Background: U.S. Representative for Florida’s Ninth District, cofounder of the Alliance for Aging Research, attorney who represented whistleblowers alleging corruption and waste among military contractors in the Iraq War, cofounder and former president of International Discount Telecom
The Race: U.S. Senate, Florida
Sen. Marco Rubio’s seat will soon be available after his failed bid for the Republican presidential nomination, and Rep. Alan Grayson wants it. Grayson has made a name for himself as a firebrand progressive in the House, passing an incredible number of bills and providing an endless amount of colorful commentary about the Right. But he has also come under recent scrutiny for some of his investments—charges he strongly disputes in the interview below.
The field for the Senate seat is crowded, with two other Democratic challengers besides Grayson, Rep. Patrick Murphy, who represents Florida’s 18th district, and former Navy defense counsel and energy company attorney Pam Keith. Eight Republicans are vying for the nomination.
Key Endorsements: Communications Workers of America, the Central Florida Building and Construction Trades Council, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Democracy for America, Progressive Change Campaign Committee, People For the American Way
Latest Polling: +1 Primary: August 30
Why are you running for Senate?
Alan Grayson: If I can put aside the humility for a minute: I’ve been a progressive champion in the House. I’ve done my job well and think I can get even more accomplished if I’m in the Senate. I’ve become a master of rules and procedures in the House and galvanized that into becoming what Slate said was the most effective member of the House in my second term.
Aside from that, I’ve helped organize liberals and create a movement. I wrote out in my own handwriting, the “no cuts pledge,” providing that we would oppose and vote against every single cut in Social Security and Medicare or Medicaid benefits at a time when the president had proposed a chained CPI. I got 3 million people to sign that pledge and then took those 3 million signatures to the White House and the Speaker’s office and delivered them personally. The following year, the President took the chained CPI out of his budget proposal.
Another example of that is with regard to trade. I created a nine-minute video posted at the website tradetreachery.com. On Facebook alone, 1 and a half million people have seen that video and according to Facebook, they watched the whole thing. It’s a video that patiently explains where things have gone wrong on trade, a very abstruse subject to most people, and explains what needs to be done about it. Thanks to that video, I generated thousands upon thousands of calls from constituents to senators and to members of congress to galvanize them against fast track. We lost that race, but an awful lot of people got involved and an awful lot of members of Congress got an earful over that.
I’ll give you another example. When war was looming with Syria, I very persistently and dispassionately made the case for peace. I did seven national television interviews in one day, 40 total media interviews in three days. I explicitly invited people in those interviews to call their congressmen and explain that we really didn’t need a third American war in the Middle East and that the president’s proposal would not be effective. Thanks to that galvanizing of public opinion, members told me they received thousands upon thousands of calls, Democrats and Republicans both. The calls were going 100 to 1 against going to war. And I didn’t see anybody else making that kind of effort. Everybody else was basically cowed by the administration or the military-industrial complex or both.
These are some of my accomplishments in the House. The Senate, since it is an institution that is straitjacketed by rules, creates even more opportunity.
What do you see your role as in the Senate, and would it differ at all depending on which party is in charge? Right now, polls show it could either remain under Republican control or flip to the Democrats.
The mission is to promote liberal values of justice, equality, compassion and peace and to do so as effectively as possible. Sometimes I do that in the House by taunting. Sometimes I do that by drafting model legislation. Sometimes I do that by passing an amendment or passing a bill, working together to win enough Republicans to win, forming coalitions with libertarians or other Floridians or whoever the allies might be who are available that get me to 218 votes.
There’s a number of different ways to accomplish it, no matter who’s in charge. If the Democrats are in charge, then you have to play the game a little differently. But I will tell you that I passed far more liberal bills and amendments with the Republicans in charge in the House than I ever did with the Democrats in charge. When the Democrats were in charge, there was this enormously crowded pipeline of things that other members wanted to do.
A flood of Grayson legislation has been unleashed during the past three years with the Republicans in charge because I don’t have any competition. There’s nobody else on the Democratic side that’s really willing to engage and talk to them and try to persuade them to do good things across the board. There’s literally no competition anymore. So that’s how you go from passing two solid, good bills to passing 80 bills and amendments in three years. Everyone else has basically just given up—and that includes my opponents in this election.
You’re running against another Democratic congressman, Rep. Patrick Murphy.
Well, he purports to be a Democratic congressman.
What are the key differences between you two in this race?
He’s done nothing except endorse the back of PAC checks the entire time he’s been in Congress and attack me. That’s all he’s done in three years. He cuts the law into little pieces and sells it off to the highest bidder. He’s every lobbyist’s best friend.
Patrick Murphy is the epitome of why people hate Washington, D.C. He’s a faker, a liar and a fraud. He’s a Republican masquerading as a Democrat. He maxed out to Mitt Romney. He was a registered Republican his entire life until he decided to run for Congress. His father bought him his seat in the House and now his father’s trying to buy his seat in the Senate. He never even supported himself, for godsakes—he’s never had a real job in his life.
Compare that to me. I was the first president of a company that went public and trades on the New York Stock Exchange and has a billion dollars in sales each year. I’ve raised five children; I’ve been to every country in the world; I’ve been to every state in the country; I prosecuted war profiteers in Iraq; I started an organization, the Alliance for Aging Research, was an officer of it for 20 years and we increased aging research by more than 500 percent. I was the director of Florida senior programs.
I generally don’t talk about this stuff because I don’t think that’s fair. I think that voters are entitled to know what we’re going to do for them, not who I am. My opponent is an empty suit; he’s simply the creation of his father’s money and ambition. He’s not even the creation of it.
You’re one of just nine members of Congress—eight in the House, one in the Senate—who have endorsed Bernie Sanders. Why did you endorse Sanders?
Because we put it up to a vote. We let the people vote and the people voted in favor of Sanders. I’m a superdelegate and decided that was a fair way to do it. So we established a website called graysonprimary.com, we let both campaigns know ahead of time what we were doing so that it would be fair to everybody. We invited people to come and not only vote—for Sanders or for Clinton—but also explain why.
And they did. We had almost 400,000 people come to our website and vote. And Bernie won 86 to 14. The reasons were fascinating. Neither side went negative on the other side. Nobody who’s a Bernie supporter said “I hate Hillary.” Nobody who’s a Hillary supporter said “I hate Bernie.”
I felt that democracy should rule. I was very concerned about this idea that rather than being the Democratic Party, we were becoming the undemocratic party with this superdelegate business. So I wanted to give my vote to the people and I did.
Why have so many of your colleagues in the House—including some of the more progressive members—endorsed Hillary Clinton rather than Bernie?
Because it’s in their interests to do so. It’s reasonable to assume that if you endorse Hillary, then Hillary or Bill or someone else in their camp will come and host a fundraiser for you and help you raise money. It’s also reasonable to assume that you’ll get to do public appearances with her and that you’ll be considered for whatever positions there may be to hand out in a Clinton administration.
A number of commentators have argued the primary fight between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton is indicative of a growing divide in the Democratic Party—between its younger, more left-leaning elements and its older, more pro-business, corporate-friendly elements. Is there a growing divide in the Democratic Party?
Sure. There are a large number of Democrats—my opponent included—who simply view governing as a fundraising device. It amounts to de facto corruption.
That way of thinking is deeply ingrained among the Blue Dog Democratic Coalition and the New Democratic Caucus in the House of Representatives. Obviously the Blue Dogs have been decimated, so it’s really more in full flower with the New Democrats. One of the first choices you make when you’re announcing, much less when in office, is, are you going to seek the New Democratic endorsement, or are you going to seek the Progressive Caucus endorsement?
That cleavage has been there for a long time. Obviously, I know which side I’m on.
The leadership in the Senate is desperate to squelch the Elizabeth Warren wing of the party, and you’re seeing signs of that in my race. There’s no question that that exists in the House. Unlike the House, where the numbers are roughly even, the Senate Democratic caucus is completely dominated by corporate Democrats. And the Warren-Sanders wing of the party is relatively weak and getting weaker because of the enormous effort to recruit corporate Democrats to run for Senate seats.
The primary has reignited the debate over health care reform—between a single-payer, Medicare-for-all system versus the current system under the Affordable Care Act. Which one of these is better?
You have to be a little more specific about what you mean by Medicare-for-all. I introduced a bill called the “Medicare You Can Buy into Act,” which got more than 80 co-sponsors. And that’s a Medicare-for-all act that opens it up to anybody who would pay for it. Obviously I’m in favor of that, that’s why I wrote the bill. I think that’s a very powerful alternative—the premiums are extremely affordable. So I’m very much in favor of that approach. I don’t necessarily think it’s in lieu of Obamacare, but I think it’s the next big thing in healthcare.
We’ve created a system that stretches from Nome Alaska down to Key West that provides people with the care they need to stay healthy and alive and we open it to only one-sixth of the population. That’s like saying that only one-sixth of the population can drive on interstate highways. It just doesn’t make any sense. So if we’ve created a system and people are willing to pay for it, it makes no sense to exclude them from it.
When I said Medicare-for-all, I meant the John Conyers-style bill. Sanders has a plan, as well.
There is a fundamental problem with the status quo: There’s conflict of interest between the insured and the insurers. This is true whenever you have a private insurance system. The insurance companies want to get from you as much money as they can, they want to give back as little as possible in health care, and they call the difference profit. And that is intrinsic to any health care system based upon private insurers. So that’s why a public option is needed. That’s why Medicare-for-all is needed—to eliminate that conflict of interest.
Florida is already feeling the effects of climate change—arguably more so than any other part of the country. What can be done to address climate change from a policy perspective? Is it too late to reverse its effects?
No, I think the science indicates that it’s not too late. If we actually stuck to 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, then we’d be in pretty good shape. But we have to actually take action to prevent climate disruption and to maintain sea levels at their current levels to have any hope of doing so.
As a New Yorker article pointed out in detail a month ago, large parts of Miami are already underwater from time to time. There’s no way to stop that short of impeding climate disruption and stopping pollution. As the article pointed out, building a wall along the coast of Miami is meaningless because the land under Miami is porous so the water would come in from behind, so to speak—from behind and beneath. That makes an impossible situation for all of South Florida.
In 2006, when I was first ran for Congress, I put a map up on my campaign website showing what Florida would look like after the ice caps and glaciers melted, demonstrating that Orlando would become oceanfront property. I voted for the cap-and-trade bill and in doing so, invited $4 million in independent expenditures—basically sewer money—against me in the 2010 election bill. That was a result of my standing up for the environment and trying to protect it.
Since then, I’ve made some really important contributions. One of the 54 amendments that I passed was a 9 percent increase in the national estuary program. The estuaries are basically bays—the Chesapeake Bay, for example, is an estuary. These are relatively still bodies of water, often at the mouths of rivers, that are partly fresh and partly salt. They’re filthy now in Florida. We have an enormous dead fish problem on both the Atlantic coast and the Gulf Coast as a result of polluted water, overflowing the banks in all of our interior lakes, up and down the whole state of Florida. This is a problem that needs to be addressed through action and money.
So at a time of very tight budgets, I was able to pass an amendment to get a 9 percent increase in the national estuary program for the current fiscal year.
There are many other examples of practical things I’ve done, even though I’m not usually where the action is on such things. I’m not on the Committee on Ways and Means or Energy and Commerce or Appropriations, but I still find ways to fight these battles and win—and consistently push back against Republicans’ anti-science activity.
Florida has a huge retiree population. How do you differ from your opponents on Social Security?
I’ve spent my whole adult life improving the lives of seniors. There’s nobody else in Congress who has more street cred on the issue than I do.
My master’s thesis was on gerontology and public policy. I wrote it when I was 25 years old and sent that to a number of elected officials, a number of scholarly journals, a number of professors. I said that, although there are non-profit organizations promoting health research on heart disease (the American Heart Association), on cancer (the American Cancer Society), on specific diseases of all kinds, there was no organization at that point that actually promoted gerontological research. It didn’t exist. That’s why you end up with only 50 researchers doing this stuff—because there’s no support network for it.
So I sent this around. I sent it to Sen. Cranston’s office, because he was chair of the Senate Select Committee on Aging. And his staffer Dan Perry called me up. He agreed with me, and said he was leaving Sen. Cranston’s staff. He said I agree with you, let’s get this started. So Dan became the executive director. I became the secretary of the corporation. And I remained an officer of the Alliance for Aging Research for more than two decades until I was sworn into Congress in 2009. We increased the spending on aging research by over 500% during the time that I was an officer of the Alliance. So I’ve been doing this stuff since my mid 20s. And when I ran for Congress, I continued to be deeply involved in issues that matter to seniors, in Florida and around the country.
What do you think of the Obama administration’s moves toward normalizing relations with Cuba?
It’s clear to every rational person that the old policy is not working. It’s also clear that we could no longer claim we were doing it for the benefit of the Cuban people when the Cuban people were overwhelmingly against the old policy. So it delegitimized itself.
What I was hoping to see, in the course of the change, was more of a quid pro quo. I was hoping to see that there’d be give and take, there’d be carrots and sticks, there would be substantial concessions on the part of the Cuban government to move Cuba toward a normal, democratic government. It remains at this point the only dictatorship in the Western Hemisphere. It’s regrettable that we have played our cards in such a way that the Cuban government has made very few concessions in exchange for the concessions that we gave to them. I think that the bargaining process has gone awry. And it’s become often a sort of one-way concession without getting much—if anything—in return.
And there are real problems to deal with. A reporter recently asked me, "What are we doing about the fact that the Cuban government will not allow tourists into the country if they were born in Cuba and are American citizens?” It reminded me of the gaping holes in the negotiation process. If we had addressed at the beginning, it would have been relatively simple for us to say that as part of the normalization process, Cuba has to allow in as tourists American citizens who are born in Cuba. Now, it’s pretty late in the game to be making that kind of request.
It could’ve been handled better. I’m in favor of moving toward relatively normal relations, but I think that that involves give and take on both sides and it shouldn’t involve simply concessions on the part of the United States.
Lastly, I want to ask about this hedge fund controversy. As of October 2015, it had $16.4 million in assets and previously had branches in the Cayman Islands. So you’re under investigation ...
Well, let’s not. Because you’re getting some facts wrong here.
My understanding from the House Ethics Committee is that there are allegations that you improperly managed the fund and failed to properly disclose business interests on annual financial forms.
No. Every single thing you’re saying is wrong. And they’re not probing anything right now.
A February 2016 story in the New York Times said that as of October 2015, the fund had $16.4 million in assets and previously had branches in the Cayman Islands.
That was all my money. So I don’t even know why people call it a hedge fund—that’s not the normal description that you use when you’re talking about someone’s own money. Every dollar at that point in time was a dollar that I owned or my children owned through trusts. In fact, it had always been, at least 97 percent my money. There were two outside investors at an earlier point in time, both of them people I’ve known for decades.
I’m using the term “hedge fund” because that’s what the New York Times used.
The New York Times article was ridiculous on every conceivable level. It was basically a smear. They wanted to make it sound like that there was something going on—even though they knew themselves there was nothing wrong with it. The fact that it was the New York Times is meaningless—the guy was basically just smearing me. He’s a fundamentally irresponsible person.
And you mentioned the Cayman Islands. There was never a penny in the Cayman Islands. If you look at the specific words they used, it might have left the reader with the impression that way, but the fact is there was never a single penny of anybody’s money in the Cayman Islands, period.
Okay, so it was totally inaccurate that this fund had branches in the Cayman Islands?
Branches? There was a shell company that was set up in the Cayman Islands because we were legally required to segregate funds. When you set up an investment partnership like this, you are legally required to set up separate, segregated funds for taxable and non-taxable investments. We never had any non-taxable investments. We never solicited anybody for any non-taxable investments.
For every moment of its existence, all of the funds in question were in New York accounts—either New York checking accounts or New York brokerage accounts. No money was ever offshore.
Now if you read the New York Times article, certainly you might have reached some kind of different impression, but that’s exactly the way they wanted it. To make it seem like I was doing something sketchy when, in fact, I wasn’t.
So you object to its characterization as a hedge fund. How would you describe the fund? Just an investment partnership?
It was a friends and family partnership with family members and two friends investing small amounts of money—small in the sense that [their investments made up] 3 percent of the total, or less. And now it’s simply what you call a family office. That’s the proper terminology to use.
When I was elected, I wound it down. Nobody has been solicited to join the partnership, whether or not they were my friends. Nobody’s been solicited to join the partnership since I was elected.
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