Bob Graham: The consummate public servant

Bob Graham — Photo: Florida Memory State Library and Archives

As the tributes came following the death of Bob Graham, a two-term governor and three term U.S. senator from Florida, one fact really illustrated just how good of a public servant the Miami native was:

Upon leaving the Governor’s Mansion in 1987, he had an 83 percent approval rating among Sunshine State voters. Eighty-three percent!

It’s hard to imagine any elected official today having that kind of public support and admiration at any point of their political career, let alone after eight years of scrutiny and second-guessing in a state that was growing and changing at lightning speed.

But then, Graham was not just any elected official.

From the start of his political career that spanned four decades and never saw Graham face an election defeat, Graham not only showed that he loved this state, but that he loved the people of this state. He not only cared about the people of Florida, he genuinely liked them and wanted to engage them.

After serving 10 years in the Florida House and Senate, in 1976 Graham surprised everyone, even his family, by announcing he was running for governor. He entered the race with 3 percent support.

Then he did something unique. He announced he would do 100 workdays alongside everyday Floridians to get an understanding of what they faced in life and, on and off the job.

Yeah, it was a campaign gimmick, but here’s the thing. He didn’t just show up for a photo-op, he actually worked the whole day – as a bellhop, a tomato picker, a mechanic, a garbage man, a circus clown, even as Santa Claus. One of his first workdays was as a “pooper scooper” in the sale ring at Ocala Breeders’ Sales on Oct. 9, 1977.

It turned out to be political paydirt, and Graham would go on the win the governorship. He would also continue his workdays once he became governor because he loved the interaction with everyday Floridians and what they taught him about his and their state. His kindness, compassion, attentiveness and responsiveness during those workdays became his hallmark. That’s who Graham was.

Graham, though, was a quirky fellow. He would often break into song without warning, just out of pure joy. He was known for the little spiral notebooks he carried in his pocket where he would make notes about everything from what he ate for breakfast, to what he watched on TV to who he met and who they were. Over the course of his career, he filled more than 4,000 of those little notebooks, which are now kept at the University of Florida.

The first time I met Graham was during his gubernatorial re-election campaign in 1982. We talked in a spare room at a campaign supporter’s home in Lake City. He was kind and patient and interested. He told me that his objectives were pretty basic – the environment, on education and the economy. The 3 E’s, I called them. Again, like his workdays, simplicity proved to be a big winner.

During his tenure as governor, Graham marshaled in new growth management laws, began protecting the Everglades and our water resources, set our public universities on a path to national prominence and helped guide Florida’s economic growth.

He would go on to run for the U. S. Senate, where he beat a popular incumbent by double digits. As a senator he was one of Congress’ most respected experts on national security as chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. He led the investigation into the cause of the 9/11 attacks.

He announced a run for president in 2003, but suffered a heart attack before the campaign really started and withdrew. Had he remained healthy, who knows what would have happened.

Born in Miami on his family’s dairy/cattle farm on the edge of the Everglades, Daniel Robert Graham died April 16, 2024, in Gainesville. He was laid to rest in Tallahassee, not far from the Governor’s Mansion. He wasn’t a South Floridian, a North Floridian or another politician who went off to Washington never to return. No, Graham was a Floridian. Period. And he loved Florida. All of it. And it loved him in return.

Brad Rogers, OM Editor
Brad Rogers, OM Editor
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