Florida Democrats have a reasonable opportunity to win their first race for governor in nearly 25 years. They have several intriguing candidates, but breaking the Republicans' complete control of state government depends on appealing to centrist voters who have drifted away from the party. Gwen Graham is best positioned to make that pitch in the general election.
Graham, 55, is a Tallahassee lawyer and the daughter of former governor and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham — one of the state's most popular elected leaders. Her life experience as a member of a prominent political family, an active mother of three and a labor lawyer for the local school district would bring a refreshing perspective to the Governor's Mansion.
So would Graham's ability to build support across political parties. She won a U.S. House seat that covered Tallahassee and much of the conservative Florida Panhandle in 2014, one of just two Democrats in the nation that year to defeat an incumbent Republican. Graham did not seek re-election in 2016 after the districts were redrawn, but in her two years in Washington she demonstrated an uncommon independence and a willingness to work with Republicans as well as Democrats. Those skills should be viewed by primary voters as strengths rather than weaknesses, and they would benefit a Democratic governor working with a Republican-controlled Legislature accustomed to getting its way.
Graham and the other candidates in the Democratic primary are pitching similar themes. They want to pay teachers more and reduce the emphasis on high-stakes standardized tests. They want to raise the minimum wage, improve workforce training and diversify the economy. They want to invest in transit, protect the environment, encourage clean energy and fight climate change. They want to accept Medicaid expansion money, overhaul the criminal justice system and make it easier for felons who have completed their sentences to have their civil rights restored.
The key difference is that Graham takes the most practical approach. Instead of promising teachers $10,000 raises, she pledges to gradually raise salaries until they reach at least the national average. While other candidates want to legalize and tax recreational marijuana, Graham would decriminalize it but not fully legalize it. She has not made unrealistic promises other candidates have made such as making community college free, or pursuing Medicare for all, or abolishing charter schools, or taxing bullets, or legalizing sports betting.
Another important difference: As the only woman in the race, Graham can most effectively make the case about the importance of protecting abortion rights that could be at risk next year with a new justice on the U.S. Supreme Court and three new justices on the Florida Supreme Court.
Philip Levine, 56, made a fortune building cruise-line media companies and served as mayor of Miami Beach between 2013 and 2017. Levine led initiatives to fight climate change, raise the local minimum wage and support a ban on assault weapons. The climate change work has been controversial, and the other efforts were blocked by the courts or symbolic. Levine proposes legalizing marijuana and sports betting, then taxing both to help pay for $10,000 teacher raises and other programs.
Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, 39, pledges to invest $1 billion in public schools and help pay for it by raising the corporate income tax rate — a tough sell to the Republican-controlled Legislature that has been reducing the tax. Chris King, 39, of Winter Park, has made millions in affordable housing and has built his idealistic campaign on pitching dramatic change, from taxing bullets to abolishing the death penalty. Jeff Greene, 63, a Palm Beach billionaire who ran unsuccessfully in 2010 for U.S. Senate, talks passionately about improving pre-kindergarten programs and promises to stand up to President Donald Trump.
In this field, Levine is the brashest CEO-type. Gillum is the most charismatic, but his campaign has been unfairly clouded by a lengthy federal investigation into local government in Tallahassee that has produced no criminal charges. King unabashedly calls for the most liberal change, and Greene could alter the race with his bottomless checkbook. Yet Florida remains a purple state, and Democrats need to decide whether they want to send a liberal message or send someone to the Governor's Mansion.
Graham is focused on pursuing change that is possible, and her friendliness should not be mistaken for lack of resolve. Her family history, mainstream values and approachable style indicate she could steer toward the center a state government that has veered too far to the right. In the Democratic primary for governor of Florida, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Gwen Graham.