One of the most accomplished politicians in Florida’s history, Bob Graham never lost an election for office in more than four decades of public service at the local, state and national level. As first a state legislator, then governor and finally a three-term U.S. Senator, Graham has had a role in nearly every major public policy issue in modern Florida’s history.
Having personally witnessed Florida’s rise from a predominantly rural Southern backwater to an economic and political juggernaut that is now the nation’s fourth largest state, he created the Bob Graham Center in Public Service to continue his legacy of leadership and train the next generation of Sunshine State leaders.
Bob Graham was raised on a cattle and dairy farm in the deep Everglades of what is now Miami-Dade County. Daniel Robert “Bob” Graham was literally born into Florida politics on November 9, 1936, just a week after his father, Ernest “Cap” Graham, was elected to the Florida Senate as an anti-corruption reformist. A businessman and farmer, Cap Graham took on a criminal gang that had controlled the town of Hialeah — a move that subjected his family to frequent threats.
For a young boy, it was a tough but rewarding environment. Bob Graham grew up driving tractors, loading manure and raising livestock on a coral-rock homestead located deep within what at the time was a hot, disease-ridden swamp. During heavy rains and hurricanes, the family’s house would sometimes flood, forcing them upstairs to avoid the poisonous snakes and other animals that invaded the property. Graham was a standout student, winning the title of Dade County’s “Best All-Around Boy” from the Miami Herald and serving as president of Miami High’s student body. At the University of Florida, he was involved in many different clubs and organizations and served as chancellor of the student honor court and president of his fraternity. A political science major, he also won some of the school’s most prestigious awards. He was inducted into the University of Florida Hall of Fame (the most prestigious honor at UF) and was a member of the exclusive Florida Blue Key.
After graduating from Harvard Law School, Graham returned to his native Miami Lakes and won a seat in the Florida House of Representatives as part of a group of young progressive Democrats sympathetic to civil rights, public education and the environment. The group was known as the Doghouse Democrats, because their liberal credentials often landed them in the doghouse with the conservative Democrats who controlled the state.
Serving the Public
In 1978, Graham launched a quixotic bid to become Florida’s governor. Still a little- known politician with progressive instincts that simply didn’t play well in the more populous conservative areas of Florida, Graham also faced the hard reality that no South Florida candidate had ever made it to the governor’s mansion. Most pundits t thought he was simply deluded for even trying. But Bob Graham ran an exhaustive, state-wide campaign that also saw the creation of one of his signature efforts: the Graham workday. Though the concept was simple and had been tried before, it had never been done as Graham did it. He didn’t just show up to give a speech and follow someone around their factory for an hour: Bob Graham trained for the job beforehand and then put in a full day doing it.
He spent 100 days during the campaign working ordinary jobs, laboring at everything from changing bedpans and cleaning invalids in a nursing home to wielding blowtorches as a steel worker and going without sleep as a long-haul trucker. At one point, working as a bellhop, he even ended up carrying the luggage of the wife of his primary opponent, Democratic frontrunner Robert Shevin. Winning the election in 1978, Graham continued the workdays as governor and then as a U.S Senator. In all, he served 386 workdays laboring in a dizzying number of jobs, trades and professions that included sports photographer, immigration officer and radio DJ. He also wrote a book, Workdays, that is a richly detailed primer on the art of politics.
After serving two terms as governor, Graham joined the U.S. Senate in 1987, carving out a career known not only for his grasp of domestic issues like Everglades restoration, immigration and off-shore drilling, but as a leading expert on foreign policy and intelligence. He was a frequent guest on Sunday morning news programs like “Meet the Press” and in 2002 he appeared on the Sunday shows more than any other politician.
Profiling Graham in The Washington Post in 2003, reporter Michael Grunwald wrote: “Today, Graham is one of the most popular politicians in Florida history. He’s known as a successful governor, an excellent consensus-builder, an unusually nice man for a politician. He’s never lost an election. He’s never been embroiled in a scandal. He’s enjoyed support from environmentalists and sugar barons, Cubans and Jews, retirees and college students. Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton and Al Gore all considered him as a running mate.
Al Cardenas, former chairman of the Florida Republican Party, complains that half the state’s top GOP fundraisers raise money for Graham as well. “He’s a very decent man,” Cardenas concedes. “He’s got real integrity.”
One of Graham’s most important contributions came during his last term, when he was named chairman on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. He co-sponsored the bill to create the Director of National Intelligence position and co-chaired the Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attacks on September 11, 2001. Graham later authored 2004’s “Intelligence Matters,” revealing serious faults in the U.S. national security system.
After retiring from public office in early 2005, Graham spent the 2005-2006 academic year at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Most recently, he is the author of “America: The Owner’s Manual,” a book that employs case studies of successful efforts by citizens to influence the political system.
The book represents the ideas at the core of the mission of the Bob Graham Center for Public Service: training the next generation of public leaders by grounding students with a hands-on education in the American political system through internships, seminars, lectures and detailed case studies of public policy issues. Graham also remains active in politics, serving on the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism in 2008 and currently on the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission. Most recently, Sen. Graham has been appointed as co-chair of President Barack Obama’s BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling Commission.