Politics & Policy

The Devil and Daniel Webster

Meet the man poised to take down progressive giant Alan Grayson.

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.

A writer for the St. Petersburg Times summarized the close of the 1997 session thus: “For the first time in recent history legislators brought the ship of state in for an orderly landing. There were no all-night sessions and very few successful ‘trains’ — bills containing special interest goodies known only to a chosen few. . . . Legislators who wanted to could know what was in most of the bills they passed. Lobbyists had to discuss most of what they wanted in public meetings. It was a phenomenal change.”

Not everyone was so thrilled. Geller, who was a minority-party state representative at the time, says he thinks the changes gave Republicans more power, since starting from scratch allowed them to make up the rules as they went. Webster’s intent, though, is beyond reproach, Geller says: “Dan felt that he had been oppressed by the Democrats, so he changed the rules in a way that he thought would prevent oppressing minorities in the future.”

Webster became ineligible to run for the house in 1998 because of term limits, so voters sent him to the state senate instead, where after ten years he was again term-limited. Then he went back to air conditioning full time, where he might have stayed, but for the passage of President Obama’s stimulus and health-care reform.

“I said, hey, I’m happy coasting. I don’t need to run a race,” Webster says. “That’s when my kids said, ‘Yes, we wanted you to be here, our business is good, we love working with you, but we may not have a business if somebody doesn’t do something.’”

So Webster jumped at the last minute into a seven-person GOP primary, quickly rising to the top and clinching the nomination with 40 percent of the vote. The general-election battle with Grayson, though, has proved more trying.

Grayson, a freshman congressman, has painted Webster as a career politician. He has a point. As the longest-serving state legislator in Florida history, Webster helped shape public policy for 28 years. But “citizen-legislator” might be a better descriptor.

“He is exactly the kind of person that we struggle to get into politics today,” former statehouse speaker and U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio said of Webster at a campaign rally. “A lot of people run for office because they just want to be somebody. Dan Webster doesn’t have to be somebody; he’s running because he wants to do something.”

Geller says state and national politicians who wanted to meet with Webster often made pilgrimages to the family business. “The state of Florida ought to buy the Webster Air Conditioning building and make it a historic shrine,” he says.

Grayson has also cast Webster as an extremist, most famously in the “Taliban Dan” TV spot. Webster’s opposition to abortion even in the case of rape or incest has been fodder for the Left.  So has a bill he sponsored in 1990 that would have given state recognition to “covenant marriage,” allowing couples to choose a bond dissolvable only through adultery.

Webster’s Christian faith is no secret. He and his wife home-schooled their six children, and Webster has cited the Republican state government’s failure to save the life of Terri Schiavo as his greatest legislative disappointment. According to one news outlet, during his time in state politics, he often prayed for fellow legislators and even political opponents.

Grayson has relentlessly lampooned Webster as a rabid fundamentalist, pasting his face over that of the pitchfork-wielding farmer in Grant Wood’s iconic “American Gothic”and telling CNN that “this is somebody with an 18th-century name and a 13th-century conception of how women should live in America.”

For his part, Webster has turned the other cheek. Despite Grayson’s brutal campaign ads, two of which have been eviscerated by non-partisan fact-checking organizations, Webster has refused to join his opponent in the mud. His own ads talk about the deficit and don’t mention Grayson at all.

Webster has also declined to debate Grayson. Such an event would inevitably descend into “gutter theatrics,” he has decided. “I have run a positive campaign without making a single personal attack on Congressman Grayson, and I pledge to continue to do so throughout this campaign. Being on a stage with him at this point would make keeping that commitment almost impossible,” Webster wrote in a statement.

Instead, he canvasses neighborhoods through “Walks for Webster,” doggedly sticking to one message: “Washington is broken.”

 “I believe that borrowing $4 billion a day is unconscionable,” Webster says. “I believe that determining that government could be the solution to our unemployment problems was just flat out wrong.” And many of Washington’s problems — the back-room deals and partisan pushing matches that have long characterized Congress — resemble those of the Florida statehouse circa 1996, he says.

Webster recognizes that if he is elected, he will be one voice in a crowd of 435. But trading Grayson for Webster would certainly be a solid step toward restoring a semblance of sanity to Washington.

– Kyle O. Peterson writes for National Review Onlines Battle ’10 blog.

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