As a political newcomer taking on a three-term incumbent, Jim Graves is putting his career in business at the center of his campaign.
"I'm not a politician, never will be a politician," Graves said. "I'm a business guy that wants to serve the people in Congress and do a good job."
For months, Graves has tried to make a competitive race out of his bid to oust Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann. Recent polls give Bachmann a solid lead, but it is close enough that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has added Minnesota's 6th district race to its "Red to Blue" list of competitive races.
It's difficult to defeat an incumbent. Even those like Bachmann, who polls show voters find polarizing. In this race, it's better to be known to all, than not known at all. While many may share Graves' views or simply would like to see Bachmann voted out of office, polls also show just weeks before Election Day there are many voters in the 6th District who still don't know much about Graves.
Graves has done well for himself. According to disclosure reports he's worth between $22 million and $105 million. But he wasn't born into his wealth.
He grew up in St. Cloud, attended St. Cloud State University, married his high school sweetheart and had three boys. Following college, Graves taught sixth grade for two years. He started his first business in his basement. Later he built AmericInns and eventually founded Graves Worldwide Hospitality, which owns and manages hotels in cities such as St. Cloud and LaCrosse.
Lee Lynch is a business partner of Graves, in among other things, Graves' eponymous property in downtown Minneapolis: the Graves 601 Hotel. Graves' business skills were tested during the recession, Lynch said.
"We had nothing but bad news for three years. Every board meeting, every financial meeting was... I called it 'looking down at your shoe meeting,'" Lynch said. "You don't look up at the other person, you just keep looking at your shoes saying, 'when is this going to go away.' "
Lynch said it was Graves' honest attitude and complete candor that kept investors on board at the property.
"It's just amazing that investors could go through that; have that much money in and get no return for so long and not be madder than hell at the guy," Lynch said. "They know that he's really worked hard and done as best as he could. And now guess what, it's coming back. So the industry, the hotel business in Minneapolis is back again."
In his first bid for public office, Graves is trying to run as a political centrist — someone willing to buck his own party and work with Republicans. Repeatedly, Graves said he is running for the 6th District, not against Rep. Michele Bachmann.
Dan Hofrenning, who teaches American politics at St. Olaf College in Northfield, said Graves represents a new type of challenger for Bachmann.
"Michele Bachmann had defeated different types of candidates and I think Jim Graves is probably the fourth type. That is the successful business man," Hofrenning said. "If she wins, she's defeated the state cabinet member, the child activist, the state legislator, and now successful businessman."
For some voters, running against Bachmann is enough.
Sue Zimmer, an office manager who lives near St. Joseph, said she plans to vote for Graves.
"Oh definitely, yeah," Zimmer said. "Because he's running against Michele Bachmann, so definitely I'll vote for him."
At a campaign stop in Sartell this month, Graves told reporters that Congress is dysfunctional and that members are making ideological promises to people other than their constituents.
"What we need to do is go to Congress and get things done, find common ground, be willing to stand up and compromise and find real solutions to the real problems," Graves said. "That's what this election should be about and that's what I'm all about and that's why I'm giving back."
Graves purchased ads to raise his profile with voters. So far, he has self-financed about one-third of his $1.5 million campaign. Bachmann has raised more than ten-times as much. Although much of it was spent on her presidential bid, Bachmann still has a sizable funding advantage and will likely push the 6th District race into one of the most costly in the nation this year.
With less than two weeks left in the race, Graves still has an opportunity to win over voters in a series of three debates.
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