David Jolly, Alan Grayson square off in Florida’s first Senate debate


Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

The field to replace Marco Rubio in the Senate is a crowded one, but you wouldn’t know it from the campaign’s first debate Monday night.

Two of the seven candidates for the open seat — U.S. reps. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, and David Jolly, R-Indian Shores— faced off in Orlando, debating economics, abortion, the environment and campaign finance.

The time spent on campaign finance allowed both candidates to highlight centerpieces of their campaigns.

Jolly has been riding a wave of good publicity for 48 hours following a 60 Minutes report Sunday on legislation he proposed called the “Stop Act.” It would ban federal elected officials from personally asking for money.

This weekend’s broadcast showed images of members of Congress dialing for contributions in what Jolly called “sweatshop phone booths.”

“Let’s get members of Congress off the phone and shaking down the American people for money,” he said Monday.

For his part, Grayson’s campaign has repeatedly touted small-dollar-donors’ support, though his campaign has also relied heavily on loans from himself.

“This is a revolution,” he said, echoing presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. “It’s happening right before our eyes.”

The debate, sponsored by the Open Debate Coalition, included questions submitted and voted for online, part of an effort to ask the kinds of questions that really interest voters. It was moderated by Cenk Uygur of the Young Turks Network and Benny Johnson of the Independent Journal Review, both national political websites.

Jolly and Grayson announced the debate after a March poll showed them leading other candidates for the Aug. 30 primary. Yet nearly half of voters in both parties were undecided in that poll, which came before a fifth Republican candidate entered the race.

Jolly is running against U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Ponte Vedra Beach; Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera of Miami; Bradenton homebuilder Carlos Beruff and Orlando defense contractor Todd Wilcox. In the Democratic primary, Grayson is running against U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter.

They hit other hot-button issues, including climate change, an issue Grayson said he has talked about since his first congressional campaign in 2008.

“I can’t think of anything else that would literally destroy the planet other than climate change,” he said.

The same question forces Jolly to walk a fine line. He recently announced he believes that humans have had an impact on the planet’s temperature.

“The challenges of climate change are real, but is climate change the greatest threat to our nation?” he said. “No. The greatest threat to our nation are agents of terror like we saw in San Bernardino.”

Or, Jolly said, a nuclear Iran.

And they discussed economic issues, on which the Republican and Democrat have starkly different opinions.

Moderators handed Grayson the chance to talk about Social Security and Medicaid changes he has proposed that he says would give seniors “a raise.” Among them are a proposal to lift a cap on Social Security taxes.

Jolly said the system needs to be changed more dramatically, but only for younger workers who have put less into it via federal taxes.

He also favors a minimum wage indexed to inflation, similar to Florida’s, which this year is $8.05, higher than the national $7.25 wage.

“An arbitrary lift,” he said, “would kill jobs at the bottom 4 percent of the workforce.”

Grayson, however, is a proponent of a $15 minimum hourly wage, and he cited experience in economics to back him up.

“Arguments against the minimum wage are false,” he said. “If you gave people a $15 minimum wage, there would be more customers. That’s what businesses really want.”

Notably absent from the debate was any question about possible ethics violations Grayson faces related to hedge funds, improperly disclosing finances and conflicts of interest.