News & Politics

Another Progressive Champion in the Senate? Alan Grayson Enters the Ring

As a congressman, Grayson has been an advocate for a whole spectrum of issues important to the left.

In September 2009, after a summer of boisterous healthcare town halls where Democrats fended off thousands of angry Tea Party activists, a Democratic congressman from central Florida stood on the floor of the House of Representatives and flipped the debate on its head with a short speech:

It’s my duty and pride tonight to be able to announce exactly what the Republicans plan to do for healthcare in America… It’s a very simple plan. Here it is. The Republican healthcare plan for America: "don’t get sick.” If you have insurance don’t get sick, if you don’t have insurance, don’t get sick; if you’re sick, don’t get sick. Just don’t get sick.…If you do get sick, America, the Republican healthcare plan is this: “die quickly.”

The congressman was Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL). The healthcare speech, which set off national debates about the human cost of the U.S. healthcare system denying care to tens of millions of people, made Grayson a household name among American progressives.

And that high name ID has a benefit: among all members of the House of Representatives, Grayson is the only one who raised the majority of his campaign funds from donations of less than $200 during the last election (the only senator to do so is Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders). That's a base that will likely play a big role in his next challenge: running for Florida's Senate seat, a step he is reportedly close to.

A (Mostly) Fiercely Progressive Record

Grayson is unique in a few ways. For one, despite being New York-born, he represents a district in central Florida that encompasses Orlando, a region that has never been known for having an outspoken progressive working in Congress.

As a congressman, he has not only been an advocate for universal healthcare, but supports a whole spectrum of issues important to the left. He has worked together with his colleagues to form a congressional pledge against any cuts to Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid benefits. He hosted Congress' first and only hearing on drone strikes, inviting victims of strikes from Pakistan to tell their stories. As President Obama gears up for a fight with his own party over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Grayson is leading the opposition. A video he put out late last month called “Trade Treachery” has over 24,000 views and serves as a nine-minute explanation of what's wrong with America's trade policy.

Despite being one of the most progressive voices on Capitol Hill, Grayson is no gadfly. He gets things done. While the House of Representatives has been controlled by right-wing Republicans since 2012, Grayson has passed more amendments than any other member of Congress. He specializes in building tactical alliances, bringing together conservative anti-government Republicans with Democrats who care about civil liberties or the environment.

Grayson's convictions are decidedly less progressive on the topic of Israel. In 2009, Grayson did an interview with the Philadelphia Jewish Voice where he explained his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “As a famous Israeli once said, the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” Additionally, last month he joined the right-wing attack on the Obama administration by denouncing the Iran deal. This came shortly before a trip to Israel, where he posed with Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

Grayson differs from other Democrats who appeal to Israel in that he appears to be sincere, not simply pandering to a political lobby. In 2013, when the American Israel Public Affairs Committee was lobbying for a military strike in Syria, Grayson appeared on Democracy Now! and actually said AIPAC “falls to the wayside when the public weighs in,” publicly dismissing the group. Although his position on Israel-related issues seems convenient for a state like Florida which has a large older Jewish population, it is more likely that it's an illiberal belief that he firmly holds.

A Republican-Turned Democrat In His Way

As Grayson inches closer to running for Democratic Party nomination for the Senate, his biggest challenge is overcoming a former Republican. Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-FL) is a Democrat today, but this wasn't the case as late as 2008, when he donated thousands of dollars to Mitt Romney and other Republican candidates. He switched his registration to run for Congress, where he was first elected in 2012, defeating far-right Rep. Allen West (R-FL).

There are plenty of reasons for progressives and Florida Democrats to be skeptical of Murphy. The Florida Democratic Progressive Caucus has gone to war with the state's Democrats, demanding that they have the opportunity for a primary rather than a coronation. The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee took the side of the Florida Democratic Party by endorsing Murphy this week.

Going up against Murphy, the DSCC and Florida Democratic Party establishment will be an uphill fight for Grayson, but long odds aren't new to the congressman. Grayson grew up in the tenements in the Bronx, son of two teachers. He was frequently sick as a child, sometimes going to the doctor four times a week, which he cites as a reason for his concern for universal healthcare today. He went on to get two degrees from Harvard and founded an early telecommunications company, where he earned his wealth and became a millionaire. If Grayson were to look back at his life, it's been one long uphill battle, and his upcoming fight with national Democrats to represent his state in the Senate is no different.

Watch Grayson's 2009 announcement speech below:


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Zaid Jilani is an AlterNet staff writer. Follow @zaidjilani on Twitter.