ORLANDO — Gwen Graham is embarrassed.
Diet Coke in one hand, the Democratic candidate for governor scoops up the dental floss in the backseat of her campaign SUV. She also sheepishly notes the tear in the upholstery of the Chevy Equinox, caused she said by the heel of one of her black pumps while she was trying to take a power nap between campaign appearances.
Graham, who moved her campaign headquarters from her Tallahassee home to the crucial Interstate 4 corridor, is rushing to another meeting, this time with film-industry executives eager to reinstate the state’s suspended film-incentives program.
It might seem like a journey to yet another campaign meeting. But Graham, a former one-term member of Congress who never considered running for public office until she was in her late 40s, could make history this fall by being elected Florida’s first female governor and the first child of a governor to serve in the state’s top job.
As a front-runner in the race, Graham has been beset by critics: She’s relying too much on her father’s name, some say; she is too moderate and was not progressive enough during her time in Congress; she can seem awkward and boring during debates and public appearances.
Graham said she’s thick-skinned and the insults are meaningless. But she also admitted that lately she isn’t sleeping much.
“This election is going to determine Florida’s future in so many ways,” Graham said. “And I believe this is exactly the race I was meant to run and to win for the state of Florida.”
It’s a long way from when Graham, the eldest daughter of former Gov. Bob Graham, moved from Miami Lakes to Tallahassee when her father was inaugurated in 1979.
Bob Graham, who served two terms as governor before becoming a U.S. senator, said Gwen Graham and her three sisters had “as normal an adolescence as you could have, given where we were living and given what I was doing.”
But he also remembered that his daughter wasn’t interested in politics when she was a teenager living in the governor’s mansion and attending school at nearby Leon High School.
“I’d say it was about what the interest, for instance, of accounting, if your father happened to be a CPA,” he said.
Norma McIntosh Hodges was a popular history teacher at the high school, who had Graham in class. Graham wasn’t the only child of a governor that Hodges taught during her lengthy career. But she is one of the few that Hodges can still clearly recall.
“Gwen stuck out in my mind as being more sophisticated than the others,’’ the 88-year-old Hodges said. “She was a little more suave, as the teenagers say. She took things in. She was not real vocal but was always very aware of what was going on and what was happening.”
After graduating from high school in 1980, Graham attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and earned a law degree from American University. She spent the next 13 years focused on raising her children before taking a position in 2007 as an attorney for the Leon County school system.
In 2014, Graham ran for Congress and — despite a Republican wave that year — narrowly defeated U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland, a conservative Republican.
That victory forms a central argument in her gubernatorial campaign: She has won in a tough political environment and can return the governor’s mansion to the Democrats after 20 years. But her detractors worry she isn’t any better than the opposition.
Weeks before the 2014 election, Graham raised eyebrows when she announced that she would not support Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for House speaker. Among other things, she also was critical of Democrats for passing the Affordable Care Act without bipartisan support.
Within the first week of being in Congress, Graham voted for the Keystone XL pipeline, which is decried by environmentalists, and rolling back regulations for Wall Street.
Democratic post-election exuberance quickly waned, and many progressive Democrats who live in Tallahassee turned against her. Gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, the Tallahassee mayor who is endorsed by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, has assailed Graham, saying she didn’t stand by former President Barack Obama enough.
During this year’s campaign, Graham has taken similar positions as Gillum and the other Democratic gubernatorial candidates on key issues, but that hasn’t stopped the criticism. She has vowed to get rid of military-style “assault” weapons and expand Medicaid. She does not support the legalization of recreational marijuana but has said she would decriminalize it.
Graham’s family finances have also come under scrutiny, since her family owns land where a controversial mega-mall is being built in Miami-Dade County. Graham is a stockholder in the family business and earns money from it but says she has no role in the project, which has drawn opposition from environmentalists.
Graham’s congressional district was a combination of heavily Democratic Tallahassee and conservative rural areas of Northwest Florida. After new congressional maps made the district more firmly Republican, Graham decided not to seek re-election in 2016.
She said that was providence because it allowed her to focus her attention on the governor’s race.
“In some ways I felt like it was a sign that this (running for governor) is what I was supposed to be doing,” Graham said. “But if my district had not been redistricted I would have run for re-election, and then I don’t know what I would have done. I would have had to make a very tough decision.”
Another Democratic gubernatorial hopeful, Jeff Greene, blasted Graham in a mailer for the decision to not seek re-election and for her voting record. “Democrats invested more than $6 million electing Gwen Graham to Congress,” the mailer said. “Gwen repaid the favor by voting against Obama and quitting after one term.”
Since announcing her candidacy for governor in May 2017, Graham has traversed the state in a sports-utility vehicle. And during a recent day in Orlando, she was donning the same black closed-toe pumps that punctured the upholstery.
She toured the Adrenaline Films studio and heard from John Lux, executive director of Film Florida, who said the industry has been reeling since incentives were eliminated. Meanwhile, films and television productions in Georgia have had a multibillion-dollar economic impact.
’The industry is desperate for leadership. For somebody in a leadership position to stand up and say, “This is important. We want to help this,’ ” Lux said.
Graham assured him she’d support the industry, but Lux, whose association had met with 30 different political candidates since Memorial Day, continued to push.
“How do you get something accomplished?” he asked, noting that incoming state House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, opposes incentives.
Graham, who calls herself a “nice person,” countered that leadership stems from the governor’s office and that she has the skills to craft compromises despite political acrimony.
“That’s how governing should be, it should be an opportunity to sit down with people who disagree with each other but to find a compromise and find a way forward,” she said.