Bob Graham: Provided a striking contrast in leadership

‘In the Black community, Graham paid attention beyond the cursory visits to Black churches. He was working on jobs with them in their communities and taking note of their struggles.’ 

 BY GAYLE ANDREWS | Contributor

The Bob Graham story is one that changed the face of Florida politics forever. But more importantly, his 40-year tenure brought Floridians something they never had: access to the state’s most revered leader in modern times. While the wealthy South Floridian started his political career on a traditional course, he careened on to an uncharted path that endeared him to Floridians for the rest of his life.

Early in his career, he represented Dade and parts of Broward County in a legislature controlled by the last vestiges of the North Florida Pork Chop Gang. And that environment was no place for lofty ideas. As a television news reporter covering the capitol, I remember Graham’s education committee chairmanship role and his passionate debate on education reform. At that time, the Florida Senate was a bastion of decorum and eloquent speeches, but Graham’s big ideas did not persuade Senate bosses.

Graham’s ever-present pocket notebooks were said to be a quirk that removed him from contention as a Vice Presidential running mate with Al Gore.

That indifference made Graham dig in. After he complained about students lacking civics knowledge, Carole City High School teacher Sue Reilly dared him to teach the class to see if he could do any better. Graham accepted the challenge of launching his first “Workday” as a teacher.

The Workday phenomenon was a remarkable conduit to the everyday Floridian. They never saw anything like it. A gubernatorial candidate doing a day’s work alongside sanitation workers, cooks, pilots, waiters, mechanics and every job in the Sunshine State was unheard of.

In June 1977, Graham took a break from his job building mobile homes. Without fanfare, he dressed in work clothes and, accompanied by his wife Adele, went to the Press Center to formally announce his candidacy for governor.

Though a dark horse, Graham jettisoned onto television news shows and the front pages of Florida newspapers. With every passing day, he became a bigger threat to front-runner Bob Shevin, the attorney general. The ruddy-skinned, solemn Shevin was a sharp contrast to the baby-faced Graham. On his bellhop workday, Graham even delivered a suit bag to the Shevin’s penthouse suite. His wife Myrna was not happy.

Graham brought youth and vigor to the campaign and hope for a better quality of life.

Florida Governor Bob Graham sodding grass for the Hammet Company Incorporated in 1979.

In the Black community, Graham paid attention beyond the cursory visits to Black churches. He was working on jobs with them in their communities and taking note of their struggles. For my father and grandfather, prominent Black leaders, and newspaper publishers, loyalty to Shevin was a given. So, my warning rang hollow to the long-standing precedent. But he won Dad over quickly, and I moved up a peg on the credibility ladder.

Graham would beat Shevin decisively in the runoff and trounced drug store magnate Jack Eckerd to become governor. For Tallahassee’s political elite, the new chief executive was unknown and had abandoned standard political norms to win. For Black Floridians, it meant that the end of the campaign would signal the beginning of a partnership for change.

Graham appointed more African Americans to his staff, cabinet, the courts, boards, and important higher education posts than any governor in state history. The intrigue surrounding the Graham mystique was the fact that constituents saw him in a different light.

We knew him, and we appreciated his curiosity and interest in improving our lives. Born into a life of privilege, he chose public service instead, producing programs that influence generational progress and impact everyone.

Termed out as governor, Graham was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1986, was reelected in 1992 and 1998, and chose not to seek reelection in 2004. Upon retiring from the Senate in January 2005, Graham had served 38 consecutive years in public office.

He passed away on April 16.

Gayle Andrews was a member of the Capitol Press Corps for 14 years. She is a distinguished graduate of Florida A&M University and the president of the Black Press Association of Florida.

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