Next to House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, no Democrat in Congress can bring conservatives’ blood to a boil like the loud-mouthed, crude-insult-sneering Internet comments section in human form, Alan Grayson of Florida.
A regular fixture on MSNBC, Grayson swept into office with the Obama wave in 2008 and immediately stood out among freshmen Democrats for his willingness to say things no other congressman — or perhaps any decent human being — would say. Appearing on the Alex Jones radio program, he called Ben Bernanke’s aide Linda Robertson a “K Street whore.” (That was enough to get Anthony Weiner, then still a New York congressman, to label Grayson “one fry short of a Happy Meal.”) He referred to the American health-care system as a “Holocaust for America.” And perhaps most famously, he asserted, with charts on the floor of the House of Representatives, that the Republican’s health-care plan was for Americans to “die quickly.”
Grayson lost to Republican Dan Webster in 2010 — after Grayson ran ads labeling his opponent “Taliban Dan” — and George Will called his defeat “an act of civic hygiene.”
But redistricting after the 2010 census added two districts to Florida, and the new lines created one in northern Orlando that was not far from Grayson’s old district, reasonably Democratic-leaning (D+4 in the Cook Partisan Voting Index), and heavily minority (43 percent white, 41 percent Hispanic, and 12 percent black). Grayson ran unopposed in the new district and won 62 percent in 2012.
A trio of Republicans are contending for a chance to unseat Grayson: Peter Vivaldi, Carol Platt, and military veteran and conservative blogger Jorge Bonilla. Bonilla is already turning heads in Washington; Representative Pete Sessions (R., Texas), the head of the National Republican Congressional Committee in the 2012 cycle, had his congressional reelection campaign donate $2,000 to Bonilla’s campaign on June 15.
Bonilla’s nascent campaign is emphasizing his military service — first the Marine Corps Reserves, then the Navy — and his parents’ migration from Puerto Rico as a symbol of newcomers’ success in living the American dream. But Bonilla is quick to emphasize that if elected, he would bring indisputably conservative views to the major policy issues of the moment.
GERAGHTY: First, the most basic question for all candidates: Why are you running?
BONILLA: The short answer is, I’m running because we can do better. After five years of runaway trillion-dollar deficits, after five years of Obamacare, after five years of stimulus that doesn’t actually stimulate, we’re in serious danger of being the first generation that leaves behind it a diminished America, a diminished country for future generations. We absolutely have to do better.
I believe my life experiences more than adequately qualify me to represent the ninth congressional district in Congress. That’s why I’m running, and that’s why I think that I’ll be the best candidate for Congress in this district.
JIM GERAGHTY: You’re going up against an incumbent who is not your garden-variety Democrat, in a lot of different ways, in Alan Grayson. What does it mean to run against a figure like that, and what unique challenges and opportunities does that present?
BONILLA: He’s a bit of an embarrassment. Alan Grayson is a known quantity. He’s Mr. “Die Quickly,” Mr. “K Street Whore,” Mr. “Knuckle-Dragging Neanderthals.” He recently said, “Republicans don’t want to do anything for brown people.”
He’s a known quantity, a known polarizing figure. I don’t think his politics, nor his rhetoric, nor the policy solutions he champions are actually representative of this district. I think we have a unique opportunity to engage him. Yes, he’s well funded, and he’s an entrenched incumbent. We know this going in.
As I said earlier, I think the sum total of my life experiences uniquely qualify me and equip me to represent the people of this district. Really, I’m the only candidate who can unite all the elements of the conservative movement within this district — who can speak to the tea partiers, Second Amendment activists, to people concerned about Common Core and the quality of education — who can unite all those elements and address the greater electorate of the ninth. It’s a unique opportunity in front of us and a unique challenge, and I’m looking forward to it.
GERAGHTY: I understand you recently received the maximum donation from Pete Sessions. What kind of reception are you getting from the Republican-party leaders in Washington?
JORGE BONILLA: Not just from the leaders in Washington, but we’ve been getting a great reception from everyone. Our candidacy is starting to become a consensus candidacy, one that can speak to all elements of the conservative movement. I will say this about Chairman Sessions, I am grateful for his guidance and for his counsel. He’s been a friend to us and our campaign, and we’re tremendously grateful for that.
GERAGHTY: What makes Florida’s ninth district unique? Any under-the-radar local issues that folks in Washington might not notice?
BONILLA: This particular district is unique because of its demography. It was written as a 42 percent Hispanic district, in accordance with the redistricting of 2010, after the census. There was a need to accommodate congressional representation for the large Hispanic population in central Florida, most of whom are from Puerto Rico. This district was carved out of many others — if you look on a map, this district looks like a blue island in a sea of red.
As far as unique particular issues, education is going to be a big issue, especially as Hispanics in the district begin to wake up to what’s going on in education, going on with that agenda. Beyond that, everybody’s issues are the same as everyone else’s in America — focusing on jobs, on the policies of job creation. You look at the fact that 97 percent of job creation this year to date has been part-time employment. You look at the economy, at employment opportunities, the 16 percent unemployment among Hispanics — those are going to be the big issues that we have to address in this election.
GERAGHTY: Florida Republicans had a really good year in 2010 — Rubio’s win, and winning a lot of House races — and then 2012 was a big disappointment. What’s your sense of what went right in 2010 and what went wrong in 2012, and how to do you get better results in 2014?
BONILLA: We’re going to get good results in 2014 by speaking to everybody. It’s the one thing we have to do. I know there’s been a lot of introspection within the Republican party. You hear a lot of people, a lot of talking about tone and a lot of people talking about messaging and so forth. But the first thing you have to do is speak to people.
You have to get out of your comfort zone. Speak to people you don’t normally speak to every day. Do so in a manner that is inclusive and respectful — you can do all of these things without compromising your principles or what you believe in. If we understand that, we can lose some of this fear and begin to engage with some of these other communities.
That is one of the things that hurt us in 2012. Romney — it was an all-of-the-above fiasco. Romney certainly didn’t do himself any favors. There were well-documented unforced errors — “47 percent” and some of these other things, that fed into the narrative that the Obama campaign had begun to bake into the electoral cake, painting Romney as this callous plutocrat who didn’t care about people. It fed into that, unfortunately, and that was a big reason for the damage that Romney suffered here in Florida. There were other things — turnout was something that could have gone better. You have to look at ORCA and the organizational failures. You have to wonder how much that affected Florida, when Romney lost by such a thin margin. You really have to wonder.
Hopefully we can learn some of those lessons. If we absorb those lessons, and do not just outreach but in-reach, and we begin speak to everybody, we’ll do a lot better in 2014.
GERAGHTY: Moving on to policy . . . You’re a veteran of Desert Storm, correct?
BONILLA: I served during the Desert Storm era, in operations of support of that. I was on board a tank-landing ship, serving in the Middle East.
GERAGHTY: If President Obama were to call you up and ask, “What should we do regarding Syria?” what would you tell him?
BONILLA: I would say the first thing you shouldn’t have done was to issue that “red line” like that on Syria. That’s number one. Number two, if you’re going to issue a red line, stand by it; otherwise you start to look weak in the eyes of the rest of the world, and you embolden America’s enemies.
As far as Syria goes, I would have preferred we simply allow the Assad regime — and, of course, knowing they and Hezbollah are clients of Iran — to battle it out with the elements of al-Qaeda who form the core of the rebels in Syria. As Sarah Palin once said, “let Allah sort it out.”
Now that we have chem in the mix, that brings up a unique set of challenges. When you have little kids getting gassed, that’s something we can’t allow to go by idly. Even so, I would strongly, strongly, strongly prefer this be done through proper channels, which is through Congress and an authorization to use military force.
GERAGHTY: One of the big questions before Republicans in recent weeks is the maneuver suggested by Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, and others to pass a continuing resolution that doesn’t fund Obamacare, and threaten to shut down the government if necessary. Where do you stand on that strategy? Would you back it or disagree with it?
BONILLA: You have to engage it. You have to engage Obamacare. Right now, as it stands, Obamacare has missed more than half its deadlines. It presents a huge security risk in terms of people’s personal information. We don’t know who these “navigators” are who are coming to collect information on us, and where it’s going, how it’s routed, who it’s sent to.
We see the law is not ready for prime time. We see some of these mandates that are being delayed — employer mandates, but not individual mandates. You have the insurance caps delayed a year. The law is not ready.
I fully support that this law be defunded. It’s going to be a job killer — we’ve already seen 97 percent of jobs created this year being part-time. You already see people trying to get away from Obamacare and the mandates. This law is already unpopular. I support any and all efforts to defund Obamacare. We have to continue fighting this law.
[Health and Human Services] Secretary [Kathleen] Sebelius recently said that because the law was passed by Congress — albeit I would say barely — and because the president signed it, and because the Supreme Court said it was constitutional, and because it was ratified in the election, that we should stop all opposition to Obamacare, that we should just cease and desist, and submit and let the law take its toll on the country.
I would point out to my friends on the other side that back in the mid ’90s, a law was passed by Congress overwhelmingly, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, survived numerous judicial challenges and was ratified by Bill Clinton’s reelection and in some sense ratified again by President Bush’s reelection in 2004. And yet its opponents persisted and fought what they perceived as a great injustice — and DOMA [the Defense of Marriage Act] was overturned this past summer. So the idea that we should submit just because a law is in place is, to me, asinine. We should fight Obamacare by any means necessary. And if that means we take some of the steps that Senator Lee has proposed, or through using the debt ceiling, I’m all for it.
GERAGHTY: What are your thoughts on the Gang of Eight immigration-reform bill that was passed by the Senate, and your state’s senator who sponsored it, Marco Rubio?
BONILLA: Let me start with Senator Rubio. I wasn’t a fan of the Senate bill. I saw his heart, I saw his intentions, I saw the idea of what he was trying to accomplish. I heard him recently, he held a local town hall here. He poured his heart out. He said he wanted to affect, however he could, that process which was being run through the Senate, which is being run by Democrats. And that’s one of the inherent perils of when your party only controls one half of one third of the three branches of government.
I understand his rationale. There’s a joke that a camel is a horse that was built by a committee; I wish he had built a better horse. Nothing good tends to come out of 1,200 pages or 2,000 pages of legislation.
So when you see some of these compromises that were made, I wasn’t a fan of the legislation, nonetheless I stand by Senator Rubio and how he was trying to effect some kind of change in the legislation — knowing that eventually something is going to have to get through the House and then through conference and things get hashed out over there.
I would have preferred to do something piecemeal. You have to address the border first. Border security is national security. The matter of making sure the border is secure, and that we know who’s coming in and out of here, isn’t just about the guy who’s coming over the border looking for work.
This is about the cartels running around loose around the border, and wreaking all kinds of damage. We saw it with the sad death of [Border Patrol agent] Brian Terry, the cartels are out there. It’s not just the cartels, it’s human trafficking, and you have the terrorist organizations that seek to work along the soft spots along our border. This is something that we have to take seriously, and I don’t believe the Group of Eight legislation took that seriously.
When the border is under some kind of order, then you have to look at visa reform. You have to regulate how people come into the country. You know who’s in here, who’s coming in here, who’s leaving the country.
If we do that, if we reform the border, and we reform how visas are issued and handled, I think that we can have a conversation about everything else that is concomitant to immigration reform. But we have to do those two things first, and I was disappointed that the Senate bill didn’t do that.
GERAGHTY: How would you characterize the response to Rubio at that town-hall meeting?
BONILLA: He had a great reception. He spoke on immigration, and what I saw were a lot of people from all over the conservative movement, many of whom didn’t agree with Senator Rubio, but wanted to give him a genuine hearing and hear him out. There were many who walked away still disagreeing, but there was an adult conversation there, among conservatives of all stripes. He was well received.
GERAGHTY: What else do people outside your district need to know about this race?
BONILLA: Know that this race is entirely winnable. I’m the only candidate who can bring together all elements of the conservative movement.
Nobody else in the primary field can do this — speak to people in Washington, speak to people within the Tea Party, the Second Amendment activists, the Common Core activists, and then speak to the greater electorate of the ninth congressional district.
This isn’t going to be an easy race. Alan Grayson is going to be well funded. It would be insanity to try to match him dollar for dollar, because he can always write himself a check. But we are going to make a race out of this and engage him in all different areas.
— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.