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Friday, Oct 24, 2014

Crist boosts Gwen Graham’s House bid

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TAMPA -

Two former governors — once political opponents — headlined a who’s-who-among-Tampa-Democrats fundraiser in Palma Ceia on Wednesday night for a candidate who hopes to retake a Panhandle U.S. House seat for the party.

One governor was Bob Graham, the father of candidate Gwen Graham of Tallahassee. The other was Charlie Crist, former Republican.

No one mentioned that Crist made his name as a statewide political figure in 1998 by running against Bob Graham for the U.S. Senate.

But since he became a Democrat, Crist has been fundraising for other Democrats with the zeal of a convert — or of someone who’s expected to announce a campaign for governor and wants to build IOUs.

Tuesday night, he headlined a fundraiser for St. Petersburg City Council candidate Darden Rice. Two weeks ago, he delivered the keynote for a joint fundraising dinner for the Hillsborough and Pinellas Democratic parties. In March, he did the same in Manatee County.

Crist, clearly eager to establish his bona fides as a Democrat, said his fundraising activity is only because “I’ve got so many friends on the Democratic side of the aisle and they’ve always been friends.”

The Wednesday fundraiser, at the home of Stacy Frank, also was hosted by Frank’s mother, Hillsborough Circuit Court Clerk Pat Frank, along with Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, City Council member Harry Cohen, former Mayor Sandy Freedman, former U.S. Rep. Jim Davis, Rep. Kathy Castor and Castor’s mother, former USF President Betty Castor, and a dozen more prominent Tampa Democratic insiders.

Gwen Graham, 50, hasn’t run for office before but has political savvy. She’s been involved in her father’s campaigns and others, including the 2004 presidential campaign of Howard Dean.

She’s a lawyer who works for the Leon County school system. She’s married to Steve Hurm, counsel for the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, and has three children by her former husband, Mark Logan. Logan is her campaign treasurer and attended the Wednesday event.

As one of eight candidates nationwide getting early backing from the national Democratic Party in hopes they can flip GOP-held seats, Graham looks like a shoo-in for the nomination to run against incumbent Republican Rep. Steve Southerland of Panama City.

Southerland, a tea party champion, won the seat from long-term Democrat Allen Boyd in the 2010 GOP wave election, then held it in 2012 against former state Sen. Al Lawson of Tallahassee.

“I’ve been approached to run for office before, but I was concerned that the argument would be that I was just running because I was Bob Graham’s daughter,” Gwen Graham told the crowd.

But she said that “dysfunctional” is too weak a word for the current, polarized Congress, and that Southerland’s re-election convinced her there was “an opportunity where I could start to be the change my dad talked about.”

Can she win against an incumbent in a conservative district?

“It’ll be a tough race,” Logan said.

He said factors in her favor include the racial diversity of the huge, thinly populated Panhandle district; environmental concerns about preservation of rivers and springs in the district; and concerns among the district’s large military population about sequestration.

Graham said despite electing Southerland, the district isn’t solidly Republican-voting — it went for Democrat Alex Sink against Republican Gov. Rick Scott in 2010, she said, and redistricting since then has added some Democratic voters.

Although she told the crowd she wants to be seen for whom she is rather than simply as her father’s daughter, there’s no doubt Bob Graham, the state’s foremost living Democratic icon, is her best campaign asset.

“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” Crist told the crowd.

Stacy Frank said 100 or more people attended the $250-a-person event, but she didn’t know the amount raised.

“I think she’ll have the money to win,” Frank said of Graham’s overall prospects.


wmarch@tampatrib.com

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