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Florida’s U.S. Senate ‘open debate’ brings out policy, mostly on progressive agenda

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Florida’s wannabe U.S. Senate race front-runners Alan Grayson and David Jolly took on Social Security, campaign finance reform, abortion and minimum wage with detailed policy answers in the first-ever “open debate” in Florida Monday night.

Grayson, the Democratic congressman from Orlando, and Jolly, the Republican congressman from Seminole set firm but mostly friendly differences between themselves in a debate fueled by and webcast over the internet as what promoters hope will be a new style of forum.

In two ways it was on Grayson’s home court: the debate physically took place in his district, at the WUCF studio in Orlando, although there was no real in-studio audience; and it was fueled by questions submitted and voted on by people over the internet, a demographic that skews young and progressive. And it showed.

There were no questions on gun rights or the national debt, and the debate touched on foreign affairs only indirectly.

But Jolly wasn’t complaining. He and Grayson took the opportunity to try to step out from their parties’ primary packs. For Jolly, that meant a chance to look senatorial for a night without competing with fellow Republican candidates U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, and businessmen Todd Wilcox and Carlos Beruff.

Grayson had the opportunity to debate on what promoters called a world stage via the internet without worrying about his primary battle with U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy of Jupiter, who is leading in many polls, or Palm Beach Gardens lawyer Pam Keth, a captivating speaker.

And Grayson, in particular, found times to position himself as a champion of his party’s causes. He characterized himself as a leader in the fight against global warming while defending President Barack Obama as the only one who has done anything about it; as a leader in seeking to expand Social Security and fighting for the minimum wage; and an active supporter of Planned Parenthood, declaring regarding a question on abortion, “the most important right you have as a human being is the right to control your own body.”

Jolly found himself pushing conservative answers while also trying to characterize himself as pragmatic. He said he supported indexing the federal minimum wage but saw quick and dramatic increases through the eyes of the small-business man he once was, as a job killer. Jolly believes life begins at conception and is precious, but conceded it is a very personal issue. He expounded, by example, Florida businesses hurt by federal regulations.

He also occasionally handed ammunition to Grayson. Jolly argued that universities should be held accountable for student loans, and Grayson responded that he introduced a bill to that effect. Jolly claimed that tax credits, not federal mandates, should be used to encourage clean energy development, and Grayson responded that he passed legislation to that effect. Jolly decried that not many economists run for Congress.

And Grayson pointed out that he was an economist before he ran for Congress.

Jolly landed his cleanest punch when he pivoted a discussion of climate change to one of national security, about the only time national security came up.

“The challenges of climate change are real. But is climate change the greatest threat to our nation, as Alan just said? No,” Jolly said. “The greatest threat to our nation are agents of terror; [or] a nuclear-armed Iran that says it wishes to destroy us tomorrow. “

Jolly and Grayson began almost in agreement on the first question, which fed into crusades both candidates have waged regarding campaign finance reform.

Jolly came off national exposure Sunday for a “60 Minutes” CBS news magazine profile of his efforts to shine a light on how much time members of Congress must spend raising money, and his “Stop Act” to ban members from doing so.

“It says you are cheating the taxpayers if you are spending 20 to 30 hours a week raising money instead of doing the job you were elected to do,” Jolly said. “Hopefully, this will give breathing room to my colleagues on the left and the right to fight for what they believe. Get off the phone.

Grayson has long been a critic of big money in politics and was able to point out that he is the only member of the House of Representatives to eschew big money donations, relying on small donors. He said he would support the Stop Act, but finds it unnecessary if Congress members would simply focus on small donations.

“This is the revolution. It’s happening right before our eyes,” he said. “We in this campaign are creating a new paradigm for campaign finance.”

But they quickly found reasons to disagree.

Grayson argued that the country needs a tighter leash on banks, and explained that the biggest banks are so powerful — and their risks to the economy so dire — that they need to be broken up.

Jolly blamed banking regulation, specifically the Dodd-Frank Act of 2009, for fostering big banks and stymying small community banks, the very banks that help most small businesses and small borrowers.

“The overregulation has crushed small institutions,” Jolly said.

“I must disagree with my esteemed colleague,” Grayson countered. “The reason you have smaller institutions failing is because you have bigger institutions who have government guarantees.”

Another economic crash, he warned, “Is going to happen unless we break up the big banks.”

Grayson made a few Grayson-esque comments, which is to say pushing the boundaries of partisan insults.

He accused Republicans who would deny President Barack Obama a Supreme Court nominee hearing of treating him the way African Americans were originally treated in the U.S. Constitution, as “only three-fifths of a human being. Now they are treating our first African American president gets only seven-eighths of a term.”

He called perpetuation of the debunked belief that Planned Parenthood was selling aborted fetus body parts for profit, “a blood lie.” And he said American businesses treats workers “like dirt.”

The debate was organized and presented by the Open Debate Coalition, an odd mix of high-profile bedfellows, including conservative activists such as Grover Norquist, the president of Americans For Tax Reform; progressive activists such as Terry O’Neill, the president of the National Organization for Women; and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs such as Craig Newmark, founder of craigslist.com.

The organization took question submissions and votes over the website FloridaOpenDebate.com. More than 900 questions were submitted, and more than 400,000 votes cast. Moderators Cenk Uygur, host and CEO of liberal The Young Turks, and Benny Johnson, Creative Director of the conservative Independent Journal Review, picked questions from the top 30.

Mostly, the rivals treated each other civilly.

“I think it’s clear most of the issues came from the progressive base,” Jolly said afterward. “But I’ll tell you this: so be it. We’re running to be the next United States senator from the state of Florida. We ought to be able to answer hard  questions from the left and the right.

“My goal tonight was to present conservative solutions to the questions that were asked,” he added.

Both Grayson and Jolly have talked about having multiple debates. Their read on Monday night might suggest a Grayson-Jolly tour.

“This is a great night, whether the questions are from the left or the right,” Jolly said.

“This is the way debates ought to be,” Grayson said. “Right here. I watched enough presidential debate car crashes to know the difference. This was a beautiful thing.”

Jolly and co-moderator Johnson suggested that for future debates, conservative groups need to encourage their followers to weigh in on the questions.

“I’m asking for a do-over,” Jolly said.

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at scott@floridapolitics.com.

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