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Five Questions for Gwen Graham

October 22, 2014 - 6:00pm

Gwen Graham has been around Florida politics her entire life, as her father, Bob, went from being a Democratic state lawmaker to governor to U.S. senator. But now, she is the candidate -- battling in one of the fiercest races in the country as she tries to unseat Republican Congressman Steve Southerland in a sprawling North Florida district.

Graham's campaign is somewhat unusual in that she has out-raised the incumbent. She has adopted the theme of "the North Florida Way" to describe her approach to the campaign, and she expects to get some help with voter turnout when former President Bill Clinton leads a rally for her Sunday at Florida A&M University.

(Editor's note: A News Service "Five Questions" with Southerland ran in Sunshine State News Thursday.)

The News Service of Florida has five questions for Gwen Graham:

Q: Florida's Congressional District 2 includes the struggling Apalachicola Bay seafood industry and a number of poverty-stricken rural areas. Explain how your economic development plan would improve life for people in the district.

GRAHAM: Well, we put out a detailed plan; it's called the Graham Economic Plan, and you can find the plan online at if you'd like to review it. (Laughs.) I'm sure you have it next to your bedside, and you're reading it all the time.

And what it really does is it presents a way for the middle class to start succeeding again and having an opportunity. The very wealthy are doing very well. And we talk about providing tax breaks for small businesses, which is very, very important. We talk about the need to provide a course of training with the universities and community colleges that we have in our district, for the jobs that are available. We talk about infrastructure needs. I've actually been meeting with some of the chambers of commerce and with some of the local leaders and elected officials in the 14 counties in this district, talking about their needs for infrastructure. That is really important, and it's something the federal government can do that provides that boost that local governments need to grow their business. I'm a person who believes in economic efficiency. Every dime needs to be spent well. But with infrastructure growth, you get a strong return for local businesses and local economies.

I also am a very strong proponent of an incremental approach to increasing the minimum wage. I understand how small businesses could be concerned that if they needed to go from (paying employees) $7.93 an hour up to $10.10 an hour immediately, that it could hurt their businesses and that it could potentially cause them have to lay off people, which we do not want to do. But I think we could put in place a progression of incremental approaches to the minimum wage, to get you up to a point where the minimum wage keeps you above the poverty line. Minimum wage was set to make sure that if you were making the minimum wage, you were above the poverty line. That's what it was intended to do. And right now you can have someone who's working at the minimum wage 40 hours a week, and they still need government assistance. And that's just wrong. That's not what we should be doing as a country. I also think we need to be protecting Medicare and Social Security for our seniors. You know, that's something that they rely upon.

And so my total plan is really to make sure that everybody in North Florida has a chance to succeed. And I do know that the rural counties are really, really struggling. And we need to be providing job growth, economic development. And the role of Washington is to make sure that you're not putting too many regulations in place but there are opportunities to work with the agencies and build relationships with the agencies that will put you in line that if there are grants or if there are programs that could be funded through Washington that would help the 14 counties here, that I -- as the representative from this district -- will be someone they want to talk to and someone they want to consider, so that we can bring some of those dollars here to the 2nd Congressional District to help people that are really, really struggling.

So my approach to this is very different than Congressman Southerland's. My approach is that I'm going to go to Washington, bring the North Florida way, and that North Florida way is going to build the relationships that allow us to have the reasonable, efficient, effective government involvement that's not overregulation, but that allows the people here to have the resources to start that seed that will start the growth that everybody is so desperately needing.

Working with the 14 counties in this district to provide economic development and increase job opportunities is so important to me that I am going to have one person on my staff that is doing nothing but working to provide information and assistance and funding information and assistance every day. They will be the person that I meet with every day to talk about how do we help with economic growth and development. One person on my staff -- that will be all he or she does every single day. And I will make a point of meeting with this individual every day, making sure we're doing everything we can to turn around the 2nd Congressional District in the areas that need to be turned around and provide new opportunities for the people here.

Q: What about the Apalachicola Bay? It doesn't look as if anything's going to happen at the U.S. Supreme Court any time soon, people are waiting for the Corps of Engineers to move, and Florida's lawsuit against Georgia is holding up the progress of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint Stakeholders' operating plan. What are you going to do?

GRAHAM: Well, you've just laid out a lot of the problems that we have, and why we are where we are today. Congressman Southerland sort of attacked me when I -- he didn't sort of attack me, he did attack me -- when the (U.S.) solicitor general suggested that we delay the lawsuit. And this lawsuit is allowing people to do nothing, because people are saying, "We have to wait for the lawsuit to make its way through the court system." I said to you months ago that I didn't think the lawsuit was a good idea because of that reason. But now that it's been filed, no one should be using it as cover.

We should all be working hard to make sure that the ACF stakeholders are being -- the urgency of the situation is being addressed and being dealt with every day. They don't have any time to wait. I met with a group of oystermen about a month and a half ago, and the potential for shutting down the bay -- I mean, they will have to move. They will not be able to survive. So we're in a desperate place, and what has been done to date has certainly not been effective. And the lawsuit now -- I actually put out a statement to the president, saying, "Do not delay the lawsuit. Let's move forward." Because we need to have that lawsuit resolved as quickly as possible, whatever way it's resolved. And obviously, if it was resolved in Florida's favor, I'd be thrilled. I'd be elated. But if it's not going to be, then we need to know that as well, so that we can move forward with what are the other options. And the only way that we're going to help the people of North Florida and the Apalachicola Bay is to increase the freshwater flow down the river. I mean, that is just the reality.

In my opinion, the lawsuit is standing in the way of getting the parties together that have a vested interest in this, working with the Corps of Engineers and making sure that they see the urgency of the situation, and get some legal rights for the downstream users of the Apalachicola River. That's what has to happen. And the way to accomplish that is to build the relationships with the people who are in those positions who will want to listen to me, who will want to work with me. Sadly, Congressman Southerland's approach has been to alienate many of those who could be in the best position to help us here in North Florida. He certainly does not have a good relationship with the Corps of Engineers. He's taken every opportunity he could to lambaste them, and no one likes that. Certainly the Corps has its challenges, but no one likes that.

My approach will be to immediately pick up the phone, go to (the Corps of Engineers' regional office in) Mobile, which is where the group that worked with Florida is located, meet with them and start to have the issue of the Apalachicola treated like the Everglades has been treated. You know, the Corps was saying the Everglades didn't have any legal rights for such a long period of time. Finally, the Everglades was recognized as a treasure to our country. We need to do that for Apalachicola. I want to convene a conference, invite people from all over this country to come and to see the treasure that the bay is. I mean, this is a unique ecosystem in our world. And this is not an issue that just the people that live in Florida's 2nd Congressional District should be concerned about, and its preservation. This is an issue that the entire country should be concerned about. So I look forward to having the first conference in Apalachicola, bringing people down and having people become invested in saving this precious, precious heritage -- not only for Florida, but a precious economic opportunity for Franklin County and the best darn oysters in the world.

(You don't share Congressman Southerland's faith in the "sense of Congress" language in the Water Resources Reform and Development Act.) The sense of Congress means nothing. It maintains the status quo, which has reached a desperate point for the people of Franklin County. It concerns me that Congressman Southerland is misrepresenting what this language does, which is nothing. The language is not going to require the representatives of Florida, Georgia and Alabama to get together and start working it out in any way. The people of the 2nd Congressional District should expect that their congressman would be truthful with them. And the "sense of Congress" language is no solution. It's fancy language that means nothing.

Q: Explain your take on the lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries and its role in this year's shortened red snapper fishing season. In your debate last week, Congressman Southerland talked about the fact that people associated with the lawsuit at the Gulf Council had donated to your campaign. Could you address that?

GRAHAM: (Laughs.) Well, we seem to have a theme here: that lawsuits follow Congressman Southerland around. And lawsuits are not productive. Usually the parties to a lawsuit are not going to be able to work together well. It creates a bit of friction and tension between the parties.

Since Congressman Southerland has been in Congress, the red snapper season has been getting shorter, so clearly, he's not being effective in helping in this area. I went to a Gulf Council meeting a year ago, and had an opportunity to meet people from the recreational part of the fishing industry, from the charter part, from the commercial part. And you know what? These are folks who want to find a solution to this problem. And the lawsuit was an example of one sector of this group feeling that the red snapper were not being accounted for properly. But the reality is, we need to have a common-sense approach to bringing people together and making sure that we don't have a zero-day red snapper season next season, because that's what it's going to. And no one -- none of the industry -- wants that.

Q: President Obama has another two years in office, during which he'll likely veto any repeal of the Affordable Care Act. By the time he leaves, millions of people will be insured. How can you fix the federal health-care law without costing people their coverage?

GRAHAM: Well, from what I read in the (Panama City) News-Herald last week, I think Congressman Southerland has adopted my position, which is that we're at a point now where repeal is something (for which) you're going to have to have what's going to come in its place -- which is what I've said all along. I mean, I don't care what you call health-care reform, but we can't go back to a time when the insurance companies were making health-care decisions based on how much profit are they going to make. Where you could deny coverage because someone had a pre-existing condition. Where you could deny coverage because someone had met their max. Where women and men were treated differently in terms of how much their insurance cost. None of those are acceptable.

I believe that the congressman recognizes that there are parts of Obamacare that are working. And I know, like any major piece of legislation we've had in our country's history, there are always unintended consequences. What was unexpected was that this time, we would have a Congress that wasn't willing to do its job, and make the changes and make the fixes to the unintended consequences that occurred. Now, do I think that it was right for the Democrats to push through this legislation with no bipartisan support? No. I have said from the beginning that I would have recommended an incremental approach to health care reform. Health care is too significant in people's lives to have so many changes all at once. So if we had been able to have a Congress that was working together toward the goal of health-care reform, which absolutely needed to happen, we wouldn't be continuing to talk about this. We would be recognizing that positive things have happened, and there are negative consequences that we need to address.

Q: You and Congressman Southerland both present yourselves as being more in tune with the district than the other. He's said you're too liberal for it, you've said he's too conservative for it. Whether it's your "North Florida Way," or his family going back five generations -- explain why you have a truer sense of the district.

GRAHAM: I don't think I've ever said he's too conservative for the district. I think what he is is just not doing what people of North Florida expect that you do every day of your life, which is (that) you put your differences aside to work together to find the best solutions to the challenges that we all face. And you care about one another.

As I've traveled for the last year-and-a-half plus, I have just had this most amazing experience of connecting with folks and looking into people's eyes and feeling their hope that we can get back. And look, I know that people are not waking up in the morning and going, "Hmm. I wonder what Congress is doing today?" Not at all. But they do expect, when you're their elected representative, that you're going to do the job that they sent you to Washington to do, which is to represent them well.

And Congressman Southerland has not represented this district well. He has not provided the opportunity for people -- your first question was on the economy. He has not provided an opportunity for people all across this district to succeed. On the Apalachicola, he did not take advantage of opportunities to help. He really should have offered the amendment to the water resources bill that would have given the downstream users of the Apalachicola legal rights. He said during the debate it was an earmark. It was absolutely not an earmark, and I can provide you the legal analysis that says it was not an earmark, and if he can provide a legal analysis that says it was, I, as your congresswoman, would have gone with the one that said that it wasn't to make sure that the people of Apalachicola and North Florida got the legal rights so that they could get more freshwater flow. There's no excuse for that.

What I represent every day is working on behalf of all people, which is what the North Florida way is. And I think it's kind of indicative of the concern that they see for their campaign that this would be even something that he would be spending time talking about when there's so many other important issues that are really affecting people's lives that should be his focus.

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