Did Gwen Graham blaze the Democrats a path out of the wilderness?

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Gwen Graham took a victory lap in the Panhandle this past week, meeting with business leaders in four of the biggest counties of the 2nd Congressional District. Graham is a rare Florida Democrat. She won an election.

While party leaders stage their familiar post-midterm drama, and politicians, consultants, and donors express bewilderment about the shellacking the GOP gave them, Graham is preparing to take office Jan. 6.

Graham’s campaign and approach could serve as a blueprint if the Democratic Party wants to grow into a functioning opposition party. She denied Congressman Steve Southerland a third term by collecting 3,000 more votes; a 1.1 percent victory in a 14-county district. Unlike the past four Democratic gubernatorial candidates and like a good defensive football coach, Graham conceded no territory.

She spent time and money in counties where Southerland had won two-thirds of the vote in previous elections and would against her as well. She marched into Taylor County, home to thousands of registered Democrats who routinely vote Republican and was all but ignored at the Florida Forest Festival.

“I had people come up to me and tell me they weren’t going to vote for me and I said ‘OK that’s all right.’ I connected with people,” Graham said Sunday, pausing from hugging people at a North Florida Democrat Club holiday party.

Monday, Dec. 8, Graham wasn’t two minutes into her self-described jobs tour of the district when her host thanked her for attending a roundtable discussion with 16 business leaders.

“This is something that your predecessor never did,” Edward Murray of NAI Talcor said when welcoming Graham to a meeting of a Tallahassee Chamber committee.

“This is an opportunity to listen to y’all and hear what is going on in your businesses . . . how you think the federal government can play a positive role,” Graham told the group.

That’s the Graham approach: Go where people haven’t gone before and talk to them about what they think needs to get done.  It’s also a marked contrast from how Democrats run statewide campaigns, ignore the small counties and tell the others that your opponent is a bad guy.

The party has formed a committee to study its electoral performance and to report back in June. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson chairs the effort and according to the Orlando Sentinel he does not think losing elections equate to being disconnected from voters.

But Rachel Pienta, past chair of the Wakulla County Democratic Executive Committee, suggests otherwise. Southerland carried Wakulla with 56 percent of the vote but Graham reduced his 2012 victory margin by 2,200 votes.

Pienta helped organized an effort to send 100 North Florida Democrats to a Democracy for America Campaign Academy grassroots training seminar last summer. The two-day meeting was led by Jim Dean, brother of Howard Dean, who as the Democratic national chair implemented a 50-state strategy after the 2004 defeat of John Kerry.

Pienta, a Democratic state committee woman, notes the party’s continual focus on the I-4 corridor and three southeast counties have proved to be a flawed strategy.

“Why aren’t we doing a 67-county strategy in Florida? Why are we leaving votes on the table, election after election since the mid-1990s?” Pienta asked Sunday.  “And we see a campaign like Gwen Graham’s show that by getting a few hundred votes in every county can turn the tide.”

It may be an oversimplification but Tip O’Neill did tell friends that a candidate needs to ask people for their vote.

Florida needs a functioning opposition party. The state has been governed by a small-government pro-capital conglomerate for nearly two decades. Instead of engaging in debates to balance the interests between business and people the Democratic Party  acts like the teenager who thinks if he can win the girl, make the team or buy the car  everything else will fall into place and it will be a player in Tallahassee.

Then every election Democrats are all dressed up and stood up while waiting for Southeast Florida Democrats to show up. The situation leaves leaders like state Rep. Mark Pafford and state Sen. Arthenia Jones with very little leverage at the Capitol.

Pafford talks about people dying without Medicaid expansion and all that House Democrats “want is a free and open vote.” And in Pafford’s mind there is “no doubt” House Republicans would pass expansion if the leadership would allow an open vote.

Jones compares GOP opposition to expansion, a higher minimum wage and restoration of civil rights to the Berlin Wall. She thinks people, the folks Nelson and others refer to as “the base,” are stretched to the limit of what is endurable.

Yet, because their team is unable to figure out how to compete, Jones and Pafford are so outnumbered about all they can do in Tallahassee is talk.

“The committee process I think is probably where we have the best ability to be a part of bills,” said Pafford.  “My job is to continue to be friends with the speaker and to allow a process to occur that invites everybody to the table and provides an opportunity for every single member to be part of the conversation.”

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, backed by a supermajority, gets to determine how long the conversation lasts and who gets to speak.

“We in the House Republican Caucus still stand firm where we’ve been last year and the year before but there is always an opportunity to have a conversation,” said Crisafulli during the November reorganizational session.

Crisafulli also noted in the election voters we’re very clear.

That is why Pienta hopes while state Democratic leaders survey the damage of the November election they will take a good, long look at Gwen Graham’s campaign.  As Pafford would say, people are dying.