WEST PALM BEACH — Before he was a two-term Florida governor and three-term U.S. Senator, Bob Graham was a state legislator unknown to 97 percent of the state’s voters and ready to abandon his gubernatorial ambitions.
A year before the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary in which his daughter, Gwen Graham, is a candidate, Bob Graham recalled his own dismal prospects at a similar juncture 40 years ago.
“I almost dropped out of running for governor in August of 1977, the same relative position that we are today, because I had just gotten back a poll which indicated not that I had 3 percent potential vote but I had 3 percent of people of Florida who knew who my name was,” Graham said Monday before a Forum Club of the Palm Beaches lunch where Gwen Graham appeared with fellow Democratic candidates Andrew Gillum and Chris King.
Despite the bleak August 1977 poll, Bob Graham decided to stick it out. A year later, in the seven-candidate 1978 Democratic primary for governor, Graham finished second with 25.2 percent. First-place finisher Robert Shevin got 35.2 percent. Because Shevin didn’t get a majority of the vote, Florida law at the time required a runoff between the top two finishers. Graham beat Shevin in the runoff by 7 points, then went on to an easy general election victory over Republican Jack Eckerd.
Graham was re-elected governor in 1982, then elected to the U.S. Senate in 1986, 1992 and 1998.
Graham was asked why he decided against dropping out in 1977.
“For one thing, I felt very passionately about the reasons I was running. Much like Gwen today, I felt like education needed to get more attention,” Graham said.
He said he also foresaw that his signature “work days” in which he worked at a variety of jobs around the state would generate positive attention.
“I had just finished a work day when I got this news about 3 percent,” Graham said. “And I thought that over time those would provide the awareness of why I was running that would serve me well.”