TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham wrapped up her two years in Congress with a final news conference Monday, saying she was most rewarded by helping her North Florida constituents and that she is looking ahead to a possible bid for governor in 2018.
“All that we’ve done during my term in Congress, nothing means as much as the ability to make a difference in people’s lives and helping them with the challenges they face,” the Democratic congresswoman said at Tallahassee City Hall.
Graham said her office worked to return $2.5 million in benefits, which had been stalled or withheld by the federal government, to her constituents, including $1.4 million in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits.
She also cut her office expenses by $375,000, returning the money to the federal treasury.
“Our office is an example that you can get a lot done and still be fiscally conservative,” Graham said.
Graham, 53, who is a lawyer and former Leon County school administrator, won her first elected office in 2014 when she unseated U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland in a sprawling district that included the Tallahassee area and Panama City. She was one of two Democrats nationally who beat a Republican incumbent that year.
Graham’s plan to run for re-election this year was scuttled by a court-ordered redistricting, which left her in a Republican-dominated district that was won by incoming U.S. Rep. Neal Dunn, R-Fla.
But Graham has made it clear she is interested in running for governor in 2018, which is a post once held by her father, Bob Graham, a two-term governor and three-term U.S. senator.
“This is a very bittersweet moment for me,” Gwen Graham said. “But I’m very much looking forward to the future.”
Graham’s political future has been complicated by her husband’s diagnosis of prostate cancer. She said she will put off a decision on the governor’s race while her husband, Stephen Hurm, undergoes treatment.
“Life does throw you curveballs sometimes, but there is no one who is a bigger supporter of mine than my husband,” Graham said. “I look forward to what the future holds with him by my side.”
As a congressional member, Graham often characterized her leadership style as the “North Florida way,” where she emphasized trying to find pragmatic solutions rather than partisan solutions.
“The reality is for 20 years there has been a Republican dominance in state government, and I think that domination has actually hurt the state,” Graham said.
“I believe in a balance in government. I believe in having multiple voices in the room who have different opinions,” she said.
Graham did adopt one political technique from her father, conducting 32 “work days” in her district over the last two years, working side by side with her constituents in a variety of jobs, starting with a food-truck operation and ending by selling Christmas trees.
“Obviously, it’s about the job that you do for the day, but it’s so much more than that,” Graham said. “It’s about really getting to know people and really building those friendships and relationships that allows you to better serve them.”
Whether Graham can translate her political experience as a one-term member of Congress into a statewide office remains to be seen. She is likely to face a crowded Democratic field, where potential candidates include John Morgan, the prominent trial lawyer who has led the medical marijuana movement in the state, and a number of mayors, such as Bob Buckhorn of Tampa, Philip Levine of Miami Beach and Andrew Gillum of Tallahassee.
“She was the perfect congresswoman for this district: moderate, hardworking and down-to-earth,” said Kevin Cate, a Democratic consultant in Tallahassee. “I don’t know that the ‘North Florida way’ will translate very well statewide in a competitive primary. But I know if she runs, she’ll work as hard or harder than anyone else considering a run.”
Graham said her time in Congress has been “a joyful, positive” experience.
“I’m really proud, really proud of what we have done in the last two years,” Graham said. “It only confirmed to me that what I thought I could bring and what I in fact can bring is one in the same.”
The News Service of Florida’s Lloyd Dunkelberger contributed to this report.