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Gwen Graham Makes a Mark on First Day in Congress

Graham, right, sits with her father, left, on swearing-in day. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

As former Florida Sen. Bob Graham watched his daughter, an incoming House Democrat, shake hands with an endless line of visitors Tuesday morning, he peeked out of her corner office window in Longworth at the briskly falling snow and marveled at the symmetry to his own political career.  

Thirty-six years  earlier, in a scene captured on the front page of the Miami Herald, a 15-year-old Gwen Graham stood with her father on a frigid outdoor stage in Tallahassee at his first inauguration as governor. It snowed that day as well. Graham, born in Miami, has spent most of her life as a resident of North Florida and won her first bid for public office last year in a GOP-leaning district — one of just two Democrats to defeat a Republican incumbent.  

With a bubbly personality — she used the word “positive” and “excited” multiple times Tuesday to describe her experiences in politics so far — Graham confirmed just a few hours into her first day in office that she would be a standout in the freshman class. Already mentioned as a potential statewide candidate in the near future, she was one of four Democrats to vote for someone other than Nancy Pelosi for speaker.  

“It’s certainly not personal,” Graham told CQ Roll Call. “It was a decision I reached during the campaign that both parties need new leadership.”  

Shortly before making her way to the Capitol, Graham, who turns 52 this month, was surrounded by her parents, one of her sisters, her husband — whose photos adorn Graham’s office walls and who was snapping his own shots throughout the morning — and her three children.  

She’d just finished hosting an open house for more than two hours, briefly greeting lobbyists, interest group representatives and anyone else intent on meeting her. Fellow members of Congress dropped by, including Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer. The rest of the well-wishers stood patiently in a line that stretched into the second-floor hallway by 10 a.m.  

Similar receptions were happening across House office buildings for the start of the new Congress, but one visitor noted that Graham's was the longest line she’d ever seen for a freshman. Indeed, the  collection of business cards on Graham’s desk had stacked a couple inches high when she started a fresh pile.  

The diverse visitors included representatives from the Podesta Group, the League of Conservation Voters, labor, hospitals, retail banking, defense, education and the Dairy Farmers of America, to name a few. Each entrant was greeted just inside her inner office door with a welcoming smile and sometimes a hug.  

“Have fun, do good work, hug a lot of people," Graham said at one point. "That's kind of my philosophy."  

Arizona Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, now in her second term, bounded past the line and into Graham’s office, where the two embraced. Sinema immediately remarked on the big space and window before explaining she’d had a “'Shawshank Redemption' view” during her first term, complete with dead pigeons.  

Sinema then glared at the coffee table where Graham features her campaign mascot, Petey, whom she won at an opossum festival auction.  

“Oh, that’s a stuffed opossum,” Sinema said dryly. “Well, it is North Florida.”  

Graham bragged about Petey at least a half-dozen times. The opossum served as a trophy in a daily fundraising contest between Graham and her father during the campaign, but on this day, Petey was simply a unique ice breaker.  

But Graham hardly needed it, as her inviting affect seemed to form quick connections during introductions. She asked one group of admiring female visitors whether her makeup was running; when she didn’t hear the name of one person’s group, she laughed about how her ears were blocked up for some reason; and she asked if it was generally accepted to have music blaring out of the office.  

Two hours later, Sinema and Graham sat next to each other along the middle aisle of the House chamber. Directly in front of Graham was Brad Ashford, the other freshman Democrat who’d defeated a GOP incumbent in Nebraska last year. To Graham’s right was her father.  

Before sitting, the father-daughter duo spent most of their time on the GOP side of the well, chatting with fellow Florida congressmen and Reps. Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., and Darrell Issa, R-Calif., as someone helped attach Graham’s new congressional pin to her jacket.  

In the speaker election, Graham stood to announce her vote for fellow Blue Dog Jim Cooper of Tennessee, whom she called a day earlier to disclose her decision. Sinema was among the other Pelosi defectors, while Ashford backed the returning minority leader.  After being sworn in, the rest of the day included stops at member receptions, votes, a ceremonial swearing-in and photo with Speaker John A. Boehner, and a celebration at the Florida House.  

“It’s been a whirlwind of a day, but it’s such a special day,” Graham said after her family photo with Boehner. “I don’t feel any different, I just feel more thrilled, more excited, more ready to start serving the people of this district.”  

Graham brought on two former top staffers of John Barrow, the Georgia Blue Dog defeated in November. Her office is led by chief of staff Julia Gill Woodward, who managed Graham’s campaign and whose husband did a back flip during the biennial office lottery — that good luck charm worked, as Graham selected sixth and got her first choice of space.  

But there is no escaping the influence of family for this freshman congresswoman with a golden political name. She’s rooming with her 24-year-old daughter, Sarah, who was already working in D.C., and Graham’s father was by her side for much of the day and the final two months of the campaign.  

“I have such an incredible role model in my dad,” Graham said. “One of the best things about this race was ... the opportunity to have people share with me how much they love and respect and remember my dad for his commitment to the constituents who give you the opportunity to serve. And it was a gift every day.”  

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