If scientists engineered the polar opposite of Donald Trump, a bizarro-world version of the rage-tweeting, fancy-living, drama-stirring mogul-turned-president, their lab might produce Gwen Graham. The former stay-at-home mom who hopes to become Florida’s first woman governor is almost everything Trump is not.
She is a serial hugger, a frequent crier, a penny-pincher who buys her clothing at Target, an animal lover who posts pictures of her dogs and bunny on Facebook. The only organization she’s ever run was the PTA at her children’s school; the only time she’s spent in the public eye was as a one-term Democratic congresswoman. She’s a self-described nerd who hooks her granny-style glasses around her belt loop, an earnest consensus-builder who works so hard to find common ground that her ex-husband is her campaign treasurer. She listens. She empathizes. She exercises. She worries about her PolitiFact ratings. She’s so eager to learn that I watched her literally squeal over some briefing papers about climate change: “Ooh, I’m superexcited about this packet! So much information I need!”
Graham shares the president’s love of Diet Coke, and as the daughter of former Florida governor and U.S. Senator Bob Graham, she too grew up in a powerful family and followed her father into the family business. Otherwise, she’s basically the living embodiment of the anti-Trump.
That could be a convenient thing to be in 2018, because a majority of the public is in an anti-Trump mood, and a Democrat who flipped America’s largest swing state after two decades of Republican rule could instantly become a leading figure in the anti-Trump opposition. Florida helped carry Trump to the presidency, yet not only is Graham running on an anti-Trump agenda of fighting for-profit schools, addressing climate change, protecting abortion rights and expanding Medicaid, she’s also basically running against Trump, calling him out as “an embarrassment” in her first digital ad, framing a race for state office as a referendum on who will protect Florida from the president.
“If you want to dub me the anti-Trump—caring, policy-oriented, honest, bringing people together—I’m fine with that,” Graham said when I started following her around earlier this year. Graham unseated a Republican congressman in a Republican district during the Republican wave year of 2014, so she’s in many ways perfectly situated to win an open seat in a purple state during the potential Democratic wave year of 2018. Her dad is still a revered good-government icon for Floridians of a certain age, surviving 30 years in four elected offices with a reputation for decency, civility, seriousness and moderation—and she is in many ways a taller, warmer, touchy-feelier version of her dad.
But first she would have to win a primary, and it’s not clear whether Democratic primary voters want Graham-style civility and moderation in the Trump era. They might prefer more fire and fury. They might look for liberal crusaders who can use Trump-style theater and Trump-style tactics to fight Trump’s policies, rather than empathetic consensus-builders who pledge to reach across the aisle to get things done. Trump won because he knew how to put on a show, stir up a crowd and fuel the anger of his base, and some Democrats are looking for candidates who know how to do those things from the left.
“That’s not Gwen,” says her second husband, Steve Hurm, a criminology professor and former law enforcement official who was still a Republican when they started dating in 2009. “She’s about bringing people together and finding reasonable solutions, like her dad. If that’s not what the voters want, well, they’ll miss out.”
If Trump’s message was “I alone can fix it,“ Graham’s message is “I’m like you.“ She has adopted her father’s tradition of spending entire days on the campaign trail working ordinary jobs alongside ordinary Floridians, learning about their lives, helping them pick weeds at a peanut farm or install solar panels on a roof or fight the opioid crisis at a clinic. She often talks about what a normal person she is—how she worked as a cocktail waitress in college, how she retrieves items off high shelves for short shoppers at Publix, how she fan-girled “like a crazy stalker” when she met the Manhattan spin-class teacher whose app she uses on her exercise bike. There’s nothing normal about Trump, and Graham is making an implicit case for a less exhausting, less erratic, less stressful brand of politics that doesn’t dominate every news cycle. She’ll never inflame a packed arena crowd into a screaming frenzy, but she’ll never pay hush money to a porn star or fire off an all-caps insult tweet, either.
The thing is, Trump’s violations of norms and defiance of convention helped get him to the White House. He upended the rules of the campaign trail with his bad-boy energy, transforming politics into a spectacle of cultural resentment, thrilling his supporters by flaming and shaming and nicknaming his enemies. Graham has always been a good girl who follows the rules, which just isn’t as exciting as flaunting them. She told me the classically un-Trumpian story of the worst thing she ever did as a teenager, cutting school to groom her horse for a show, a two-hour adventure in truancy that ended when she felt so guilty she called her school to confess. “I’m such a goody-two-shoes,” Graham said with a sheepish grin. “What did they call me, clean as bleach? I think they meant I’m boring.”
I later pieced together that Graham was referring to a Florida gossip site’s tweet about her after the WikiLeaks hack of House Democrats: “You could find more dirt on bleach.” At the time I must have looked confused, because she caught me off guard with a question no politician had ever asked me: “Do you think I’m boring?” I stammered: Maybe a little. I instantly felt awful, because Graham is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met in politics, but I’m professionally obligated to report that she replied with three sentences the not-as-clean-as-bleach star of “The Apprentice” and the “Access Hollywood” tape will never have to say: “I’m not boring! I’m not boring! I’m not boring!”
This is the Trump-era quandary for Graham and the entire Democratic Party. In recent months, pragmatic, middle-of-the-road, no-drama Democratic candidates have won the Virginia governor’s mansion, an Alabama Senate race and a rural Pennsylvania House seat, a promising model for Graham. But politically active Democratic voters are fired up for a fight, and Graham’s cheery demeanor and dutiful speeches don’t trigger the kind of dopamine rushes they get all day from MSNBC guests and Facebook memes. She’s a committed member of the anti-Trump resistance, but the barricades are not her natural habitat.
“I call her Paint Dry Graham, because she’s like watching paint dry,” says Leslie Wimes, a Democratic operative who supports one of Graham’s opponents, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum. “She’s got no swagger.”
The persistent theater criticism of Graham in political circles can feel a bit gendered, like similar criticisms of Hillary Clinton. If Graham did give more fiery speeches, some critics who now call her dull would start calling her shrill. But Clinton did lose, and after entering the race as the Democratic front-runner a year ago today, Graham has failed to catch fire in polling or fundraising. She’s now running slightly behind former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, a brash, pugnacious businessman in the Trump mold who’s spending millions of his own dollars promoting his brand. She’ll also have to fend off Gillum, a charismatic African-American with a Bernie Sanders-style progressive agenda. She’s shown enough weakness that her former congressional ally Patrick Murphy, another measured moderate with a similar support base, is now considering a run on a bipartisan ticket with former Republican Congressman David Jolly, even though Jolly recently told me that Graham would be a “fantastic governor.”
Florida insiders seem extremely skeptical that a pleasant, competent, intelligent 55-year-old mother of three can energize a party in a primal-scream mood. Even at January’s Miami Women’s March, the ideal venue for a trailblazing female candidate who grew up near Miami, Graham somehow failed to connect with an amped-up crowd of Trump-loathing feminists, unsuccessfully urging them to chant the clunky phrase: “When women organize, America wins!” She peered down at her notes three times and giggled awkwardly once during the 15 seconds it took her to deliver and then step on a key applause line: “As a wise person once said, if you want something done in life, hire a busy woman. That is so true.”
Bob Graham, Gwen’s role model and frequent campaign sidekick, was never much of a partisan firebrand, either. He had the swagger of a spreadsheet, and little appetite for political food fights; he was best known nationally for his bizarrely meticulous habit of scribbling everything that happened to him every day into little color-coded notebooks. After he was first elected governor, he hired his Republican opponent to run a training program for prison inmates. “A very fine man,” he told me in a recent interview. “I never thought political campaigns should be wars to the death.” And Bob Graham never lost an election in Florida.
But Bob Graham hasn’t appeared on a ballot in Florida in two decades. He knows that the game has changed, that it’s become more about firing up the base than courting the center, that mild-mannered is out of vogue, and that Trump is as much a symptom as a cause. Now 82, he sees his oldest daughter’s campaign as a throwback to a less ferocious, less obnoxious, less shirts-against-skins style of politics, a chance to redefine leadership and Make Democracy Great Again.
“The center has collapsed. Compromise is seen as a lack of commitment,” he said. “But I still think people are looking for leaders who can solve problems, rather than stir the boiling blood of the masses. I guess we’ll find out.”
On the first anniversary of Trump’s inauguration, just 3 miles from Trump’s golf club in Doral, Gwen Graham was lugging 55-pound sacks of malt around a craft brewery, the kind of thing Trump wouldn’t do at gunpoint. This was the 50th “workday” of Graham’s career; her father completed 408 before he retired in 2005. The gimmick worked because Bob really worked, and whether she’s riding along with cops or brewing a rye pale ale, Gwen approaches her workdays the same way, diligently completing her assignments, putting in a full shift after the cameras leave.
On that January morning, her bosses were two tattoo-covered Hispanic millennials, Orestes (Rusty) Hernandez, a brewer who had one of those bushy Brillo hipster beards, and Katherine Castro, a cellarman who had a nose ring and a lip stud. They had never heard of Graham or her father, and they seemed a bit perplexed by the enthusiastic lady in mom jeans who kept asking them for new tasks. “I don’t want to get in the way; I want to help,” she kept telling them.
It was fun to imagine Trump treating these young workers in Doc Martens with such deference, or listening so intently to their explanations of pH levels and fermentation. I thought of Trump again when Graham mocked her own inability to cook or pronounce the word “brewery.” She has a self-effacing habit of emphasizing her imperfections, a tic I’ve never seen from a male politician, much less the I-alone-can-fix-it president. But she also comes off as an authentic person who tries to forge authentic connections. “You’re passionate about craft beer, just like I’m passionate about making a difference!” she told Castro, before giving her a double high-five. Graham will never need an empathy script reminding her to say “I hear you,” as Trump did when he met with survivors of mass shootings at the White House.
“I didn’t realize she’s a politician,” Hernandez told me after Graham had moved to the front of the brewery to work a shift tending bar. “She’s so normal.”
Normal is Graham’s schtick; her pollster, John Anzelone, says focus groups describe her as unusually relatable, “like your favorite aunt, or your college buddy.” She’s not afraid to get photographed wearing a goofy-looking electrolysis helmet at a drug treatment center. “People said I looked like Mike Dukakis in the tank, but who cares?” she recalled. “Politicians take themselves way too seriously.” Trump plays a superhero, like his all-powerful character on “The Apprentice”; Graham plays an ordinary mom who made her husband drive back to the airport to pick up the bottle of conditioner she couldn’t get through security, because that’s who she is.
Ordinary could be a major selling point in 2018. While the fully engaged voters of the resistance have a litany of specific grievances with Trump—racism, sexism, personal corruption, climate denial, right-wing judges, tax cuts for the rich—many Americans who didn’t pay much attention to politics before Trump are simply nostalgic for the days when politics didn’t constantly invade their daily brain space. The bar where Graham poured beers after she finished brewing them has a rule for its TVs in the Trump era: If politics comes on, the sound goes off. “Twelve percent alcohol and politics don’t mix, and it’s way worse with Trump,” explained bartender Diondra Casarez. “People come here to escape that craziness.”
Graham is genuinely appalled by Trump, but she’s also delighted to use him as a foil, routinely attacking him for stigmatizing immigrants, abandoning Puerto Rico, trashing the environment, bullying critics, shredding the truth and demeaning his office. Her most progressive Democratic opponent, Tallahassee Mayor Gillum, has tweaked her for trying to run against Trump, while her best-funded Democratic opponent, former Miami Beach Mayor Levine, has boasted that “I don’t run around the state of Florida talking about President Trump.” In their first debate, Graham repeatedly steered the discussion to the president. She used one back-and-forth about civics education as an excuse to declare that “Donald J. Trump is the greatest civics lesson anyone could have had.” She also uses Trump to call out the Republican candidates for governor—Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, and especially Congressman Ron DeSantis, who has called for numerous investigations of Trump enemies—asking whether they support his threats against special counsel Robert Muller, or his push for offshore drilling, or other positions that might not play well in Florida.
In a time of conservative Republican dominance in Washington and Tallahassee under Trump and Governor Rick Scott, the policy differences among the Democratic rivals seem relatively minor. They all want to ban assault weapons, undo voting restrictions, transform a culture where Scott’s underlings weren’t even allowed to utter the phrase “climate change,” and reverse Florida’s long march to the right. And even though Trump’s approval ratings have been consistently low, the Republican gubernatorial candidates are all embracing him. That could help clear the path for an anti-Trump moderate like Graham in the general, while reducing the importance of her failure to support Medicare for all or marijuana legalization in the primary. In the first Democratic debate, Gillum and a long-shot candidate, entrepreneur Chris King, repeatedly targeted Graham as a mealy-mouthed moderate, but she turned their gang-tackling to her advantage. “It’s OK,” she quipped. “Gwen and the men.”
2018 has been touted as the year of the woman, and Graham is counting on women like Stacey Benjamin, a 51-year-old health care administrator who came to see her at the brewery. Benjamin thinks electing Graham would send a powerful message to Trump about telling the truth and treating people with respect. “I’ve been physically ill since the day he won,” she said. “Maybe if Gwen wins, he’ll feel a little bit of the pain I’ve been feeling.” Benjamin’s son died of a heroin overdose, and she says it’s obvious that Graham cares about people like her. “She’s not doing this for the ego. She’s one of us,” Benjamin said.
Graham is not a tabloid billionaire, or a reality TV star, or an entrepreneur who slaps her name on vodka and steaks and ties. But her unpretentious vibe makes it easy to forget that like Trump, she came from a powerful and privileged family.
She grew up in Miami Lakes, a suburb built by the Graham development company. In a not-quite-Trumpian touch, the town’s man-made lakes were all named after Graham women, including Lake Gwendolyn. The land originally belonged to her grandfather, Ernest (Cap) Graham, a blunt-spoken Everglades farmer and cattleman who became a state senator and the first Graham to run for governor of Florida, placing third in the 1944 Democratic primary. Cap’s eldest son Phil (and later Phil’s widow, Katharine Graham) would take over The Washington Post, middle son Bill would build the family real estate business, and youngest son Bob would follow Cap into the state Legislature after graduating from Harvard Law School. Bob married his college sweetheart, Adele, and Gwen was the first of their four daughters.
The first sentence of her campaign biography reads: “Gwen Graham never expected to run for public office.” She was 3 years old when her father won his first election, so she grew up around politics, but she was more passionate about animals. She rode horses in competitions. She milked cows at the family dairy. On vacation in Glacier National Park, she got a nasty bite trying to kiss a prairie dog. She still says her dream, after she spends eight years in the governor’s mansion, is to run an animal sanctuary. Of course, Graham is the rare gubernatorial candidate who has already lived in the gubernatorial mansion. She moved in when she was a junior in high school, and she remembers bringing pizza to protesters who had chained themselves to the mansion’s gates over a death penalty case. Her father came out and discussed the issue with them, but still signed the warrant of execution.
The Grahams are an incredibly close family—Bob and Adele still take a trip every year with their four daughters and 11 grandkids—and the only pressure Gwen remembers from her parents was to be a good person and help the less fortunate. Adele, the most outspoken Graham and the fiercest protector of the family legacy—she tried to drop oppo on Levine 15 seconds into our interview—believes that’s why Gwen turned out so differently than another child of power and privilege with a much more demanding and less compassionate father, why she’s a weeper, hugger and bridge-builder rather than a yeller, germophobe and wall-builder.
“Gwen was always surrounded by love, and I think you get empathy from love,” Adele says. “I question whether that happened with Donald Trump.”
Bob and Adele had met at the University of Florida, but Gwen insisted on leaving the state for the University of North Carolina so that she wouldn’t be known at school as the governor’s daughter. She graduated as an English major, and a year later married Mark Logan, an attorney who was working in her father’s administration, and whose parents were close friends with the Grahams. Weirdly, Mark had a sister named after Gwen’s mom, and Gwen had a sister named after Mark’s mom.
Gwen was determined to put her own family first like her mother had. She started law school at Stetson University in Florida, because Mark was practicing law nearby, then transferred to American University in Washington after Mark got a job in the Senate. After three years practicing law at a D.C. firm, she left to raise her daughter and two sons in Tallahassee while Mark built a lobbying and law firm there. She spent the next 13 years driving her kids to school, picking them up from band practice, doing their laundry, editing their yearbooks and volunteering for their school advisory boards. Stay-at-home mom is an unusual entry on a political résumé—Levine has sniped that what sets him apart in the primary is “I’ve had this weird thing in my background called a job”—but Graham approached mothering with the same Type A intensity and diligence she brought to lawyering.
“Gwen’s a driven woman, and when she cares about something, she focuses on it like a laser beam,” Logan says. “What she cared about above all else was our kids: What can I do for them today?”
In 2003, she rejoined the workforce to help with Bob’s short-lived campaign for president. After heart problems and no-support problems forced him to drop out before Iowa, she went to work for Howard Dean in the primary and then John Kerry in the general. She then became a lawyer and an administrator in Tallahassee’s school district, overseeing employee relations. She got divorced in 2005, painfully but amicably, and married Hurm five years later. She settled into a contented middle-aged life of professional job and blended family and takeout Taco Bell.
It was only in late 2012—just after the reelection of her Tea Party Republican congressman, Steve Southerland, just before her 50th birthday—that she considered running for office herself. At Christmas dinner, she complained about Southerland’s ideological extremism, Washington’s gridlock and the persistent power of ruby-red politics in a purple state. Her parents told her Grahams don’t whine about problems they haven’t tried to solve. Hurm suggested to her that the public might be open to fresh faces who didn’t play petty partisan games and couldn’t pass purity tests on the left or right. He told me a cliché about his wife that I heard eight other times while reporting this story: The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
“My family was Republican, but we always voted for Bob Graham, because we knew he was reasonable,” Hurm said. “It felt like people might feel the same way about Gwen.”
In a heavily rural district that Mitt Romney had carried by 6 points, at a time when President Barack Obama’s popularity was at its lowest ebb, Graham ran as a moderate committed to a low-volume, common-sense style she called “the North Florida Way.” She took centrist positions, coming out against Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran and for the Keystone pipeline, that are now providing fodder for her Democratic gubernatorial rivals. She also ran as her father’s daughter, hosting cookouts with him on a Grilling With the Grahams tour through the district; her parents moved to Tallahassee for the last two months of the race. And she ran as if she were on a mission to hug every voter in 14 counties, working so hard that her political adviser, Steve Schale, asked Bob to tell her to get some rest. She called Schale late that night to yell at him never to use her dad as a back channel again.
Despite the national Republican wave, Graham grinded out a 51-49 victory. She was one of only two Democrats to defeat a House incumbent that year, even though Governor Scott carried her district in his reelection campaign. Southerland helped her by sending invitations to a men’s-only fundraiser that urged supporters to “tell the Mrs. not to wait up,” but she impressed political elites with the way she persuaded swing voters to give her a chance, distinguishing herself from Washington Democrats as well as Tea Party rabble-rousers.
“It’s easy to be skeptical about second-generation political kids, but she isn’t a prodigy who was groomed for this from birth,” Schale says. “She’s a real person who went off and led a real life.”
Graham arrived in Washington just in time for the Florida Legislature to redraw her district from slightly Republican to overwhelmingly Republican, ensuring her early retirement from the House. Even as a short-timer, though, Graham often strayed from the party line, starting with her protest vote for a conservative Democrat instead of Nancy Pelosi for minority leader. She voted for tougher vetting of Syrian refugees and against the closing of Guantanamo Bay. National Journal rated her the most independent member of the Florida delegation. She also worked closely with Republicans on Florida issues like funding military bases and extending a ban on offshore drilling. After the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, she joined forces with Jolly on a bipartisan compromise bill to restrict gun sales to anyone on the terror watch list. Jolly’s Twitter banner is still a photo of him strategizing on the Capitol steps with Graham and Massachusetts Democrat Seth Moulton at 3 a.m. after GOP leaders denied them a vote.
Since the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in February, Graham’s rivals in the gubernatorial primary have criticized her as soft on guns because she didn’t push for an assault weapons ban after Pulse. But Jolly says their bill was the only vehicle with any hope of passing—and she did join in a sit-in on the House floor after it was suppressed. After his defeat in 2016, Jolly embarked on a national speaking tour bemoaning Washington’s partisan paralysis, and before his name surfaced as a possible running mate to one of Graham’s potential opponents, he told me Graham remains a notable exception to the zeitgeist, trying to forge bipartisan alliances at a time when Trump has made no effort to reach out beyond his base.
“Gwen’s attitude was always: Let’s work together to get something done, regardless of your politics,” he says. “It’s disappointing that a spirit like that set her apart, but that’s reality these days.”
Graham says she decided to run for governor because she wanted to get more done; in Washington, her proudest achievement was probably returning 15 percent of her personal office budget to the Treasury. She put her plans on hold when Hurm was diagnosed with Stage 4 prostate cancer, but he’s now in remission—and she says she wants every Floridian to get the same kind of care. She also wants to take on the testing-industrial complex in Florida’s schools, restore the Everglades, and modernize Florida’s economy so that young professionals like her three kids—who work for the Gates Foundation in Washington, D.C., Facebook in New York, and Blizzard Entertainment, a video-game developer in California—don’t have to move away. When her father was governor, Florida’s national rankings for per-capita income and environmental land acquisition soared; they’ve fallen in recent years under Republican rule, and she says she’ll make Florida succeed again.
But first she has to win. Graham visited Parkland shortly after the massacre at Douglas High, and her day illuminated the challenges she’ll face as she tries to translate her humanity into votes.
Graham’s day began with a law enforcement briefing at the scene of the crime in Building 12. She heard how the killer mowed down his victims, and she was furious. “How in the hell can an 18-year-old get an assault weapon?” she asked. She was still irate when she arrived at her next stop in Parkland, a memorial for the victims, where she saw a Department of Motor Vehicles mobile unit emblazoned with a message from Florida’s government: “Seat Belts Save Lives. Fact. End of Story.” The bus just happened to be parked outside, but Graham seemed to view its anodyne public-safety message as a direct insult from Governor Scott. “Common-sense gun safety laws save lives. Fact. End of story,” she snapped.
Her mood abruptly melted once she began absorbing the memorial’s scribbled notes and teddy bears and other wrenching tributes to incomplete lives. Dear Gina: You touched the life of Zachary and were so sweet. Dear Coach Aaron: You were one of a kind and well liked by everyone man. Graham was gutted, heaving with sobs. At one point, her glasses fell off her belt and clattered to the ground, and I asked if she was OK. “It’s hard,” she whispered. This was another first in my political reporting career, but I gave the serial hugger a hug. She just looked so sad.
Graham’s next stop was a nearby Moms Demand Action meeting outside a library, where she poured her emotion into her remarks, and really seemed to connect with the intimate group of activists: “Enough! As a mom, I’m heartbroken. As a Floridian, I’m incensed!” She told the group the National Rifle Association had spent $300,000 to keep her out of Congress and failed, but she didn’t mention her current race. Visibly moved, two elderly women asked me who was speaking, and I explained that it was Gwen Graham, a candidate for governor.
“Huh. She’s great,” one of the women said. “But I’m voting for the black guy.”
Graham’s final event that day was the Fort Lauderdale rally that became a galvanizing moment for gun control, turning students like Emma Gonzalez into national celebrities. All the gubernatorial candidates were invited, but Graham was the only one standing in the background while the Douglas High kids captivated the crowd and unleashed a movement. “All I hear is: My right to own a gun is more important than your right to live,” Gonzalez seethed during her instantly celebrated attack on the NRA. “All I hear is: Mine! Mine! Mine!” Graham had to wait over an hour to speak, and her stilted effort to retool her Moms Demand Action riff felt anticlimactic after the raw testimony of the students.
Graham didn’t even get to make news as the only candidate who showed up for the cause. Levine, who has a permit to carry a gun, had told the organizers he couldn’t make the rally. But as soon as Graham finished speaking, he suddenly appeared on stage, stepping in front of her to deliver a loud harangue about what a fighter he was and how the world was watching the Florida governor’s race. Two weeks later, Gonzalez invited her 1.5 million new Twitter followers to a Gillum meet-and-greet, reminding them “the best way to make a difference is to vote,” quasi-endorsing his candidacy with three heart emojis. Politically, Graham’s day of anguish hadn’t achieved much. In fact, Gillum has seized on her anti-gun passion to cast her as a shape-shifter, noting that Graham called herself “a very big supporter of the Second Amendment” when she ran for Congress.
“I’m hopeful that we’ll understand between those two versions of herself, which is the true one,” Gillum said on Joy Reid’s MSNBC show, a liberal echo chamber where Gillum has become a frequent guest.
The Gwen Graham who ran in a conservative district in 2014 did sound less progressive than the Gwen Graham who’s running in a statewide Democratic primary in 2018. She didn’t complain much about Republican misrule then, and she doesn’t talk much about her bipartisan North Florida Way now. But while she’s changed her emphasis, she hasn’t really changed her positions. And while she’s started talking up her liberal ideas—against fracking and for-profit schools, for gay marriage and a $15-an-hour minimum wage—she hasn’t stopped calling for a more collaborative and less polarizing politics. It’s just not clear how collaborative Florida Democrats will feel in November after two decades in the wilderness. Their previous two gubernatorial nominees, Alex Sink and ex-Republican Charlie Crist, ran nonpolarizing middle-of-the-road campaigns, and the Tea Party darling Scott beat them both. Levine initially considered running as an independent—he has called himself a “radical centrist”—but lately he’s trying to run as a true-blue progressive Democrat. And Gillum has run that way from the start, winning grass-roots endorsements from local Indivisible activists and the Bernie Sanders group Our Revolution.
“Gwen’s way out of step with where the Democratic Party is in 2018,” says Gillum spokesman Geoff Burgan.
The good news for Graham is that these days, the three words that represent the opposite of liberal positions as well as the opposite of collaborative politics are President Donald Trump. It has become conventional wisdom that Democrats will need a positive policy agenda to drive their voters to the polls, and Graham believes her plans to reform education and protect the environment qualify. Honestly, though, she’s counting on Trump—and the triggers he provides every day about “shithole countries” and Stormy Daniels and that ongoing “WITCH HUNT!”—to drive voters to the polls.
“People are pissed off, especially women—and not just Democratic women,” Graham said. “President Trump is such a perfect example of what we don’t want in a role model for our children. It’s not just political—it’s visceral.”
“Let me wash dishes! I’m actually good at that!”
It was another Graham workday, this one at La Placita Latina, a bodega in a downscale Kissimmee neighborhood dotted with pawn shops and Spanish-language billboards for toll-free lawyers. Graham had spent the day frying snapper, stocking shelves and packaging meat with varying degrees of aptitude. She had worked alongside a Dominican chef, a Venezuelan operations manager, a Mexican grocery manager and the 29-year-old Puerto Rican owner, Prescilla Vazquez, a petite dynamo who had four small children but still spent 12 hours a day overseeing the market she had bought a month earlier. Vazquez was also a real estate agent, and had just finished negotiating her half-brother Felipe Rivero’s $22 million contract to pitch for the Pittsburgh Pirates. As Vazquez explained her busy schedule, Graham suddenly embraced her and declared they would be friends for life, and they both dissolved in tears.
La Placita Latina has become a community center of sorts for the growing Hispanic population in Central Florida, especially Puerto Rican families displaced by Hurricane Maria. It’s in many ways the face of the new Florida, younger and browner and working its ass off, and Vazquez says Trump doesn’t get it.
“Trump thinks all Latin people are lazy,” Vazquez said. “He doesn’t see us as real Americans. I’d like to see him come get to know us like Gwen did.”
Vazquez had ventured into the grocery business in honor of her father, who could not read or write but opened a successful market back in Puerto Rico, and she saw Graham as a kindred spirit who was also following a father’s example. I asked Vazquez what she had learned from her dad, and she didn’t hesitate: “Loyalty. Caring. And you’ve got to be a worker to get ahead.” Graham was nodding intently, so I asked what she had learned from her dad, and got a much less confident, borderline copycat response. “Prescilla’s answers were great,” she said, then stopped to think. “Caring, definitely. Being in a position to help people, make a difference in their lives.” Another pause. “And working hard?”
It was striking how Vazquez looked like the smooth politician while Graham, wearing an apron and a hairnet for dishwashing duty, looked like the admiring constituent. “Prescilla, when can we get you to run for office?” joked Graham’s communications director, Matt Harringer, a joke that felt a bit too on the nose.
Privately, the other Democratic campaigns all describe Graham as a nice lady who lacks a certain oomph, basically unobjectionable but far from inspirational. She isn’t a compelling orator like Gillum. She isn’t an aggressive brawler like Levine. She doesn’t have the “commanding presence” that’s often attributed to alpha male politicians. “She comes across as likable, but people want someone fresh, someone who will fight,” said an aide to a rival campaign. Internal polls show that virtually all Democrats who know her father like him, and she mentions him as often as she mentions Trump. But Florida is a fast-growing and fast-changing state, and about 40 percent of the primary electorate has no idea who he is. David Pierson, who was Bob Graham’s media adviser in his first race for governor—a race he began with 1 percent name recognition—told me Gwen is relying too heavily on her family legacy.
“She needs to wean herself away from Daddy a bit,” Pierson said.
Gillum has more passionate support among grass-roots progressives than Graham does, and as a self-funder from the cruise-ship industry, Levine has more money; he’s already spent $7 million on TV ads, while Graham isn’t on the air. Then again, Gillum’s mayoral administration is embroiled in an FBI investigation, and Levine was an abrasive mayor who picked Trump-like fights with the media. The Graham theory of 2018 is that voters will be attracted to the ordinary virtues that Trump flouts every day—compassion, kindness, competence, integrity, diversity, frugality. It’s a quieter kind of model for inspirational leadership.
At La Placita Latina, Graham chatted up a Puerto Rican cashier named Maggalis Sanchez, who took her to see the cramped motel room across the street where she has lived with her four sons since Hurricane Maria. She’s saving up for an apartment so that her 10-year-old won’t have to sleep on a towel on the floor. She works overtime every week, whenever Vazquez needs her.
“Trump just doesn’t care about people like us,” Sanchez said.
“I care,” Graham said, wrapping her in a hug.
Graham believes the midterms will be a crushing referendum on Trumpism, a sweeping validation of caring and loving and maybe even boring. Trump has defied fact-checkers, defended race warriors, and hurled middle-school insults—and 2018 could be a comeback for norms, a comeback for normal.
Of course, most Democrats thought Trumpism would get crushed in 2016, paving the way for the first female president. For many Democrats, anything less than a sweeping blue wave in November would ratify behavior that used to be called deplorable without political implications. Graham often finds herself texting with her daughter or her mother about the latest news: Can you believe he did that? “I’m in despair for this nation,” Adele Graham says. “I can’t believe it’s who we are.”
The campaigns that help illuminate who we are as a nation are inevitably contests of messaging and branding and showmanship—and the Graham show will never be able to compete with the Trump show. But campaigns are also contests of values, and the midterm elections will help indicate whether more Americans share Graham’s or Trump’s. “We need normal. We need reasonable. We need steady,” Adele says. “I’m not so sure we need theatrical. We’ve got plenty of theatrical right now.”