Fear was spreading well ahead of the disease.
Despite assurances from public health officials that the chances of an American contacting Ebola were beyond remote, elected officials preyed on the public’s fear. In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie quarantined a nurse traveling home from Ebola-ravaged West Africa. In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal threatened to confine medical experts coming from Ebola-infected countries to an international conference on tropical diseases to their hotel rooms. In Wisconsin, Scott Walker called for a commercial travel ban. Candidates on the campaign trail and members of Congress called for the Department of Homeland Security to seal the nation’s borders to guard against the threat.
The calls almost exclusively came from Republicans, who were using the potential threat of a deadly outbreak to call into question Barack Obama’s competence and the security of our borders in an election season—never mind critics who said that such calls smacked of a subtle form of racism, raising painful memories of immigration restrictions from a previous era (calls and fears that have been echoed and amplified by the Donald Trump campaign.)
But there was one Democrat who joined in the fray: Alan Grayson, the ultra-liberal Democratic Congressman from Florida.
It was an unusual position for Grayson to be in. Grayson voted with the Democratic majority more than 93 percent of the time in 2013 and 2014, according to Ballotpedia. When Grayson, who is now locked in a tight primary battle for a U.S. Senate seat in Florida, has diverged from the party-line, it was often because he was attacking his party from the left, such as when he voted in favor of auditing the Federal Reserve or deauthorizing the Export-Import bank.
On Ebola however, Grayson was one of only eight Democrats—and almost the only one not facing a tight general election challenge—to come out in favor of a travel ban.
In July of 2014, he wrote a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry and Department of Homeland Security head Jeh Johnson requesting a travel ban of any citizen of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone to the United States. He wrote op-eds in national newspapers in defense of the idea, arguing that unless something was done the American population would turn into lab rats for the disease’s spread.
What was not known at the time was that Grayson—who was in the midst of ending his marriage to his wife of 25 years—had begun a relationship with Dena Minning, a biopharmaceutical lobbyist who in 2013 and 2014 earned $40,000 lobbying on behalf of BioCryst, a North Carolina-based pharmaceutical company that had been developing a potential Ebola cure. Minning had ceased lobbying for BioCryst by the time Grayson took up the charge, but she continued to consult for the company (PDF), earning more than $5,000 in 2015 and 2016 from the company, and, according to a financial disclosure Minning filed when she declared her candidacy, she owned between $250,000 and $500,000 in BioCryst stock options in 2015. In the heat of the attention garnered by the Ebola scare, the stock price rose from $10.92 in early June of 2014 to a peak of $13.96 in August of 2015.
Minning’s LinkedIn page boasted that as a lobbyist she “played a central role in successfully procuring a $25+ million contract from the US Government, awarded to one of her clients for the development of a broad-spectrum antiviral drug,” according to a Politico article. She is now running for Congress and that biographical tidbit has been removed from her bio.
Grayson and Minning began dating in December of 2013, the same month that Grayson officially separated from his wife of 24 years, Lolita. Lolita Grayson asked for a divorce and later accused her husband of physically assaulting her. The charge was later dropped. More recently his ex-wife accused Grayson, a former trial lawyer whose $31 million net worth marks him as one of the richest members of Congress, of withholding child support, forcing her and their five children to go on food stamps. Grayson has countered that he sends $10,000 a month in child support, and that two of the couple’s children are now living with him. Grayson has accused his ex-wife of bigamy since she was not divorced from her previous husband at the time of their marriage; complained to the media that she was a “gold-digger;” and called the police on her for using his credit card to pay for groceries gas and car repair.
Asked for comment, David Damron, a spokesman for Grayson, pointed out that although Grayson’s call for a travel ban was held by only eight other Democrats, five other members of Republican members of Congress from Florida also called for a ban, as did both of the state’s senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio.
“A travel ban actually would have alleviated concerns in the U.S. about the disease, not ‘sow(n)’ them,” wrote Damron in an email. “As Congressman Grayson pointed out then, such a ban would have reduced the likelihood of disease in the U.S., and in fact (in retrospect) it clearly would have avoided the one fatality that did occur. That was his sole intention in advocating the travel restrictions.”
Grayson meanwhile announced in July of 2015 that he was giving up his safe congressional seat to run for the Senate, even as most Democrats in Florida and Washington have lined up behind Patrick Murphy, his primary opponent. That month, Minning announced that she would run to replace him.
The two were married this past May, and she took Grayson’s last name. The primary is August 30, and she will be on the ballot as Dena Minning Grayson.