In 2004, fiction writer Richard Grayson campaigned as the Democratic write-in candidate against incumbent Republican Ander Crenshaw for Florida’s 4th Congressional District, a move roughly akin to Harvey Fierstein crank calling Evander Holyfield for the Heavyweight Boxing Title. (In the end, Crenshaw received 255,448 votes; Grayson received 1,167.) Grayson’s hilarious, informative account of his 2004 campaign first appeared as a blog on McSweeneys.net.
In 2007, Grayson compiled his blog entries and published them as Write-In: Diary of a Congressional Candidate in Florida’s Fourth Congressional District, through his own press, Dumbo Books. He plans on publishing books by other authors later this year. Write-In might be a collected blog, but it unfolds like much of Grayson’s fiction. On display we find suspense, humor, self-mockery, absurdity, telling details, deep knowledge of the subject matter, and a narrative voice informed by humility, fierce intelligence, and compassion. It makes you wonder what Grayson could accomplish if he took his campaign more seriously. Grayson has campaigned for Congressional office multiple times. A lifelong political activist, he’s currently running as the Democrat against incumbent Republican Jeff Flake for Arizona’s 6th Congressional District.
Florida Book Review: Are you a fiction writer who campaigns or a candidate who writes fiction?
Richard Grayson: Yes.
FBR: Throughout Write-In you admit that your chances of winning are slim and none. Your chances against Flake are equally bad. Why invest so much time, money and energy toward running in unwinnable races?
RG: For the same reason I write books of short stories that are unwinnable in the marketplace, I guess. Because I enjoy doing it.
But I really believe that contested elections are important in a democracy. One of the reasons we tend to have a partisan war with hysterics on both sides in Congress is that the vast majority of districts are safe seats. I testified at the state commission that did the redistricting in 1991, following the 1990 census, when they met in Gainesville. Karen Thurman, the current Democratic party state chair, was on that commission, and surprise, one of the districts created was one that centered around her state senate district and she got elected to Congress (a seat she lost after the 2000 redistricting).
The Ocala Star-Banner, Orlando Sentinel and Gainesville Sun ran stories on my testimony. I showed some drawings I'd made of my proposed districts. For the Orlando area, I'd created a Congressional district in the shape of Mickey Mouse ears. For Brevard County and the Space Coast, my district was shaped like a rocket ship. I had a gator-shaped district centered around Gainesville and a palm-tree-shaped district in Palm Beach County.
I was in my first semester of law school, and one of the members of the redistricting commission, former House speaker Jon Mills, director of UF Law's Center for Governmental Responsibility, asked for my drawings so that they could have them for the official record. Three years later, Jon became my boss when I went to work as a staff attorney at CGR, but he made sure he kept me out of any work we did on the electoral process!
John Anderson, whom I voted for in the November 1980 election for President—the only time since 1972 I didn't vote for a Democrat—and whom I mention in my book, is now a Nova Southeastern law professor whom I got to know during my four years as an administrator at the law school John has studied the issue with colleagues, and they've done some brilliant scholarly writing on the problem of the gerrymandering that has turned the vast majority of U.S. House seats "unwinnable," as you say, for one party or the other. He's also proposed several innovative solutions that work in other nations, such as multi-member districts (which we used to have in the Florida legislature when I moved to the state in 1980) and preference voting.
It annoyed me that so many Florida incumbents in Congress were "elected" on that day in May when they filed for reelection and no one bothered to oppose them. In 2002, living in Davie, I got a ballot I had gotten several times in the past: there's not even a spot for the U.S. House race. You'd think at least you could vote for the incumbent or not vote for him or her. But Florida doesn't do that, and I find it sad.
As a hopeless candidate, I don't have to worry about fundraising, currying favor with anyone or avoiding saying what I think for fear of losing votes. It's an ideal situation in many ways.
FBR: You open Write-In with a frightening statistic: "Over 90 percent of Americans live in congressional districts that are essentially one-party monopolies." These monopolies are maintained though a variety of tactics and conditions: redistricting, voter apathy, and patronage, among others. How do parties establish these monopolies in the first place?
RG: Through the redistricting process, which is first and foremost incumbent protection and sometimes ridiculously partisan. I recall being in Fort Worth in 2003 while Tom DeLay was getting the Texas legislature to redistrict the Congressional seats in a naked Republican power grab. The Democratic legislators fled to Oklahoma and New Mexico to avoid the vote, but they couldn't do it forever and the GOP could gerrymander state to create several more Republican safe seats Of course Tom DeLay's own seat wasn't safe after he was indicted on corruption charges.
FBR: One of Write-In's real triumphs is your humorous handling of the surveys you received from all those special interest groups and organizations. When the first one landed in your mailbox—from Gun Owners of America—-you wrote, "Surveys from interest groups are fun to fill out and can help the campaign." Within two months "questionnaires [were] coming in at a rate of about one a day," many of them exhaustive and tedious. Right-leaning Eagle Forum, a group that opposes same-sex marriage (their website's mission statement proclaims "We support constitutional amendments and federal and state legislation to protect the institution of marriage and the equally important roles of father and mother," and “Eagle Forum successfully led the ten-year battle to defeat the misnamed Equal Rights Amendment with its hidden agenda of tax-funded abortions and same-sex marriages") bludgeoned you with 69 questions; when their final question asked you to describe how you'd "support traditional marriage," you answered, "Kill Liza Minelli." Why is same-sex marriage such a polarizing issue?
RG: I think it's fading a bit. In 2006, Arizona became the first state to vote against an anti-same-sex-marriage amendment to the state constitution after that issue seemed to work everywhere else.
I was shocked last month when Jeff Flake, the very conservative Arizona Republican I'm now running against-—someone with a very poor record on gay rights (organizations like the survey-happy ones you mention but on the left, like Human Rights Campaign, had consistently rated him a zero based on his votes)-—ended up as one of the 35 GOP House members to vote for ENDA, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Flake, a religious Mormon, said it was the hateful rhetoric against gay people that made him inclined to vote for the bill.
Now, I happen to be one of those happily single people who, like Ralph Nader, believe that same-sex marriage is a crafty plot to force us all of into matrimony and couplehood. I was 18 and hanging out in Greenwich Village the summer of 1969 during the Stonewall riots, and to some of us back then, the only advantage of being gay was that you couldn't get married.
But I support choice, and there are really good policy reasons that we need same-sex marriage. Teaching in a religious high school a couple of years ago in Phoenix, I discovered that just about all the kids, including the kind of straight jocks you'd think would be very homophobic, just couldn't understand why there isn't same-sex marriage yet.
This issue will eventually fade as an electoral hot-button; right now people are more interested in demonizing immigrants.
FBR: Which presidential candidate do you support for '08, and why? Who do you think has the best chance of winning?
RG: I have no preferences among the Democrats. Due to a staff mix-up, I am actually listed as a candidate for President in the February 5 Arizona presidential preference primary:
I'm where I was back in 1988, when I headed a political committee called Florida Democrats for Undecided. In the Florida primary that year, "uncommitted" was listed along with Michael Dukakis, Paul Tsongas, Jesse Jackson and the other candidates, and I was one of those championing the unsure and the uncaring. I got publicity in the Florida Times-Union and other state papers and got on several radio shows, like Debbie Elliott's show on WNWS in Miami. I think 2008 will be a Democratic year no matter who the presidential nominee is.
FBR: You've been politically active since you were a teenager in the 1960s. What first sparked your interest in politics?
RG: My parents and grandparents talked about it a lot, I guess. My grandfather Herb Sarrett had been a big supporter of Eugene V. Debs, the five-time Socialist candidate for President. I just found politics interesting. When I was in kindergarten, I wore a Stevenson/Kefauver button with pictures of the Democratic candidates. Elections seemed like a lot of fun. Despite its ostensible serious concerns, politics is basically a comic enterprise.
FBR: I was born in 1969, so my sense of an author's cultural influence might be highly romantic, but it seems that during the sixties an author's political perspective mattered on a broader level than it does today, particularly to college students. I don't think it's a coincidence that Kurt Vonnegut was one of the best-selling authors on college campuses during the late sixties and early seventies. It's doubtful that Slaughterhouse-Five influenced Melvin Laird's policies, but Vonnegut's anti-war message spoke directly to a large segment of the population. Mainstream journalists went to people like Vonnegut, Mailer and Heller for statements about the Vietnam War. Many outspoken authors were, I think, household names, literary celebrities, even to casual readers, the way David Sedaris and J.K. Rowling are today. Rowling has a huge cultural influence—the cape industry is booming, kids are chowing down booger-flavored jellybeans, fundamentalist campers roast marshmallows over burning copies of Order of the Phoenix, etc—but I can't imagine Time asking her or Sedaris to offer a perspective on Iraq. And if Time did ask, I wonder whether readers would notice or care. Did the era of best-selling-author-as-motivating-activist ever actually exist? If so, what factors have led to its demise?
RG: Probably the same cultural factors that have made serious literature a marginal enterprise. We do have celebrities testifying before Congress, leading antiwar rallies, taking up causes—but they are all performers, since nobody but other writers know who leading authors are.
The closest thing now is Obama backer Oprah Winfrey, who is important in literary circles because her Book Club can move a lot of units—the term younger writers in New York now use for what we used to call books.
The writer-as-candidate was less unusual in the 1960s: James A. Michener and Gore Vidal ran for Congress; Mailer and William F. Buckley ran for mayor in New York.
I loved Vonnegut from the afternoon when I was 16 and picked up a copy of Cat's Cradle at the Walt Whitman Shopping Center in Huntington, Long Island, but it had nothing to do with politics. I don't recall him being political. To be honest, I went to probably a hundred antiwar rallies and can't really remember any writers speaking. I didn't go to the Pentagon in 1967, but Mailer's The Armies of the Night is one of my favorite books, one I've enjoyed teaching.
Today nobody cares what fiction writers or poets or playwrights think about politics...or anything else. Arthur Miller is dead.
FBR: Has your activism informed your fiction writing?
RG: I wouldn't think so. But it has taken time from my production of short stories, so it's been a boon to lovers of good literature all over the United States. I can perform a civic service and please discerning readers of fiction at the same time.
FBR: Between a crushing teaching load (seven classes!), campaigning, and blogging regularly, where do you find time to write fiction?
RG: Well, the seven classes was a one-time thing, and I'll hardly be teaching much in 2008. But I write fiction only when I enjoy it. I wrote a lot of stories in the fall of 2004, when I was running the campaign in Write-In, had a job as associate director of student services at Nova Southeastern University's Shepard Broad Law Center and taught two undergrad classes at night.
Right now I've stopped writing fiction with no plans to go back to it. My last couple of books got some nice notices, but they didn't sell many copies—to put it mildly!—and, as at other times in my fiction writing "career," usually after a book comes out, I get discouraged and decide that nobody's interested.
I did not write any fiction for years at a stretch—for example, between 1991 and 1994, when I was studying at UF law school and beginning my faculty job there, and most recently between 2001 and 2003, my first years on the job as director of academic resources at NSU Law before I took a lesser position that freed up my time.
There's no point in writing fiction unless it gives me pleasure. For now, I don't have anything to say in the genre. With almost 300 published stories and a bunch of books, I've probably written enough bad fiction for this lifetime—as some perceptive critics have suggested.
That said, I probably will one day decide to write another story.
FBR: What unique political challenges did Florida face in 2004 that it still faces in 2008?
RG: Probably there are more challenges now. In 2004 the economy was good and growth was still vibrant. At the Center for Governmental Responsibility back when I worked there, Jon Mills and other and the state's other policy institutes were working on how to manage the phenomenal growth.
But in the year ending July 1, 2006, Florida slipped to the 19th-fastest growing state, a huge drop from the 9th-fastest growing the previous year. Retirees now are more likely to head for the Southwest, Georgia or the Carolinas. The insurance cost crisis didn't exist in 2004. With the mortgage crisis and housing industry in a recession, Florida's can't rely on growth anymore.
There are other problems. Florida's educational system never really caught up; I remember Gov. Bob Graham's goal from the early 1980s of getting us into the top quartile of states in education spending, but Florida never made it.
My own feeling is that the constitutional bar to a state income tax has been a real detriment to Florida. I once headed a state political action committee called Floridians for a Personal Income Tax that went nowhere.
But the weather's great and Florida is breathtakingly beautiful. That's why I plan to buy a condo in a Sunrise senior citizen community now that I'm age-eligible.
If you want to follow Richard Grayson’s current Congressional campaign, visit his blog. For more information on Grayson’s 2004 Congressional campaign, fiction writing, astrological sign, favorite musicians and movies, and to see how much he has in common with Spiderman, visit: http://www.myspace.com/Richard_Grayson or http://www.richardgrayson.com/
Tom DeMarchi, Director of the Sanibel Island Writers Conference, lives and votes in Fort Myers, Florida
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For those interested, here are the results of the 2008 Arizona presidential preference primary, according to Wikipedia:
Arizona Democratic presidential primary, 2008
Candidate * Votes * Percentage * National delegates
Hillary Clinton 229,501 * 50.37% * 31
Barack Obama 193,126 * 42.39% * 25
John Edwards 23,621 * 5.18% * 0
Bill Richardson 2,842 * 0.62% * 0
Dennis Kucinich 1,973 * 0.43% * 0
Sandy Whitehouse 632 * 0.14% * 0
Christopher Dodd 484 * 0.11% * 0
Edward Dobson 398 * 0.09% * 0
Mike Gravel 340 * 0.07% * 0
Richard Grayson 322 * 0.07% * 0