Sen. Graham: ‘We all have the ability’ to take on city hall

VERO BEACH – It’s not enough to wave picket signs or hold hands around a favorite building about to be ripped down, former Florida governor and US Sen. Bob Graham told a crowd nearly 60 strong at the Vero Beach Book Center Monday.

“We all have the ability…to make a significant difference” in our world, he said.

The senator was at the bookstore promoting his latest book, “America, The Owner’s Manual: Making Government Work for You,” the product of a chance meeting with high school students years ago. When the politician went to a high school, the students shared with him what he calls the oldest running complaint – bad cafeteria food. He asked the students if he were the first to hear the complaint.

He was the third – after the city’s mayor and county’s sheriff.

“There must be something wrong with the way we’re teaching civics,” Sen. Graham recalled thinking at the time.

He got involved in education and, with help, devised a class that challenged students to get involved in local government, posing the question – “What does a citizen need to know to make government work for them?”

By the end of the course at one school, the students had taken on and improved the water quality in their town. They took water samples, had them tested and took their results to government officials who could do something about the private water utility, which they had found was not meeting standards.

“You can’t fight city hall,” Sen. Graham said of those who choose to live with the problem rather than work to change it. He says you can – the high school did. And the mother of a twin daughter killed by a drunk driver did, too.

Candace Lightner grieved the death of her daughter, taken at a too young age. She then decided that she was going to do something to prevent other mothers from going through the same heartache.

She formed a coalition – Mothers Against Drunk Driving – and after a tremendous effort and work, fought for the legal drinking age to be increased from 18 to 21 and set a standard of .08 blood alcohol concentration as the level of impairment.

During a 10-minute meeting with President Ronald Reagan, she told him about her daughter – he had a soft spot for children but didn’t want the federal government messing around with what he thought were state issues.

“She learned him,” Sen. Graham said, explaining that Lightner spoke with numerous people who knew Reagan, read up on him and learned what made him tick before meeting with him.

By the end of the quick meeting, Reagan decided he would do what he could to help – and in the end decided to suggest to states they raise the legal drinking age to 21 and establish .08 blood alcohol concentration. To entice the states to do something they were loathe to do, he tied the changes to funding – make the changes, get federal dollars to maintain highways.

In 1978, there were 24,000 drunk driving related fatalities, Sen. Graham said. By 2008, the country’s population grew by 15 percent but the number of fatalities from drunk drivers dropped to 14,000.

How Lightner succeeded in not only taking on City Hall but Washington, D.C., is held up as a case study in “America, The Owner’s Manual,” which lays out the groundwork for average citizens to define a problem, research it, determine who the decision makers are and how to affect the change they need.

Along with educating the general public, the book is a way for Sen. Graham to inspire Americans to get involved again in politics.

“I love America. I hate our government,” is a sentiment the senator saw on a T-shirt in an airport recently. He said he can understand.

He blames, in part, the continuing decline in public opinion on “rampart partisanship” on full display during the healthcare debates. He also said that the US Congress is losing the members who are near the center of the political spectrum due to voter apathy. Those who vote tend to be on one end of the spectrum or the other, not the middle.

The ones in the middle were the ones capable of working together and having open communication. The extreme congress members, as a whole, refuse to do so, Sen. Graham said.

But even as the senator works to inspire the public to get involved in politics and government, Sen. Graham has no plans to seek another term in Congress, the Governor’s Mansion or any other political office.

Sen. Graham, 73, had been in politics for 38 years before retiring six years ago.

“I have things I want to do,” he said when a woman in the audience asked if he would consider running again. Among those things was finishing his book.

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