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Gwen Graham Working Both Sides of the Congressional Aisle

gwen_graham.jpg
Ruth NIckens
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North Florida’s member of Congress was back in her hometown on Friday, appearing at the Capital City Country Club as part of the “Women of Interest” speakers’ series.

Gwen Graham was elected this past November to represent the Second Congressional District that sprawls across North Florida from Madison to Bonifay. It was a unique election.  For one thing, Graham is the first woman to occupy the seat.  And, perhaps even more startling from a purely political viewpoint,

“We were among only two Democrats in the entire country to defeat a sitting Republican Incumbent,” she said and then repeating for emphasis, “In the entire country!”

Probably few were more surprised than that sitting Republican incumbent, tea-party favorite Steve Southerland of Panama City.  He had won two previous terms by connecting solidly with the overwhelmingly GOP voters in the district’s rural outlands, pretty much ignoring predominantly Democratic Leon County, the seat of state government.  Graham told a mostly Democratic and mostly female audience in Tallahassee that she had won the election by being a Democrat who wasn’t afraid to vote with the other side if she thought it was the right thing to do.

“I said every time I could that I was not going to be a vote for a party; I was going to be an informed vote for what was best and right and that’s what I’m doing,” she said.

As a result, Graham is now routinely coming under fire from both ends of the political spectrum.  Democrats howled when she voted for the Keystone XL Pipeline and the redefining of “full time employment” under the Affordable Care Act from 30 to 40 hours a week.  Republicans have been after her for not voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act and simply being a Democrat, among other failings.  Graham says she’s been able to work with some of her Republican colleagues.  Others, not so much.

“I made a commitment that I was going to reach out to Congressman Jeff Miller who’s in District One and Congressman Ted Yoho who’s in District Three,” she recalled.  “We represent together the Panhandle of North Florida.  Congressman Miller called me right back and we had a wonderful conversation and we talked for about an hour.  I called Congressman Yoho several times.  He never called me back.”

Graham says she ran into Yoho on the House floor a short time later.

“’I know who you are!’, he said.  ‘And I didn’t call you back because I’m mad at you.  You beat my friend!’  And I said, ‘Congressman, I understand.  Friendships are so important and I respect you for that.  But guess what?  You and I are going to be friends, too.’  And he broke into the biggest smile and we gave each other a hug.  For those of you who don’t know, I’m a ‘hugger’.”

So far, Graham has hugged her way to a number of key relationships in the Republican-dominated U-S House.  But she says she also follows state issues closely.  Such as the Guns on Campus proposal that is now no means certain for passage.  She says, with a husband in law enforcement, she’s a big fan of the Second Amendment.  But…

“We need to be listening to those people who are most impacted by the Legislature’s desire to allow guns on campus and I think most if not all college presidents have come out against it.”

Even though that would seem to be the Democratic way of looking at the matter, Graham is quick to point out it’s also the way former State Lawmaker turned University President John Thrasher – a Republican - thinks.