The Senator, Governor, and native son reflects on the ‘Cincinnati Factor,’ and why his beloved Florida remains the state of imagination.

By Ron Cunningham

NOTE: Bob Graham passed away Tuesday, April 16, 2024. In tribute, we are sharing this profile from the FORUM magazine archives. 

How Florida is Bob Graham?

The only home he ever knew, from his birth in 1936 until he went off to get married in 1959, was a coral rock house perched on the edge of the Everglades.

His family vacationed in DeFuniak Springs because “my childhood was during World War II, and it was hard to travel. So we didn’t miss many summers in the Florida Panhandle.”

He graduated from Miami High School (no joke, the Miami Herald once named him “Best All Around Boy”). And then went to the University of Florida where he met his future wife, Adele, and got himself inducted into Florida Blue Key, before leaving the state temporarily to earn a law degree at Harvard University.

How Florida is Bob Graham?

When he ran for governor, his campaign theme song was “I’m a Florida cracker, I’m a Graham cracker.” And he has been known to burst into spontaneous renditions of that little ditty with very little prompting.

“I am sitting in my office in Miami Lakes, approximately five miles from the house where I was brought to from the hospital a few days after my birth,” Graham says in a recent telephone conversation. “I have lived in other places, Washington D.C., for 18 years (while serving as a Democrat in the U.S. Senate) but I have always maintained my legal residence in Dade County.”

So, yes, it is fair to say that Bob Graham knows Florida. And having served in public office almost continuously from 1966 through 2005 (he never lost an election) Graham also knows a thing or two about trying to govern in a state in which so many “Floridians” are from somewhere else.

Which is why he often talked about the “Cincinnati Factor” during his years in politics.

Graham would begin by reading a fictional, but stereotypical Florida obituary: Mr. Smith, a Miami resident for 25 years, has passed away. The obituary would go on to mention his Florida-based fraternal organizations, business activities, civic involvements and so on.

And invariably it would end with: Mr. Smith’s body is being flown back to Cincinnati for burial.

“So many people who have lived here a substantial part of their life on Earth never made the full transition to being a Floridian,” Graham says.

That lack of a Florida group identity has definite cultural and political ramifications. The Cincinnati Factor meant you probably rooted for the Bengals rather than the Dolphins. It meant that you spent your early years paying taxes somewhere else, and didn’t really care to support new spending initiatives in your adopted state.

A young Robert “Bob” Graham in 1952 at a 4-H competition in Orlando with his Holstein heifer, Tiny Two. Photo courtesy of Sen. Robert Graham

It meant that your final resting ground was likely to be a family burial plot some distance north of the Florida/Georgia border.
“In a way, Florida has been a victim of its own success,” Graham muses. “In the beginning, Florida was thought of as being little more than a swamp to be avoided at all costs.”

Still, in many ways, Graham says, Florida is a “state of the imagination.” And he believes it is no coincidence that “many of the people who made the greatest impact on Florida were recent arrivals.”
Henry Flagler came from New York at end of the 19th century and saw St. Augustine as a French Rivera. He thought the United States was yearning for a French Rivera, and by God he was going to give it to them and give them a railroad to get there.

And then there was Chicago native turned California cartoonist/entrepreneur Walt Disney. “He started thinking about the possibility of building a grand theme park to commercialize his creativity, and decided Florida was the place to do it.

“Disney’s (Orlando) property used to belong to the Bronson family. My dad was a very good friend of the Bronsons and we often went to visit them. As a born-in-Florida person I would never have conceived of something like Disney World in my backyard.”

Now in his 82nd year, Bob Graham, 38th governor of Florida and three-term U.S. Senator, mostly divides his time between Miami Lakes and Gainesville, where he and Adele have an apartment. His official papers, including his celebrated wire-bound notebooks, are archived at the University of Florida. As a candidate and during his years in public office, Graham was never without one of his small notebook, into which he jotted down meticulous observations about the people he encountered and the events of his day.

Drawing on his papers, notebooks and other source materials, Graham intends to write a biography of his father — engineer, cattle rancher, and state senator Ernest “Cap” Graham — while also working on his own autobiography.

UF is also the home of the Bob Graham Center For Public Service, an institute founded by Graham to help develop leadership skills and promote citizenship values among young people.

What it means to be a Floridian

Graham has given a lot of thought to what it means to be a Floridian in a state so dramatically shaped by in-migration from all points of the compass.

“One of the beliefs which I still strongly hold is that many Floridians don’t appreciate the diversity of Florida,” he says. “If they live in Miami, they think that’s what the rest of the state is like. One of my personal campaigns is to try to encourage residents of Florida to make an effort to see as much of the state as they can if they want to appreciate the diversity, vitality, and strength that is Florida.”

As governor, Graham signed landmark measures intended to preserve Florida’s rivers, seashores, and undeveloped lands. And in retirement he co-founded the Florida Conservation Coalition to continue to focus attention on the plight of the Everglades, Lake Okeechobee, and other Florida natural treasures – urging greater environmental stewardship in one of the fastest growing states in the nation.

“As a public official, I have tried to protect as much of natural Florida as possible,” Graham says. “There’s no such thing, really, as the original Florida. It has changed so much. But I think we are doing a better job now.

“Florida used to be thought of as a commodity,” he continues. “There were no constraints about bringing out the bulldozers and creating something new.”

But with red tide now threatening beaches and green algae infesting Florida rivers and lakes, “we have begun more and more to think about natural Florida as a treasure to be protected and preserved.”

As for the Cincinnati Factor, Graham believes even that phenomenon has begun to fade. Especially in recent decades, when waves of newcomers have been as likely to arrive from Cuba, Haiti, or Puerto Rico as Ohio, New York, and Michigan.

Bob Graham visits the Everglades while serving as Florida governor in the early 1980s. D. Robert “Bob”Graham Political Papers, University of Florida

“Obviously the millions of people who have come to Florida in the last 15 to 20 years have a wide range of views about their decisions to come here and to stay here,” he says. “I think for most people, the longer they live here the looser the ties becomes to their previous residences and there is a commensurate increase in their affection for Florida.”

Those deepening Florida ties, Graham hopes, will help strengthen public resolve behind the imperative that Florida “be protected for the future so that generations to come will have the same opportunities to enjoy and share this beautiful part of the planet.”

Ron Cunningham

Ron Cunningham was a reporter at the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, higher education reporter at The Gainesville Sun, and Tallahassee bureau chief for The New York Times Florida Newspapers, before serving as editorial page editor at The Gainesville Sun until 2013. He is a University of Florida graduate and former editor-in-chief of the Independent Florida Alligator.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 Issue of FORUM Magazine. Visit our collection at the USFSP Digital Archive by clicking here.