First of all, we should stipulate that addressing the annual Associated Press pre-session planning day is a tough gig for politicians. Unlike partisan events, the crowd at these gatherings is largely stone faced, non-clapping reporters and editors from across the state and, especially after lunch, pretty low energy.
So Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham faced a tough room Thursday when she showed up at the Capitol Building's observatory. But she sure did not help herself with two weird jokes that fell utterly flat before the quizzical reporters looking on.
Right off the bat: "The burning question of the day — I know, right? I'm wearing black heels, high heels. And I can go backwards in the high heels. For those of you who have the shoe question, that's the answer to my shoes."
Confused silence. No one had a question about her shoes, nor any idea what she was talking about. Thankfully, the Times Union's intrepid Tia Mitchell later asked what the heck she was talking about. Graham said it had something to do with Philip Levine announcing his gubernatorial candidacy in white tennis shoes.
A few minutes later, Graham noted the ominous End Times-like swarm of wasps gathering outside the 22nd-floor windows.
"Do you think the wasps are symbolic of something in this building? Because it's a concern. We need to get rid of all the wasps, human and otherwise."
Sounded like her joke maybe was about WASPs, as in White Anglo Saxon Protestants (like herself and unlike three of her current or prospective Democratic rivals, African-American Andrew Gillum, Jewish Philip Levine and Catholic John Morgan). Nope. Her campaign later explained that Gwen "Shekel" Graham was "comparing the wasps swarming outside to the infestation of special interests in the Capitol."
Either way, no one laughed
Suffice it to say, this was not best day on the stump for the normally charming daughter of former Sen. Bob Graham.
When someone asked her about the sexual harassment issue that had dominated much of the AP session prior to her arrival, she noted her fondness for hugging most everyone she sees.
"I laid in bed last night sort of thinking, 'Do I have to change?' " she said. "If anyone doesn't want me to hug them, just tell me and I won't."
Much of the rest of Graham's remarks focused on her priorities of ending the "culture of high-stakes testing" in Florida, raising the minimum wage, and protecting the environment.
"This place represents 20 years of a stranglehold that has hurt the people of Florida," she said of the GOP-dominated capitol.
She singled out likely gubernatorial candidate Richard Corcoran, the Republican House speaker, for much of her criticism.
"Shame on Richard Corcoran. I think we talk a lot about integrity and ethical rules. You should not be able to propose a piece of legislation and be personally benefiting from that piece of legislation," said Graham, referring to Corcoran's wife, Anne, the founder of a charter school.
"There is a desire and a goal to privatize public schools in the state, and Richard Corcoran is at the lead of that. He's the leader of the band, and it is wrong to be the leader of the band when your family is playing in the percussion section."
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, the Republican front-runner for governor and a funnier fellow than many people realize, proved more adept at his humor attempt. He stepped up to the podium shortly after Senate President Joe Negron fielded a barrage of questions about sexual harassment in the Legislature.
"It's hard to compete with sex, but I'll do my best to keep it interesting," he quipped.
Asked whether Florida still needs an elected agriculture commissioner considering that the agriculture industry has declined under his tenure, Putnam didn't miss a beat:
"After your tenure as political editor of the Times, it's hard to say that the newspaper industry is in better shape than when you began," he joked, going on to say that the agriculture industry remains so important to Florida that it requires a Cabinet-level official focused on it.
"Agriculture is not some quaint, charming relic of the past. It's an important pillar of our economy today and will be in the future," he said, noting that he tackled issues like the New World Screw Worm and the threatened Key deer.
Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum also addressed the gathering, insisting that he has the best shot at winning the race for governor despite an ongoing FBI investigation into City Hall. He is not a target, Gillum said, and when the investigation ends, nothing "damaging, illegal or inappropriate or illegal" will come out about him.
Republican state Sen. Jack Latvala, another candidate for governor, noted that no other Republican in the race or looking at running has real experience in the private sector.
Goodman not on board
Republican media consultant Adam Goodman of St. Petersburg won't be producing campaign ads for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Levine, as had been widely expected. Goodman, who writes a column for the Tampa Bay Times, handled Levine's ads for two campaigns for Miami Beach mayor, but won't have a paid role in the Levine campaign.
Campaign spokesman Christian Ulvert said Goodman remains a close friend and "trusted voice" whom Levine can rely on for advice.