Magazine article Mother Jones

The Grayson Gambit

Magazine article Mother Jones

The Grayson Gambit

Article excerpt

BASE INSTINCTS

Even before he called Dick Cheney a blood-sucking vampire, or a female ex-Enron lobbyist who now works for Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke a "K Street whore," Rep. Alan Grayson stuck out on Capitol Hill. The hulking 6'4" freshman Democrat from central Florida sports garish shirts and ties beneath his dark suits, wears pull-up Italian boots, and approaches his job with the earnestness of an 18-year-old campaign volunteer. Grayson says he wants Americans to pay attention to "what's really at stake" as opposed to "the minutiae" of politics. To that end, he has been trying something new, and perhaps foolhardy: saying pretty much whatever he feels like and not worrying how people react.

Being unapologetically outspoken has earned Grayson a great deal of attention. In a speech on the House floor this past September, he summed up the Republicans' health care plan as "die quickly." Even after spending the final weeks of summer talking about "death panels," conservatives demanded an apology; pundits likened Grayson to Rep. Joe "You Lie!" Wilson, and the National Republican Congressional Committee branded him "DisGrayson."

But instead of backing down, Grayson went all-in, saying that he'd "like to apologize to the dead"-the more than 44,000 Americans who die every year because they have no health insurance. Then he set up a website to honor them. When a reporter asked about accusations that the site was exploitative, Grayson snapped, "Do we always have to let the other side set the agenda?"

All this has earned Grayson comparisons to conservative loudmouths like Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) (see "Who's the Biggest Fool on the Hill?" page 19), with the New York Times referring to him as a "wing nut." But when I met Grayson in a squat suburban civic center in Tavares, Florida, two weeks after the "die quickly" flap, he didn't seem the least bit chastened. In fact, it is quickly obvious that Grayson doesn't do chastened-even when it might be politically advantageous for a first-term congressman in a district that twice went for George W. Bush. "I recognize that I'm in a very competitive district," Grayson says. "But I really want to take advantage of the opportunities that are out there to say what's on people's minds, whether this experience goes on forme or not."

There is a lot on Grayson's mind. In a short interview, he quotes Polonius, describes conditions in Somalia, which he's visited ("a hellhole"), and cites ancient Rome's fire department as a cautionary tale on how outsourcing government to private contractors is a bad idea. He chokes up while explaining how he tries to emulate the "strong moral sense" and "toughness" of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Grayson speaks with a conspiratorial intensity, as though he's always passing along a big secret. He has an opinion about almost everything, from Joni Mitchell to monetary policy, and his opinions are nothing if not passionate.

Grayson grew up in a Bronx tenement, holds degrees in law and public policy from Harvard, and lives in a 12-room Orlando house with his wife and five children. Politics is something like his fifth career. He worked his way through college as a night watchman and a janitor, became an economist, and then a lawyer. In the early 1990s he briefly left law to become the president of a telecom firm. (Selling his stake and investing the proceeds helped make him the 12th-richest member of Congress.) Between the beginning of the Iraq War and his election to Congress, he drew attention for suing military contractors who perpetrated what he calls "the crime of the century" by massively overcharging the government for their services in Iraq. In 2006, he ran for Congress and lost in the Democratic primary. Two years later, he beat a four-term Republican incumbent who broke a pledge to not run again.

Besides his big mouth, Grayson has become known for his relentless pursuit of the Federal Reserve. …

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