak from the heart. I'm going to talk about what we need to do now, which is come together behind Andrew and make sure we get him elected as governor, because it's so important for Florida. It's not about the person running for office. It's about what they represent and have an opportunity to do when you're in office. I ran because I believed I would win. I had confidence in our ability to win in November. I do think that the primary, if you want to dissect it, Jeff Green getting into the primary and dumping millions of dollars in negative ads against me, and Philip Levine, those negative ads had an impact. It was very close, at the end of the day. … So, it was the negative ads. You have to look at every different factor, but I was really the only one who had significant negatives. … It was out of our control. I have people come up to me all the time, saying thank you. Thank you for staying above the fray. Thank you for not being negative. That's not who and what I am. I'm a positive person who believes you run for office because you have positive ideas about the way you can make a difference.
Q: What's next for you?
GRAHAM: I don't think anything is off the table. But I'm going to take my time and use this time wisely.
(Are you thinking about running for governor again?)
It would have been a real opportunity for the state. And it really is hard. … Nov. 6 was not a good day for the state of Florida. It was not a good day.
Q: What are your thoughts about how some critics blamed you for being too collegial with Republicans while you were in Congress?
GRAHAM: I think that that is really a shame. Because governing is about getting things done. It's a shame. I understand the intensity of feelings about political positions. I get it. I am extremely passionate about public education. I am extremely passionate about our environment. I am extremely passionate about many of the issues that those on the far left of the Democratic Party are passionate about. But I also know that governing means that you have to talk to those who disagree with you. You have to. You have to be able to sit in a room and have a conversation with people who disagree with you. If you build a friendship, and you build relationships — and I'm not saying you agree, I'm not saying you lose your value system — but you find where you can reach agreement so you can get something done, because something done is going to move our country and move our state forward. Right now, what we've got, and it's so sad to me, and I just keep going back to Richard Corcoran's (expected) selection as commissioner of education. It's very painful for me. It's not personal. I know Richard Corcoran. I believe that he ideologically 100 percent believes in what he believes in. I just happen to believe he's wrong. Of all that's happened since Nov. 6 that's been difficult for me, it's been that selection.
Q: What do Democrats have to do to regain power? What should you all have learned from the 2018 gubernatorial election?
GRAHAM: It's painful that we didn't win the governor's race. Let's be honest. It's painful. … I'd like to do an analysis on the data. Let's be honest with ourselves. Whether you're a far-left Democrat, a moderate Democrat, a conservative, whatever, we're Democrats. In my opinion, the decisions we would make, no matter where you are on that spectrum, are going to be better for the state of Florida than what Ron DeSantis is going to be doing. We all have to realize that we've got to support one another. I got criticized for being somebody who was willing to put aside political labels and work together. I think we've got to do that. … I think the Democratic Party really needs to do some soul-searching on how do we make sure that we're putting those candidates forward that can't just win in August, but can win in November. How do we elect a candidate that can win in November? My approach, I do think, is one that people appreciated at the end of the day. They felt positive about our campaign. Hindsight is clarity that you don't have when you're going through it.