WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, 6-foot-4 in a pink shirt and black cowboy boots, sighs as he reaches for his suit jacket. "You have to look out for the trackers," he says.
Armed with video cameras, trackers follow politically vulnerable lawmakers, hurling provocative questions and hoping for a juicy reaction.
"Rep. Alan Grayson assaults a cameraman," beckons one clip on the Internet.
Grayson decides to take the underground route to the Capitol, where 10 votes await on a Thursday afternoon, avoiding having to cross Independence Avenue and a potential run-in with a tracker.
Such is the hardball, YouTube existence of Florida's most intriguing figure in Washington. Pugnacious, partisan, smart and rich, the Orlando Democrat has been stirring the pot since taking office in January, most vividly when he took to the House floor this week and said the Republican health care plan amounted to "die quickly."
The rant would have been unusual for a lawmaker from even the most liberal congressional district. But Grayson, 51, represents a part of Florida that is divided politically — probably not the constituency that wants to hear the GOP is "knuckle-dragging Neanderthals" as he fumed on CNN Wednesday.
"The biggest argument against Alan Grayson is Alan Grayson," said Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, a Georgia Republican who has been helping vet potential challengers.
Already Grayson is one of the most targeted incumbents in the country, having defeated four-term Republican Ric Keller, and his re-election bid embodies the challenge Democrats face in holding control of Congress as the president's approval rating falls.
But a leading opponent has not yet emerged, and Grayson, the 12th-wealthiest member of Congress, has resources to defend himself. He spent $2 million of his own money on the 2008 campaign. (The "die quickly" speech has triggered $150,000 in contributions, his office says.) And his district has shifted from slightly Republican to slightly Democratic.
"It's no coincidence the National Republican Congressional Committee has named me as the No. 1 target next year," Grayson said. "We're working hard, getting things done."
Swagger courses through Grayson's every word, delivered in the accent of his Bronx upbringing and with the exacting nature of a lawyer who first made his name taking on — and taking down — contractors and war profiteers in Iraq.
"I don't need the job for income or satisfaction," said Grayson, sitting on a bench outside the House chamber in between votes. "The truth is, it's really a hardship. I took an enormous pay cut to take the job. Every week, I leave five young children and my wife to come up here.
"I don't owe anything to anyone here. I don't owe anything to lobbyists. I don't owe anything to leadership. The only thing I owe to anybody is the well-being of 800,000 people who depend on me."
So he unabashedly pursues money for his district, which stretches from Marion to Orange counties, bragging that he has increased "earmarks" by 500 percent in the past year. He brushes off heat he took for attempting to get $350,000 for a housing counseling service in Orlando run by a man with a dubious background. He scoffs at his ties to the controversial community organizing group ACORN.
This spring Grayson played tough with President Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi by holding up his vote for a global-warming bill until he was promised a $50 million hurricane research center that some in Central Florida say is wasteful, a brazen move for any lawmaker, let alone a rookie.
That self-assurance is best captured on the Financial Services Committee, where he has aggressively interrogated Federal Reserve officials and financial executives on federal bailouts and the economic morass.
In a memorable exchange, Grayson laughs at Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke as he tries to explain why the government would loan $500 billion to foreign banks.
The performances have made Grayson an Internet sensation, a champion for a public buried under credit card debt and foreclosures. "Alan Grayson. Wow," wrote a commenter on a YouTube video of him questioning Bernanke. "The only thing that would make this video better is if Grayson body-slammed Bernanke through a hardwood table."
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Grayson's life story has the makings of a Horatio Alger novel. He grew up in a cramped Bronx tenement, the asthma-inflicted son of public school educators. Sickness and death are common themes.
As a boy, a bully threw him under a moving bus but he pulled himself free just in time. In Sri Lanka in 1984, he sat under a 2,200-year-old tree, a sacred Buddhist site, where guerrillas later slaughtered 200 people. He used to wake up in the middle of the night covered in his own blood, for no apparent reason. He was nearly killed in a car accident.
You wonder if he's putting you on, but he does not flinch. "I seem to have nine lives," Grayson said. "I've given a lot of thought to what I wanted to do in life."
Grayson got into Harvard and to cover expenses worked as a night watchman and cleaned toilets. He finished in three years, "and pretty close to the top of my class." He went on to work as an economist but returned to Harvard for a law degree and master's in public policy. Took him four years. "And I was working at the time." Then, he said, he went on to work for some of the titans of the legal field — Ginsberg, Bork, Scalia.
In 1990, Grayson and a college friend rented space over a funeral home in the Bronx and founded IDT Corp., a telecommunications company. Grayson did not stay long but made a fortune and said he invested smartly in airlines and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Today he has a net worth of $31 million, according to financial disclosure forms, though he lost $34 million in a Ponzi investment scheme this year.
Grayson met his first wife at a Halloween party in Boulder in the early 1980s. He dressed as a Catholic priest (he's Jewish). He remarried in 1990 and he and his wife, Lolita, have five children under age 15, all with names beginning with 'S:' Skye, Star, Sage and twins Storm and Stone. They live not far from Disney World.
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Working full time as a lawyer until joining Congress, Grayson made a name filing whistleblower lawsuits on contractor fraud and war profiteering in Iraq. The cases, involving big names like Halliburton and Custer Battles, were met with resistance from the Bush administration. Grayson said he was subjected to gag orders and stalling tactics. His quest garnered national attention, including a profile in the Wall Street Journal, which said he was waging a "one-man crusade," and an extensive piece in Vanity Fair, where Grayson disclosed he liked to dress flamboyantly to hold a jury's attention.
The experience, Grayson said, stirred his interest in politics and his antiwar stand played prominently in two runs for Congress, including an unsuccessful bid in 2006.
"Nobody can say you volunteered to be disabled the rest of your life. Nobody can say you volunteered to die and leave behind your wife and children. It's wrong. It's colonialism," he said, starting to cry. Recently he was one of only a handful of Democrats, and the only from Florida, to vote against further funding of the war.
Routine questions elicit deeply philosophical responses. Asked where he got his political leanings, Grayson's answer ran eight minutes.
"There are now over 6 billion of us," he said. "When I buy something, I'm buying the fruits of someone else's labor. When I watch TV, I'm seeing things that other people have created. We are all highly specialized and highly independent, and the only way to make everyone better off is if everyone is better off. My political philosophy is to see that that happens."
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The pink cowboy boots he wore in court are now black, but in Washington, Grayson is apt to wear orange-and-pink shirts and ties that can be charitably described as interesting. "I thought at first he was trying out for a road company of Guys and Dolls," said Rep. Barney Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the Financial Services Committee.
Frank credits Grayson for pushing issues to the front that might otherwise go overlooked. Grayson has teamed with Texas Republican Ron Paul to rally bipartisan support for a bill that would authorize regular audits of the Fed. "He's very energetic and very bright," Paul said.
It was Grayson who recently discovered that taxpayers have been paying legal bills for three former Fannie Mae executives accused of manipulating the books. "When did Uncle Sam become Uncle Sap?" Grayson mused to the New York Times.
But Grayson seems to constantly detract attention from any successes he may have. He is a political operative's dream, offering a stream of outlandish statements.
During an August fundraiser he said that former Vice President Dick Cheney liked to "shoot old men in the face." At a blogger convention that same month he said Keller's campaign staff "spent all their time flying paper clips at each other and watching porn on their computers." Rush Limbaugh? "A has-been hypocrite loser."
Fellow Democrats have tried to counsel Grayson that he does not need to fight every battle, to take on everyone. "If you're too outside the box in the legislative process, you become ineffective," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston.
"He's a quirky individualist," she said.
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Grayson keeps on chugging, unconcerned with convention or playing things safe for re-election. He topped it all last Tuesday with a bombastic speech on the House floor, blasting Republican inaction on health care as the equivalent of telling Americans "Don't get sick" or if you do, "die quickly."
Republicans demanded he apologize. Instead he amplified his comments in a second speech Wednesday, likening deaths of the uninsured to a holocaust. More recriminations followed. But Grayson was only getting started, offering strident anti-Republican attacks on CNN and MSNBC. His liberal followers rejoiced — and donated money to his campaign.
Which leads back to the trackers, those political operatives that chase Grayson around with videocameras. They are an obscure but increasingly effective tool in modern political warfare. The best example is the 20-year-old Democratic tracker who helped derail Sen. George Allen, R-Va., by catching him uttering a racial insult, "macaca." That Grayson attracts trackers is a testament to how eager Republicans are to regain his congressional seat.
But arguably, the trackers are wasting their energy. Grayson does not need provocation to say exactly what he thinks. And, in effect, he tracks himself. Shortly after his CNN appearance, Grayson posted the clip on his YouTube page.
As of Friday afternoon, it had been viewed 73,821 times.
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Alex Leary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.