Grayson gains limelight, but to what end?

July 1, 2009

Alan Grayson is everywhere nowadays.

He’s all over the Internet. He’s making news from Orlando to Washington. And he’s unabashedly playing hardball with everyone from Rush Limbaugh to Nancy Pelosi.

The National Republican Congressional Committee is obsessed with the liberal freshman U.S. representative, sending out as many as three press releases a day, bashing him.

Yet some of the hard-core conservatives and libertarians that make up the Tea Party movement are so enchanted with Grayson that they invited him to speak at one of their events.

In short, Grayson has done things everyone can love — including trying to wake Washington from its comatose complacency when it comes to watching public money.

But he’s also made questionable moves — including a controversial earmark request and going after his own personal pork while decrying the waste of others.

That Grayson is shaking up the system is undisputed.

To what end is the question.

When asked what he thought of Grayson, Republican U.S. Rep. John Mica, the patriarch of our local delegation, responded: “Well, he’s been very cordial to me and … um … yes, cordial. And um … what can I say? He’s a unique man.”

Most recently, Grayson made a splash by announcing a new $50 million hurricane center in Orlando.

Now, I’ve covered politics here for more than a decade and can’t recall anyone ever saying Orlando needed a hurricane center.

The state already has one in Miami. It’s called the National Hurricane Center. And it would probably love more research money.

I asked folks at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Tuesday if they knew what this center would do. They didn’t. That’s telling. And scary.

So, on a policy level, this one doesn’t seem to make a lick of sense — especially for a guy who supposedly bird-dogs wasteful spending. I won’t be surprised if it never happens.

But on a political level, I am in awe.

Grayson took an issue — Barack Obama’s energy bill, which one would assume he’d naturally support — and basically told Obama and Nancy Pelosi they could stick their bill where the solar panels don’t get light.

Both the president and the speaker personally lobbied Grayson for it, even digging up Al Gore to help. And Grayson ended up snagging a piece of pork so big that other members of Congress could only stand around licking their chops.

Wrote the Washington publication, The Hill: “Grayson may be a freshman, but he knows how to horse-trade like a veteran legislator.”

Say what you want about this plan — and again, I’m inclined to question it — but if Mica had snagged a piece of pork this big and juicy, every politician in town would have been dreaming of photo ops and sucking up to him like ticks on a cow.

Grayson has done a few things that are pretty universally popular — including repeatedly grilling bureaucrats about how the Fed spends the public’s money and why it does so in secret. He is one of the few guys doing this. The Tea Party crowd love this part of him. And he probably doesn’t get enough mainstream credit for it.

He also earned populist appeal for trying to squash big bonuses to execs at companies that received taxpayer bailouts.

He has also been unafraid to champion issues that may not be universally popular, from promoting mandatory paid vacation to defecting from his party to vote against the recent war-funding bill.

Then there’s his acerbic tongue.

After Rush Limbaugh said he wanted President Obama to fail, many members of Congress ignored him. Not Grayson. When asked what he thought, the freshman described the radio pundit as “‘a has-been hypocrite loser who craves attention” and “actually was more lucid when he was a drug addict.”

Such statements explain why Grayson’s base of both fans and critics is growing.

But he also has made one high-profile misstep that was both distasteful and perhaps telling.

Basically, Grayson tried to steer $350,000 in earmark money to an organization run by a controversial local man, J. Willie David.

David earned community-wide contempt in 2007 after he tried to claim settlement money from orphans whose parents were killed in a car crash. There have been other controversies involving David. To say the least: David has a questionable track record.

House leaders rightfully declined Grayson’s request, which was supposed to help residents avoid foreclosure.

Grayson should’ve just admitted he messed up and moved on.

Instead, he has been indignant — not only refusing to apologize, but even implying he might try again.

As a result, what should have been a one-day story with a quick mea culpa has escalated. Not only are Republicans hammering him, but now he is also on the radar of one of Washington’s most-feared watchdog groups — the usually left-leaning Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

And that may be Grayson’s fatal flaw: hubris.

Grayson has the ability to make a real name for himself — but only if he doesn’t get in his own way.
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