Meet the man who wants to unseat the Democrats’ most colorful congressman

Jamie Weinstein Senior Writer
Font Size:

If Jorge Bonilla has his way, the most colorful Democrat in the House of Representatives will no longer have anyone to represent come 2015.

Earlier this month, Bonilla, a court interpreter and military veteran, announced he was entering the race to challenge Alan Grayson, the loud-mouth Florida congressman who infamously declared on the House floor during his first stint in Congress that the Republican health care plan was for sick people to “die quickly.” That comment was just one of Grayson’s many “hits.”

“I think the incumbent poses a very interesting contrast,” Bonilla told The Daily Caller at the Tortilla Coast restaurant on Capitol Hill last week while he was in town “reaching out” and introducing himself to members of the Florida congressional delegation.

“Here’s a guy — smart guy — who went to Harvard Law, who went to [Harvard’s] Kennedy [School of Government], who’s a trained economist, who has worked in telecom, in a highly regulated industry, who has acquitted himself well, and who also then comes into politics, enters the political arena, and goes into all this bombast and all this blabber,” Bonilla said of Grayson

“He has a record and that is what we will focus on in this election,” he added.

The 42-year-old Republican was born in Brooklyn, New York to Puerto Rico immigrant parents who he says came to America to “pursue the American dream.” He would spend his middle school and high school years in Puerto Rico with his mother before joining the military — first the Marine Corps Reserves and then active duty in the Navy.

Bonilla is quick to note his military background, but when asked whether he does this in order to contrast himself with Grayson, who didn’t serve in the military, Bonilla says “not necessarily.”

“I bring it up because it is apart of me, it is a part of my formation, it is apart of my life experience, that I am going to bring to the race and to the district,” he said.

Unseating Grayson won’t be easy. Grayson, who is popular with the leftwing of his party, served one term in Congress after winning election in 2008, but was then voted out of office during the tea party wave of 2010. But in 2012, he was sent back to the House from the newly reconfigured 9th Congressional District, which includes part of Orlando, with 63 percent of the vote. The Cook Political Report lists the district as leaning Democratic.

Bonilla believes he can win the district over, including by reaching out to Hispanics, who compose over 40 percent of the district’s residents.

“We have to understand — and this is something that the right needs to understand — is that you have to separate policy from outreach,” Bonilla said.

“Outreach is not policy. Policy is not outreach. You have to do both hand and hand, but you can’t confuse one with the other. So we are going to do outreach in those neighborhoods. We’re not going to take anything for granted. You can’t just show up and claim heritage and be entitled to anything. … You have to go out there and you have to compete and you have to make the case.”

On immigration, while Bonilla says “there’s wide agreement that our current immigration system is broken and that it needs significant change,” he says he has “some areas of disagreement” with the “Gang of Eight” immigration bill currently before the Senate.

“I would have liked to have seen instead of a one size fits all comprehensive approach, I would like to have seen it done section by section,” he said. “I am of the general view that nothing good comes out of 2,000-page legislation. We saw that with health care. So it is a topic I believe needs serious discussion, serious debate.”

On foreign policy, Bonilla spoke in cautious tones about intervening militarily around the world, though he said he was neither fully in line with the Rand Paul foreign policy wing of the Republican Party nor the John McCain wing.

“I think we need to look very carefully — very cautiously and vary carefully — if we are going to expend American blood and treasure overseas,” he said.  “We need to cast a very, very wary eye.”

Speaking specifically of Iran’s nuclear program, he said there “are no good options” in dealing with the potential threat.

“I think we have kind of dallied in doing the things that we could do to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon,” he said. “But make no mistake about it, Iran with a nuke would be absolutely horrific for the free world.”

Bonilla says he is pro-life and against gay marriage, but he said “the overarching arch of this election cycle is going to be, the people are going to pass judgment on this administration.”

“And they are going to pass judgment on this administration’s performance in regards to jobs and the economy, with regard to health care and with regard to its promises of transparency,” he said.

Speaking of the scandals and alleged scandals the Obama administration is currently embroiled in, Bonilla said “they are all fruit of the same poisonous tree if you will, which is this idea that government is somehow out of control and unaccountable to the people and to congressional oversight.”

But if he had to choose a scandal he thought was the most troubling, he said, “when you look at the IRS scandal and when you look at the AP-Rosen scandal, persecution of journalists, both of those kind of speak to our First Amendment rights.”

The tea party wave of 2010 helped push Grayson out of Congress the first time. In 2012, the tea party apparently forgot to show up. Come 2014, it is unclear whether they’ll be there or not to help throw Grayson out of Congress a second time. While Bonilla, who has written for conservative blogs like Hot Air and the Shark Tank, says he admires the tea party, he’ll leave it up to others to decide whether he is a tea party candidate.

“The tea party, I think, is more than a party, more than an organization. It is a sentiment that government is out of control,” he said. “It is a sentiment that government has reach far and wide into every aspect of our lives. And I share that sentiment. It will be up to others to decide what label to ascribe or what, I’m not going to focus on that.”

Follow Jamie on Twitter