Our Q&A With Senate Candidate Art Graham
OBSERVER: Tell us a little about your background. Why did you first get into politics?
GRAHAM: My background is I was born on a military base overseas and grew up in a military family, where values like discipline, personal responsibility, and trust are hardwired. After graduating from Georgia Tech, I worked for major American companies as a chemical engineer, mostly in the environmental field.
I was never interested in political things until it touched my life personally. Friends got me involved in fighting a Jacksonville Beach plan to block one of our public beach-front street-ends with a high-rise building. We were able to change the course of events, so when those same friends urged me to run against an out-of-touch incumbent, we all pulled together and won it with a grassroots campaign. I got to be part of the turnaround of Jacksonville Beach that stopped the spreading blight. We got government out of the way of free-market forces, and the economy thrived. That felt pretty good.
OBSERVER: We were all saddened by the recent passing of Senator King, he's left some big shoes to fill. What makes you the best man for the job?
GRAHAM: Jim King set a great example of standing up for what you believe in, and at the same time building relationships and working the process to get things done. It's easy to be a bomb-thrower from the outside - but on the rare occasions when one of them is elected, they're aggressively ignored by their colleagues and accomplish none of what their constituents sent them to do. The go-along, get-along types, on the other hand, become creatures of the system, more interested in dividing up the pie than leading the state. I'm a responsible conservative who can build support in Tallahassee for the things that are important to us.
OBSERVER: During your time on the Jacksonville City Council, what are the three accomplishments you are most proud of?
GRAHAM: The top thing I'm proudest of is the way we cut taxes.
The facts are very clear: we cut the tax rate in four of the six budgets I've voted on, and kept it the same in the other two. Lately the mayor has pushed for a tax increase every year, but he can't get it past city council. Over the past five years, the total amount - and I mean the absolute dollar amount - a homeowner pays has gone down, leaving more money in your pocket.
Changing the way the council does business was important to me. I served on the committee that made councilmembers accountable for how they spend discretionary funds in their districts, banned spending public money on monuments to councilmembers, and clamped down on the tactic of waiving the rules so councilmembers could ram through giveaways to friends. I'm not prissy about politics, but the council clearly needed to be held to a much higher standard, and it's important to me that I helped get that done.
I'm very proud of eliminating waste and stopping boondoggles. Maybe it's the engineer in me, but I just rebel at things that are inefficient or irrational, so government really irks me sometimes. I opposed the $350 million courthouse and offered a practical alternative at half the cost. I energetically objected to a tax incentive giveaway to a body shop owner who wasn't going to create any jobs or invest any money, and ultimately that craziness was stopped. On a broader scale, I was on the committee that reformed economic incentives - we got rid of the corporate welfare, established accountability, and saved a program that creates jobs and grows our economy.
OBSERVER: If voters decide to send you to Tallahassee, what will your top priorities be in the State Senate?
GRAHAM: Our political leaders have lost their way. We have to get back to our principles and stop thinking government is about earmarks, favors, and self-interest. It's killing us. For instance, state government dictates that funds have to be spent on textbooks, even if they're not the most important need. Why? Because it's not about education, it's about textbook companies that want it and have the clout to get it. That's how state government works. We're in the economic fight of our lives, and a lot of our leaders can't let go of the idea that it's just supposed to be some sort of feeding frenzy. I hate to think what would have happened if we had this kind of leadership during World War II - we would have been paralyzed. The legislature has to wake up, remember what they're supposed to be doing, and run government based on our beliefs, not greed.
OBSERVER: Who would you consider to be your role models?
GRAHAM: Well, certainly my parents. They have standards, and we always knew we had to live up to them. My dad was in the Air Force for 20 years, and I grew up in a world that had rules and accountability. My mom was a nurse and has always been warm and fuzzy, but it's wrapped around a center of solid steel. Between the faith they gave me and the example they set, I feel like I know how you're supposed to live your life.
OBSERVER: The legislature recently attempted to cut pay for state workers making more than $45,000 per year. However, Governor Crist vetoed that out of the budget. Would you have supported making the cuts?
GRAHAM: Yes, I support the cuts. Look, it's a tough time. The state's revenue problems just reflect what's going on throughout the economy, and people all over are facing the same consequences. It's very painful, you hate to do it, but state government doesn't get an exemption from reality.
OBSERVER: What was your reaction when you heard that former Speaker John Trasher and School Board member Stan Jordan were planning to enter the race? How do they change the dynamics of the contest?
GRAHAM: John Thrasher is bringing a lot of money into the race from other places in the state and outside the state. His entry ignites a TV war between those he represented as a lobbyist and those who feel they have a lot to lose if he's elected, and that always gets ugly. Big money and political attacks are what people hate about politics, but that's going to be the landscape.
Thrasher and Stan Jordan together set the standard for being a "political insider" in this race. I've spent a few years
representing people here locally, and I've very purposely stayed in touch with how things look to the people I represent. That's a lot clearer when it's contrasted with two guys who have spent a long time in the belly of the beast in Tallahassee .
OBSERVER: Because of the special election, you will be forced to resign your seat on the City Council almost two years before your term is over. Are you openly supporting any of the candidates running to take your place?
GRAHAM: The District 13 City Councilman has to work things through with the beach city mayors pretty often, and I have always found John Meserve to be a reasonable guy with a business-friendly philosophy. I'm supporting him.
OBSERVER: On a personal note, what's your favorite place to grab a bite to eat?
GRAHAM: My favorite place to grab a bite was Harry's Bar and Grill was in Jacksonville Beach. It was such a friendly, open environment to eat in. The owner (Robert) would always greet you with a smile and a sincere hello. However, because of our tough economic times, Harry's had to close its doors three months ago. It was a sad day in my neighborhood.
The last couple of days were filled with neighbors reconnecting with neighbors and reminiscing. Seeing the staff losing their jobs was hard, a reminder of just how urgent it is that we do something to jumpstart this economy.
OBSERVER: Thanks very much for taking the time to talk with us, is there anything else you would like our readers to know about your campaign? How can they get in touch with you?
GRAHAM: The campaign is growing fast now, lots more people are excited now that election day is a few weeks off. There's plenty to do in a campaign, so we welcome anyone who wants to be a part of it and help change the way government thinks. Every Friday we have "Headquarters Happy Hour" where we get together and have a good time. That's how a lot of people have gotten involved, and the public is very welcome to come in and mingle. It's 5:30 - 7 p.m. in our headquarters at 1260 Beach Blvd. in Jacksonville Beach - it's at Beach Blvd. and 12th St., near Twisted Sisters in the shopping center.