When Daniel Webster signed up to run for Congress against liberal instigator Alan Grayson, he never imagined he would be called “Taliban Dan.” Or that he’d be portrayed as a draft-dodging, woman-hating career politician. “I knew they would be rough. Maybe I didn’t know they’d be that rough,” Webster says.
Not that anyone should be too surprised. Grayson is, after all, the Florida congressman who described Dick Cheney as a vampire, who once suggested that gasoline would be cheaper if President Bush had let a Saudi prince “get to second base,” and who took to the House floor a year ago to pronounce that the GOP’s health-care plan was for sick Americans to “die quickly.”
The theatrics have made him reviled by Republicans, revered by at least some Democrats, and a potent fundraiser. But they may prove his undoing. Moderate voters have not reacted well to Grayson’s brutally negative and demonstrably false attack ads, and thousands of dollars in donations have flowed into Webster’s coffers. A poll released on September 29 showed Webster leading 43–36, and New York Times
prognosticator Nate Silver gives Webster a 75 percent shot at winning.
Respect for Webster comes from both sides of the aisle. “He is a principled, centered man in every way,” says former Florida governor Jeb Bush. “Philosophically, we disagree on so many issues, but as an individual, as a person — you know, I think if Dan tried to tell a lie, his tongue would fall out,” says Steve Geller, who served as state senate minority leader when Webster was majority leader.
Webster’s campaign headquarters is in an industrial park about 20 minutes northeast of Disney World, an austere office characterized by fold-up furniture, which staffers present as evidence of Webster’s frugality with donor funds. Our interview takes place in a cement-floor storage area in the back next to a forklift.
Webster himself is also unassuming: soft-spoken and thoughtful, with a dry sense of humor; more engineer than politician. “I own Webster Air Conditioning — catchy name,” he jokes. “My dad started it in 1961, so next year it will be 50 years old.” The company currently has eight employees, including three of Webster’s sons.
He might never have entered politics at all but for an incident in 1980. His church wanted to hold classes in a house it had purchased next door, and as the building-committee chairman, Webster was the man responsible for seeking an exception to the zoning rules. The request was denied because the exception would be “adverse to public policy.” Webster asked who was responsible for setting public policy and was pointed toward Tallahassee. “I said, okay, I’m running for the legislature,” Webster says. “I flew to Tallahassee on the last day to qualify.”
His big break came when the campaign received an endorsement from soon-to-be president Ronald Reagan, though to this day Webster doesn’t know how he won Reagan’s support. It was just enough to put him over the top: Early returns didn’t fall in his favor, and at one point the race was even called for his opponent. Finally, he was told the race was essentially a tie, with one area left to count — his home precinct of Pine Hills. The Orlando Sentinel had already gone to print and reported the next day that he had lost the race.
The statehouse, though, was frustrating. He says he was told not to bother filing any legislation, since a proposal from a freshman of the minority party would never be brought to the floor. It was an experience Webster took to heart. In 1996, when the GOP won control of the chamber for the first time in 122 years and Webster was elected speaker, he threw out the house rules and worked to create a better system.
“We did everything in the sunshine — there were no meetings after six o’clock,” Webster says. Legislators were required to rank issues by importance and take up the most pressing matters first, instead of leaving them for a marathon closing session. Lawmakers were limited in the number of bills they could put forth at any given time. Cool-off periods were added to prevent legislation from being zipped through in one day and to provide time for public comment.