My conversation with Congressman Alan Grayson (D – FL) of Florida’s 9th congressional district on the NSA, GOP Primaries, Radiohead, and more.
By Jacob Engels
You went to Washington DC unafraid. You’ve challenged your own party and regularly flogged the GOP. Why don’t more elected officials embrace this style?
Two reasons. First, I am unafraid because win or lose, I have a good life. So many elected officials live in fear of losing the next election. That fear paralyzes them, and makes them kiss up to everyone in power without regard to what’s right for their constituents. In order to do the job right, you have to be willing to lose it. I enjoyed my life immensely before I was elected to Congress, and if I’m defeated, I will enjoy my life immensely again. I am not afraid of defeat. That liberates me to do the right thing.
Second, if you are unafraid, then you are a threat to the powers that be, and you pay a price for it. In 2010, outside special interests spent over $5 million to defeat me – more than any other House Member faced, anywhere in the country, ever before. The average person in Orlando saw 70 vicious, unscrupulous negative ads against me. In 2009, one of my children got a death threat. In 2008, my three-year-old twins saw TV ads showing my head sliced in half. A lot of elected officials simply don’t want that in their lives. They go along, to get along. I’m willing to stand up to that abuse; a lot of elected officials aren’t, or can’t.
Many have accused you of being too bold or brazen, they say you don’t have the temperament to serve in Congress. They say it impedes your ability to be taken seriously on issues that matter greatly to citizens of your district. What do you say to those critics?
People who accuse me of that are simply misinformed. That’s a lie, told by political opponents, for crass political purposes. If you were to poll Members of Congress, you would find that I am one of the best-known and best-liked Members. I’m popular not only among the Democrats, but also among the Republicans, because I’m one of the few Members who ever crosses the aisle to talk to them, and I do it not to get something from them, but just to get to know them. They appreciate my sense of humor, my work ethic and my honesty. The result of that is that out of 435 Members of Congress, I passed the most amendments on the Floor of the House last year. (And believe me, it’s not easy to pass anything when your party is in the minority.) I passed more amendments in both of my committees than any other Member, Democratic or Republican. And these are important, substantive amendments, like increasing medical research by $20 million, stopping racial profiling by Homeland Security, and putting crooked government contractors out of business. As a result, Slate magazine called me “the most effective member of Congress,” and Business Insider called me the most productive member of Congress. And our constituents have benefited enormously from that. Just to give one example, despite nearly universal budget cuts, I passed an amendment to increase bilingual housing counseling – much needed in our district – by 50%. Compare that record to other Members, both locally and nationally, who have little or nothing to show for their time in Congress. They’re the ones whom the voters shouldn’t take seriously. In any case, the voters want someone who is bold, because they understand that it’s the only way to get things done.
You have taken the hard line against the NSA and the Obama administrations surveillance of US citizens. What can congress do legislatively to stop this abuse?
There are a number of things Congress should be doing. For starters, it should pass my bill, the ‘Big Brother Is Not Watching You Act’ (H.R. 3883), which directs the President to implement the recommendations proposed by his own Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies. The Review Group is comprised of analysts who were hand-picked by the President to evaluate the events that have taken place, and propose corrective actions that balance our security and our liberty. They made more than forty recommendations to protect the privacy and civil liberties of Americans following reports of pervasive domestic surveillance conducted by the NSA that surfaced last year. These recommendations, which were presented as a comprehensive plan to help eliminate ubiquitous and unnecessary domestic surveillance by the government, should be treated as such. They shouldn’t be implemented in a piecemeal fashion, but that’s what the President seemed to indicate last week. The President asked for the advice of these experts, and now he should take it. And more fundamentally, we have to respect the Constitution. The Fourth Amendment requires “probable cause” and “particularity” before the Government can collect any personal information. The NSA is making a mockery of the Constitution by spying on all of us, everywhere, all the time. It’s as though the NSA were trying to move the novel “1984” to the non-fiction section of the bookstores. I don’t accept the proposition that we have to compromise on our freedom to remain safe.
NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has become public enemy #1 of our government, with prominent officials in the intelligence community fantasizing about putting a bullet in his head. Why do you want clemency for Snowden?
The notion of prosecuting Snowden – or asking whether he’s a whistleblower or a traitor – is just a distraction from the real conversation that we need to be having. The powers that be are making Snowden into a scapegoat for their own grossly unconstitutional misconduct. The documents he that released informed both the public and Members of Congress about pervasive domestic surveillance by the spying-industrial complex. These disclosures have sparked a real conversation about the state of privacy in our country, and I think that’s a good thing. The question for the American public is this: do you believe that this is the way it has to be? Do you believe that we must give up our privacy, our liberty, our autonomy – the very essence of what makes us Americans and human beings – in order to be safe? My answer is “no.” There is no threat to national security when I call my mother, and there is no reason for the NSA to obtain information about that call – and every other call we make. If it were up to the NSA, there would be a camera on every street corner, and a meter by every bed. I know that it is possible to preserve both privacy and security, and it’s up to Americans to take back our privacy to make that happen.
What is your top priority for our district in 2014?
I want to make the day-to-day lives of my constituents better. I want a lot of things for Central Floridians: higher-paying jobs, greater access to affordable health care, better working conditions, greater opportunities for our children. This job provides enormous opportunities to do good things for people, and our office has been hard at work proving that point. Every day, we identify opportunities to improve the lives of Central Floridians, whether it’s on the legislative side – like working to pass an amendment that would establish a hurricane precision forecasting program – or on the constituent services side – like helping veterans obtain their VA benefits. We’ve done some incredible things in 2013, like protecting the Kissimmee Gateway Airport’s control tower from closure, helping to secure a grant for the Orange County Fire Department that will allow them to hire more than 40 firefighters and others, and working to pass legislation that protects spouses of servicemen and servicewomen from home foreclosure. When our efforts translate into real change like that, our time has been well spent.
Your main focus for our country in 2014?
It’s very similar to my local priorities, just on a national scale. I want to see a raise in the minimum wage for employees who are working 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year and still struggling to stay out of poverty. I’ve introduced a bill to raise it to $10.50 per hour (including for tipped workers), and I hope that we’ll be able to vote on a raise this year. I want to see hardworking families finally receive paid sick leave and paid vacation leave, so I’ve introduced and co-sponsored bills to that effect. I want to continue protecting our senior citizens and veterans from cuts to their hard-earned benefits. Basically, I want life to improve for American families – to see the Middle Class expand. I want justice, equality, and peace.
Last election cycle you meddled in the GOP primary of those trying to unseat you, and consequently ended up facing someone who many viewed as the weakest candidate. Do you have similar plans this year?
I understand that some defeated Republican candidates who couldn’t even win their own primary accused me of “meddling,” and I disagree with that accusation. The Republican primary voters picked the candidate whom they wanted. If a bunch of Republican sore losers want to blame Republican voters for voting against them, that’s not my problem. If they had shown more respect for the judgment of their own voters, maybe they would have won.
Tell us a little bit about yourself, something most people don’t know.
I have five children, named Skye, Star, Sage, Storm and Stone. I have been to every country (which helps on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and in representing a district as diverse as ours). I started a business that went public, and is traded on the New York Stock Exchange. I cleaned toilets to get through college, and I worked as a night watchman on the midnight shift.
Are you a Radiohead fan?
Jacob Engels, is the Founder of East Orlando Post. Along with the Post, he owns several other business and is currently enrolled at Valencia College. Jacob has lived in Avalon Park since it’s founding and enjoys playing with his black Labradoodle Jasper, listening to indie rock, and seeking out new business ventures. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org