Gwen Graham, mother, labor negotiator, politician never veered from her basic message, stop it, the hate has gone too far. The daughter of a former governor and U.S. Senator paraphrased Stevie Wonder while she campaign in the 14-county district telling her audiences that they gotta, she gotta, we gotta — stop the hyper-partisanship, stop demonizing the opposition and let’s start working together for the common good.
Campaigning with Graham, former President Bill Clinton told his audience to trust him when he said the country is watching the 2-nd District race to see if Graham’s bi-partisan message can succeed in ending the polarization.
“You can make a positive vote for a person who has lived among you, has roots here is a gifted public servant and will make a real difference,” Clinton told a crowd of nearly a thousand at Florida A&M University, a week ago Sunday.
And voters did, giving Graham a winning margin of more than 2,000 votes over Congressman Steve Southerland, R-Panama City.
Graham’s campaign started slowly, members of the North Democratic Club remember her attending their 2013 annual Barbeque & Politikin picnic but several don’t recall her speaking.
Fifteen months later she matched Southerland blow by blow and dollar by dollar in reaching out to voters spread across the sprawling districts. The two fought an intensely bitter race calling each other liars in debates and engaging in the most expensive congressional campaign North Florida has ever seen. The two candidates and outside groups spent nearly $14 million, flooding the district’s broadcast airwaves and mailboxes with attack ads and sending scores of volunteers to knock on doors and make phone calls on their behalf.
The 2-nd District covers more land than any other congressional district in the nation. It takes in the beaches of Panama City, the state capitol and its two universities and logging and farming communities of the Big Bend.
Southerland won the two past two elections with a 53 percent margin by checking the Democratic enclave of Leon and Gadsden counties with Bay and Jackson counties and then carrying 10 rural counties by margins of more than 60 percent. Graham was able to increase voter turnout among Democrats, compared to last mid-term and had just enough appeal in the countryside to deny Southerland reelection.
She flipped Jefferson and Madison counties from Southerland’s column and while Al Lawson lost Jackson County by 5,000 votes two years, this time Southerland carried it by 2,000.
Graham had a lot of help. In addition to Clinton, Congressman John Lewis campaigned for her as well as Jimmy Buffett. A constant presence during the final two weeks of the campaign was Rep. Allen Williams, D-Tallahassee, who represents a part of Leon and all of Gadsden County.
“People want somebody who is willing to roll up their sleeves and go to Washington to make a difference,” said Williams moments after Graham’s supporters erupted in celebration. “They want people who will stand on principles but they don’t want hyper-partisanship. Gwen resonates with people.”
Congressman Southerland congratulated Graham on the victory and pledged to work towards a smooth transition.
“I’ve shaken a lot of hands and hugged a lot of necks over the last four years,” Southerland said. “While I don’t know what God has in store for me next, I know I’ll treasure these relationships forever. Other than the successes of my marriage and my family, serving the people of Florida’s Second District has been the greatest honor of my life.”
He prefaced his remarks acknowledging his politics is “much further to the left” than Graham’s and marveled at the campaign she ran. Talking the Sunday before the election he recalled reading an article where Graham corrected a reporter for saying that Graham had criticized Southerland for being “too conservative.” Fowler said most people would have let the comment pass and recite their talking points.
“It showed a good presence of mind. She didn’t let anyone put words in her mouth and it’s a sign she has a good sense of self,” said Fowler.
“It also showed she has a good feel for the constituency,” said Fowler. “It would be really bad politics in this district to let people think you’re anti-conservative. She’s good.”
Gwen Graham is the first woman elected to Congress from North Florida.