Former U.S. congresswoman and current Florida gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham said this week that what sets her apart from her declared competitors in the August primary is that she is “the only Democrat that can win.”
“This is a state with 67 counties, and there are wonderful people from one end to the other,” Graham, 55, said during an interview Wednesday at the Key Largo Holiday Inn. “You have to be able to do well in all counties across the state of Florida and build a coalition.”
In a recent poll of likely Florida voters released by Gravis Marketing, Graham is at the bottom of what’s looking like a tight three-person race at 9 percent, with former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine leading at 13 percent, followed by Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum at 11 percent.
While part of her platform is passing “common-sense gun safety laws,” she’s taken heat this week from her opponents for her voting record on gun laws while she served in Congress from 2015 to 2017. Gillum’s communications director Geoff Burgan issued a critical statement Tuesday following the release of Graham’s firearms plan that in part called for the repeal of a 2011 Florida law that bans cities and counties from imposing their own gun control laws.
“Glad the congresswoman’s election year conversion includes backing @AndrewGillum’s successful fight against the gun lobby,” Burgan wrote on Twitter. “It would have been nice for her to support his fight when she was in Congress.”
Burgan was referring to a 2013 statement by Graham that she was a “very big supporter of the Second Amendment.” Democratic governor candidate Chris King attacked Graham earlier this month for not co-sponsoring a bill when she was in Congress that would ban military-style assault weapons following a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California in 2015.
Graham countered these attacks with a statement that the National Rifle Association spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying unsuccessfully to derail her bid for Congress.
“The NRA spent $300K to try to defeat me a few years ago — they lost,” she stated. “They’ve also spent untold millions buying off Tallahassee politicians and trying to destroy local control — when I’m governor, they will lose again.”
On Wednesday, Graham offered partial praise for the Florida Legislature, which passed its first gun control measure in 20 years in the wake of the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School in Parkland. The bill raises the minimum age of all gun purchases from 18 to 21, creates a waiting period for people buying guns and bans devices that can be attached to the stock of semi-automatic rifles that in effect turn them into fully-automatic machine guns. These so-called bump stocks were used by the Las Vegas shooter when he murdered 58 people in October.
But Graham said the law doesn’t go far enough.
“I think it was a victory because in the last 20 years, the NRA had complete control over the Florida Legislature,” she said. “But my commitment is to not allow this conversation to break down into a debate between the Second Amendment and common sense gun safety laws.”
Graham said she is “very supportive and will fight to have a ban on military-style assault weapons. They are weapons of war. And they are being used, currently, often, in these mass shootings.”
She noted that Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz was in the school for only six minutes but was still able to kill 17 people because of the AR-15-type weapon he used that day.
“But for his ability to fire off a multiple succession of bullets, there would be less loss of life,” Graham said.
Graham also said she wants to close “gun-show loopholes” in firearms laws that allow private gun owners to sell to others without standard background checks or waiting periods.
“The law that passed recently does not close that loophole,” Graham said.
Graham said Wednesday that she will urge the Legislature to bring back tax incentives that encourage film production in Florida. An almost $300 million incentives package passed in 2010 dried up in 2014 and the Legislature hasn’t passed a new one since. Meanwhile, the Georgia film industry is booming.
“Georgia is reaping the benefits for Florida not being willing to support the film industry,” Graham said.
The tax breaks helped several movies and television shows shot in South Florida, including the Netflix series “Bloodline,” which was filmed in the Keys.
“One of the things that I am passionate about, as someone who is sad ‘Bloodline’ was canceled, I want to make sure that we are providing support at the state level for the film industry,” she said.
Graham said she opposes Florida’s standardized testing system administered to students in grades three through 11 that is used to measure how well they have absorbed their classroom lessons.
“We absolutely have to end this high-stakes standardized testing culture in our schools,” she said. “We need to put education back into the hands of teachers.”
Graham also said schools should bring back more technical and vocational training to ensure that students not necessarily on a college or university track can have good, well-paying careers when they graduate high school.
“Overall, I would say that the education commitment I have is the backbone of our economy, so we need to focus on education as an opportunity to get that great job.”
Graham said the state should expand Medicaid eligibility for Florida residents to help more people receive health care coverage. Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida House rejected the state Senate’s Medicaid expansion plan in 2015. This made Florida one of 19 states that did not expand eligibility under the Affordable Care Act championed by then-President Obama in 2010. Opponents like Scott cited what they considered federal overreach.
Graham said she would change that as governor, saying Floridians are subsidizing states that expanded eligibility but are not receiving the benefits in return.
“We need to absolutely take Medicaid expansion,” she said. “We’re paying for it. It’s a fallacy that the state of Florida is not paying for the other states to have Medicaid expansion. People have sadly died as a result of this. They’re not able to get the coverage they need, that Medicaid expansion would provide.”
Chief among the Florida-Keys specific issues taking priority with Graham, she said, is affordable housing, especially in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in September. While the Keys unemployment rate is one of the lowest in the state, Graham said this doesn’t necessarily mean Monroe County residents are working jobs that pay liveable wages.
“You hear Rick Scott say ‘jobs, jobs, jobs.’ Yeah, there are a lot of jobs and a lot of people having to work jobs, jobs, jobs just to be able to afford to live,” she said. “That’s not acceptable. I want people to be able to have lives. Good lives.”
One of the reason for the lack of affordable housing in the Keys and elsewhere in the state, Graham said, is that legislators have for years taken money from a fund, known as the Sadowski Trust, that is designated to help counties pay for affordable housing projects, and they’ve been transferring it into the general fund to help with budget shortfalls that Graham argues should be plugged with other revenue sources.
“The fact is this Legislature has been raiding the Sadowski Trust every year and not making sure that communities have the resources to provide affordable housing,” Graham said, “making sure that communities have the resources to provide affordable housing.”