By Michael E. Miller
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By Chris Joseph
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Richard Grayson is an anomaly. Though politicians usually don't discuss their faults and neuroses, he'll happily tell you that he's cheap, anxiety-ridden, susceptible to panic attacks, and medicated daily with antipsychotics. "But I'm generally laid-back," Grayson insists at the Roasted Bean coffeehouse across from Nova Southeastern University on University Drive. "Really."
As candidates for U.S. Congress go, 53-year-old Grayson is about as unlikely as they come. No relation to Robin or Batman, for that matter, the short, blue jean-clad Bronx native is overanxious and clumsy. He's more Woody Allen than Peter Deutsch. That's reflected in the bumper sticker on his brown Chevy Cavalier. There's no conventional tag. Rather, the candidate has simply Scotch-taped a "Richard Grayson U.S. Congress" printout to the rear of the car.
"Hey, it works," he says.
Grayson, an occasional resident of Davie for the past two decades, has made a political career of running for a public office as a joke. He registered for vice president in 1980, advocating the nomination of "cuchi-cuchi girl" Charo as secretary of Housing and Urban Development because, well, she owned a house. One year later, Grayson was on the ballot in Davie as a Town Council candidate hoping to give horses the right to vote. Later, Grayson founded Broccoli Eaters PAC, a political action committee intended to determine candidates' stances on the vegetable. "People might not have rioted in L.A. if they had better nutrition," Grayson once told a reporter from the St. Petersburg Times.
Now, the perennial candidate is back at it, making his third run for Congress, this time in a district roughly 325 miles north of his Davie apartment. He faces Republican U.S. Rep. Ander Crenshaw, a lanky, wide-chinned conservative who serves as the House's deputy majority whip. Crenshaw has already raised $513,875 for his reelection. His quirky, self-effacing opponent? Not a damn penny.
But that's not a problem for Grayson. There are other concerns. He looks into his iced tea while sitting at a table inside the Davie coffeehouse. "I like the blue stuff," Grayson says before pouring three yellow packets of artificial sweetener into his drink.
Raised in New York, Grayson is a Renaissance man not because he's particularly brilliant but because he can't seem to stick to one thing. He's written five short-story collections that have garnered favorable reviews in the Miami Herald and New York Times. He's taught literature and English in New York and at Broward Community College and Florida International University. He's earned a law degree and instructed law students.
And he's wandered quite a bit. There was the artist colony in Vermont, the cattle ranch in Wyoming, the nervous breakdown in Arizona, and the time he had a pool house in Los Angeles for three months thanks to vacationing friends and an ear infection. "It would have been great," he remembers, "had I not been sick."
He finally entered political life in 1980. As a gag, of course. "Running for office as a joke is an old tradition," Grayson explains. Following the Watergate scandal, Congress created the Federal Elections Commission ostensibly to ensure fairness in the electoral process. Grayson saw the commission as another toothless layer of bureaucracy. He also saw it as an absurdity, considering its rules allowed him to register as a vice-presidential candidate. So that's what he did.
The same year that Ronald Reagan made his triumphant march from Sacramento to Washington, D.C., Grayson ran on a platform that advocated legalized street dueling because, as he told the National Enquirer, "it would eliminate a lot of crime (by getting) tensions out of the way." Grayson also suggested bestowing hereditary titles to boost morale. Among them, for the Big Apple nobility, he would have created the titles Baron of South Concourse and Duke of Houston Street. And, oh yeah, Charo would have had a seat on the Cabinet.
"It was basically political satire and egoism," he admits today.
One year later, after moving south from New York, Grayson ran for the Davie Town Council. "People had outnumbered horses and weren't giving them much say," Grayson recalls. "So I put together this joke platform. 'They want votes, not oats.' I pledged to vote n-a-a-ah on everything that came up until horses were given the right to vote." He lost to Art Lazear, 1,049 to 357.
Grayson's point? Davie was careening toward sprawl and overdevelopment. That, of course, never happened, right?
As in all good political tales, there has been personal calamity. In 1990, Grayson went broke. He needed help. While in the federal courthouse, Grayson remembers, he bumped into soon-to-be Congressman Alcee L. Hastings in the elevator. A federal judge had recently thrown out Hastings' bribery conviction. Grayson told Hastings that he'd hit bottom: bankruptcy. "You'll bounce back," he remembers Hastings telling him.
Grayson did, albeit in his typically quirky and sometimes-illogical fashion. He went to law school at the University of Florida with no intention of practicing. "Lawyers work horrible hours," Grayson says. "In fact, a friend of a friend was a lawyer. She was 42. She dropped dead at her desk at 12 o'clock at night. She had a heart attack. Karoshi, as the Japanese call it."
Armed with yet another degree, Grayson moved back to Davie in 1993 to be closer to his parents. He took a job at Nova and continued politics on the side. In 1994, he registered as a write-in candidate against U.S. Rep. Mike Bilirakis, a Republican in a district north of Clearwater. The Tampa Tribune published a half-serious profile of Grayson, listing among his issues "all kinds of liberal things." Grayson received a whopping 152 votes.
The following year, after Newt Gingrich commented that men are "biologically driven to hunt giraffes," Grayson founded another PAC: Giraffe Hunters of America. His organization garnered press in Roll Call and the Sacramento Bee.
Publicity on his side, Grayson in 1996 set his eyes on national office once again. He filed as a write-in candidate against U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican from Miami. Grayson garnered -- get ready -- eight votes.
Now an administrator and English instructor at Nova, Grayson is back on the ballot in 2004. Crenshaw, he explains, would have waltzed into office without a November vote had Grayson not entered the race.
The long-distance candidate even has a high-profile endorsement. John Anderson, a professor of law at Nova who in 1980 became one of the nation's most successful third-party presidential candidates after garnering 7 percent of the vote, has thrown his political weight behind the long shot. "He presents to me the image of a man who has a sincere belief, not an irrational belief, that we ought to have competition for political office," Anderson says. "He is an individual that some will dismiss at quixotic. Others will use less-kind adjectives to describe what seems a futile, if not hapless, venture."
"What I'm doing now is not quite a joke," Grayson explains in a moment of seriousness. "I'm trying to make a point. In Florida, we have a system where, if one candidate files for an office and no other candidate files, then there's no election."
Grayson is also using his candidacy as something of a literary vehicle. A former recipient of a Florida Individual Artist Fellowship Award for writing, Grayson pens short stories for several websites. In May, he began a daily campaign diary for McSweeney's(www.mcsweeneys.com), an online literary journal founded by author Dave Eggers. It's as much humor column as campaign soapbox, steeped in the postmodernist idea of making just about everything your subject. When a reporter from Folio Weekly, an alternative newspaper in Jacksonville, called to interview Grayson, the candidate researched the journalist.
"I Googled him and found out he's into environmentalism and hip-hop," Grayson wrote. "Doing background research on a journalist sort of makes me feel like a smarmy politician."
Grayson takes a sip of his iced tea, pondering the question of what he would do should he miraculously be elected to Congress. "I don't know where I'd live in Washington," he says, rubbing his chin. "I'd see if I could get a dorm room at American University. It would be interesting to be in Congress. But it would probably stress me out too much. It's a lot of work. I'm too lazy to be in Congress."