Bob Graham Remembered as ‘A Friend and a Consummate Public Servant’

TALLAHASSEE — As recollections and praise pour in for former U.S. senator and two-term Florida governor Bob Graham, Gov. Ron DeSantis said flags will be lowered to half-staff once funeral arrangements are announced.

“So, we mourn the passing of Bob Graham. He was a great Floridian. He’s served this state with honor and integrity and really made a great contribution,” DeSantis said while at a bill signing event in Hialeah Gardens on Wednesday.

Graham, a Democrat who spent three terms in the U.S. Senate after serving as the 38th governor of Florida from 1979 to 1987, died on Tuesday, his family announced. He was 87.

Lowering of flags in Graham’s honor would be “very much appropriate,” DeSantis said.

“We’re really thankful for his service,” DeSantis added. “And he served very, very ably for this state for many, many years.”

Graham’s family announced the death in a statement posted by his daughter, former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, who is now an assistant secretary of education in the Biden Administration.

“We are deeply saddened to report the passing of a visionary leader, dedicated public servant, and even more importantly, a loving husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather,” the family’s statement said.

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Graham drew bipartisan praise on social media and in statements issued by the White House, current and former party officials and dozens of elected officials.

Graham was a “colleague, friend, and devoted Floridian whose nearly 50 years of service to his beloved home state and to our country have made America a safer and stronger nation,” President Joe Biden said in a statement.

“He was full of humor and humanity, and I’m grateful for the support that he gave me over the years,” Biden said in a statement posted by the White House.

Biden noted that Graham was a cosponsor of the Violence Against Women Act, which the president said transformed “the way our nation responds to domestic abuse and sexual assault.”

“He was committed to education and to the environment, continuing work that he’d begun as governor to support public schools and universities, and to protect the water supply, wetlands, and wildlife of Florida’s iconic Everglades.”

Graham “loved people, and he knew that politics at its core is about learning from and serving others,” Biden added.

Graham grew up in Dade County “driving tractors, loading manure and raising livestock on a coral-rock homestead located deep within what at the time was a hot, disease-ridden swamp,” a statement posted by the Bob Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida, which was founded by Graham, said.

Graham kicked off his career in politics as the president of Miami High’s student body and went on to serve as chancellor of the student honor court at the University of Florida before graduating from Harvard Law School.

He was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 1966 as part of a group of young progressive Democrats who were sympathetic to civil rights, public education and the environment, the center’s website says.

Graham was elected governor in 1978 after undertaking “workdays,” where he performed a variety of jobs including picking tomatoes, bussing tables and patrolling the streets as a law-enforcement officer. Graham conducted more than 400 “workdays” across his political career.

Glenn Robertson, who served as a budget chief for Graham during his tenure as governor, told The News Service of Florida that the first comment Graham made to him was, “Glenn, you’re here to serve the people of Florida, not me.”

“He was a great leader who dedicated every waking moment to making sure all citizens and businesses were in a state with great job opportunities, a protected natural environment and a quality educational system, in particular,” Robertson said. “This was quite challenging because Florida was experiencing record growth rates every year of his two terms.”

Graham also was widely known for his ubiquitous notebooks, where he meticulously recorded “almost everyone he met contained notes on their thoughts, issues and questions,” according to Robertson.

“This kept his and our feet on the ground,” Robertson said. “He truly was connected to Florida’s citizens and business interests.”

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Robertson also highlighted Graham’s playful side, pointing to an iconic appearance at an annual event with lawmakers and the media in Tallahassee.

“His sense of humor and his natural hambone resulted in great entertainment for all in attendance,” Robertson said. “Once, he had the FAMU Marching 100 play on stage while he crowned himself ‘Governor for Life.’ That was never topped.”

Among Graham’s many accomplishments as governor was the establishment of the Save the Everglades program. He also joined with singer Jimmy Buffett, who died last year, to create the Save the Manatee Club.

Former President Barack Obama, who appointed Graham as co-chair of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, in a social media post Wednesday called Graham “a champion of the environment.” Graham’s appointment to the BP commission was aimed at preventing “a disaster of that magnitude from ever happening again,” Obama said.

“Bob Graham was a friend and a consummate public servant,” Obama said. “As a governor, senator, and legislator, he spent decades fighting for the people of Florida.”

Steve Vancore, a political consultant based in Tallahassee, told the News Service he first met Graham at a crowded fundraiser while working for former U.S. Rep. Pete Peterson in Washington, D.C. Vancore said Graham approached him as the senator was leaving the event.

“I was a little peon. … You don’t see that anymore. He came over to me, made me feel like a million dollars, remembered my name,” Vancore recalled. “That little thing really mattered and he went out of his way to do that. I found that to be, like wow.”

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David Johnson, a former executive director of the Republican Party of Florida, helped prepare then-candidate Charlie Crist, a Republican trying to unseat Graham in 1998, for a debate. Crist, who is now a Democrat, lost the race to Graham but went on to serve as attorney general, governor and U.S. representative.

“I am entirely sure that we need more Bob Grahams in politics, and I am certain Florida will very much miss the one we had,” Johnson wrote in a column posted Wednesday on Florida Politics. “Legends do not pass our way often. Peace and comfort to his family and friends.”

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