Opening his campaign headquarters in Kissimmee, former U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson says he's confident he will earn a return trip to Capitol Hill.
In an exclusive interview with Sunshine State News, the outspoken Democrat said he's raised $2 million from 50,000 contributors since last July.
That's "more than any House challenger in the United States and more than 99 percent of current House members," he reported.
Noting that the average contribution has been for $42, Grayson, a millionaire lawyer, said he can connect with the voters in the largely blue-collar 9th Congressional District that spans parts of Orange, Osceola and Polk counties south of Orlando.
Though the newly drawn CD 9 was designated a "Latino Access" district with 40 percent Hispanic population, Grayson is unchallenged on the Democratic side.
The Republican field includes two Puerto Ricans -- Osceola County Commissioner John Quinones and local school board member Julius Melendez -- along with attorney Todd Long and businessman Mark Oxner.
"In 2008, I won 80 percent of the Latino vote," said Grayson, who served one term before being ousted by former Florida Senate President Daniel Webster. "I won every Latino precinct in the district."
Grayson credits his electoral pulling power with working-class Hispanics on his aggressive public works and social welfare agenda.
"I have a housing record to run on. I cut Orange County foreclosures in half with a mandatory mediation program and bringing in the largest housing refinancer to offer 2 percent loans.
"Thousands of Latinos kept their homes as a result," he says.
Grayson also points to his unstinting support of Obamacare, which he says will provide 100,000 people in the district with health insurance.
"And more than half are Latinos," he says.
An unabashed supporter of the federal stimulus program that he said brought $200 million into Orange and Osceola schools, Grayson contrasts his record with the Republicans'.
"The GOP Ryan budget makes it clear what will happen: No Republican will do anything different. People will see more money in the district under me. The issues will be crystal clear," he predicted.
As for Latino residents, who constitute roughly 40 percent of the new district, Grayson debunks the notion that Hispanics will reflexively vote for Hispanics.
"Marco Rubio got only a third of the Puerto Rican vote in 2010," he recalled. "There's too much at stake for people to be voting on the basis of race."
Grayson attributes his 2010 defeat to voter turnout -- or, rather, a lack of it. Though he garnered half the independent voters, the Democratic turnout collapsed into the low 40 percent range.
The one-time congressman figures that Democrats are more likely to head to the polls this November, when President Obama is back on the ballot.
"But with half the new district new to me, we have our work cut out for us," he admits.
Long -- an attorney who, according to internal polls, is leading the GOP field --forecasts that Grayson is in for a rude awakening.
Though the new CD 9 incorporates Democratic voters shaved from neighboring districts, Long believes that conservative sentiments prevail.
"It's not a district of hard-core leftist secularists. The vast majority are Christians and they don't share his values on life or humility," Long said of Grayson.
"He was the most anti-Christian member of Congress and has no plan to help them. Puerto Ricans have voted Democrat because the GOP has done a bad job of reaching out. Fact is, anyone in [the Republican] field could beat [Grayson]."
Melendez also disputed Grayson's assertions about CD 9 and its voters.
"District 9is an American seat which will representhundreds of thousands of citizens from all backgrounds andethnicities.Since Alan Grayson doesn't live in the district, hasn't gone to school in the district, doesn't have his law firm in the district, I believe the formercongressman will have extreme difficulty representing anyone," Melendez said.
Although Grayson resides about a mile outside the district, in-district residency is not required, and he maintains a home inside CD 9 as well.
Nonetheless, Melendez called the Democrat "a classic carpetbagger attempting to buy a congressional seat with large sums of money raisedoutside of the state of Florida.
"I'm gaining support fromthevoters, community leaders and elected officialsin the district, regardless of their race or background."
Quinones spokesman Mike Shirley said, "Right now, our focus is on the primary. If we are the nominee, the Hispanic community will make their choice based on who they believe will represent them best.
"With John's long history in the Hispanic community in Central Florida, he understands the challenges facing them, butin a widerscope heunderstands the challenges facing all the citizens of the 9th Congressional District.
"He has represented the majority of the district in some fashion for many years and has won consistently in districts that are similar to this one that have overwhelming Democratic registrations."
Grayson maintains that the national trends are on the Democrats' side in CD 9, pointing out that Republicans have failed to nominate a Hispanic candidate in 30 districts that have Latino voter registrations of 30 percent to 50 percent.
But Oxner believes that Grayson can be beaten on the issues this fall -- just as he was in 2010.
"Politicians like Alan Grayson have put us in the mess we're in. If we want to change how Congress works, we need to change who we send to Congress.
"He wants to be a congressman so he can be on TV and pal around with his Hollywood friends. I'm going to be a congressman who will roll up his sleeves on day one and get our country back to work," Oxner said.
The businessman concluded: "The voters in District 9 value jobs, low energy prices and great education as much as any other Americans. Graysons policies are 180 degrees wrong in all these areas."
Contact Kenric Ward at email@example.com or at (772) 801-5341.