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Mon Nov 12, 2012, 12:56 PM

Busting Allen West- a Political Diary, 2012. [View all]

Last edited Mon Nov 12, 2012, 05:08 PM - Edit history (1)

I have always had an interest in politics, but work and my other commitments made it difficult for me to do much more than donate money and volunteer for some phone-banking and door-knocking in the last week or two before elections. This January I retired, moved to Florida, and decided to become more politically active. Now I had plenty of time available to pursue my interest- I just needed a candidate.

Florida redrew its congressional map last year based on the 2010 census. In February, Tom Rooney, the current congressman for Martin County, announced that he would run for re-election in the new District 17 which he expected to be more favorable territory for a Republican. Soon after, Allen West announced that he would move his campaign north and run for re-election in the new District 18 which included Martin County, St. Lucie County, and northern Palm Beach County. He wanted to be my new congressman. His likely Democratic opponent was a 29-year-old political neophyte, Patrick Murphy. In June I received a phone call from a Murphy campaign intern. The only thing I knew for sure about Mr. Murphy was that he was not Allen West. That was enough- I had found my candidate.

Though neither candidate had been officially nominated (the primary would be held in August) Murphy already had an active phone-banking operation up and running. I volunteered and started the next day. The office was in Palm Beach Gardens- 40 minutes away. I got into a routine of volunteering on Mondays and Fridays and mostly kept that schedule through election day. Fortunately, after a month the campaign opened another office in Martin County and I was able to cut down my commuting time significantly.

My prior volunteer experience was limited to working with other union members and calling from AFL-CIO generated lists. This was different. Now I was working mostly with younger people who had taken a temporary job with the campaign. In many cases they were just out of school and were expecting to return later to graduate school or law school. The internship was a temporary diversion from their career path but they still approached their task with enthusiasm and dedication. Most days that meant calling 400 strangers- a grueling and thankless job. I usually worked half days and found even that level of engagement mind-numbing.

The lists we used were generated from voter registration information. We called a lot of Republicans and independents. Many of those conversations were less than cordial. In the handful of calls on a given day that turned into an actual discussion of issues, I found myself talking a lot about Medicare. West had twice voted for Ryan's budget bills, which called for turning Medicare into a voucher system, and I knew that vouchers were politically toxic in the retiree haven of South Florida.

The formality of the primaries was dispensed with on August 14 and the campaign began in earnest. As the summer wore on and turned to fall, I got to know Patrick. He was young, energetic, driven, and accessible. He was merely adequate as a public speaker, but won people over with his enthusiasm. He came from a prominent and wealthy South Florida family- something that the West campaign would use against him in their relentless series of negative commercials. He graduated from a prep school in New Jersey and the University of Miami and then became a CPA. Later, he joined the family construction business. The highlight of his business career was putting together a fleet of skimmers and spending 6 months in New Orleans working on the oil cleanup after the BP catastrophe.

Politically, he is a self-proclaimed centrist- occupying a still largely undefined area someplace to the right of my preferred positions but well to the left of the ground staked out by Allen West. He is a strong advocate for the environment and women's rights. He is against turning Medicare into a voucher program. He touts his CPA background and states that he is pro-business. He makes a general distinction between short-term needs of the economy and long-term needs, suggesting that he recognizes the macroeconomic case for stimulus when appropriate. He is in favor of restoring higher taxes on those earning over $1,000,000 a year. Patrick Murphy is not my ideal candidate, but he is a huge improvement over Alan West and I had no reservations about working for his election.

In September, the campaign suggested topics for letters to the editor and I was happy to oblige. Two of my letters were published in local papers. Here's a reprint of one, a letter on Medicare:

Rep. Allen West likes to quote the Medicare Trustees Report from 2012 that states that the Medicare trust fund will be exhausted by 2024. What he doesn't mention is that the same report also states that without the savings made in the Affordable Care Act, which he wants to repeal, the trust fund will be exhausted 8 years earlier.

Rep. West says that he is in favor of prohibiting insurance companies from excluding people with pre-existing conditions, and he too would close the prescription drug "doughnut hole." He's in favor of extending the benefits promised by Obamacare, just not in paying for them. He says they will be paid for by private insurance company competition. That's the miracle we can expect to witness right after we've seen Rep. West walk on water.

It's telling that when Rep. West addresses seniors on "defined contribution," he's careful to say that it would not affect anyone 55 and over. If defined-contribution is better, why exclude seniors? And if it is worse, does he really think seniors are so selfish that they want a better plan for themselves than for their children and grandchildren?


The other letter was on sequestration, highlighting the fact that West sponsored the National Security and Job Protection Act- a measure which would exempt all defense spending from the across-the-board cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act.

While I was gradually getting to know Patrick Murphy, Allen West was using his massive war chest to paint a completely different picture of the candidate. West enjoyed a $17 million to $3.6 million advantage in fund-raising and he spent a large portion of it attacking his opponent. One television ad in particular drew a lot of attention nationally- the "contrast" ad that featured a mug shot of Murphy when he was arrested outside a nightclub. Murphy was 19 at the time and all charges stemming from the incident were dropped, but those facts were not mentioned in the spot. The contrast provided in the ad was a picture of Alan West in uniform from the same time period as he was preparing to deploy to Iraq.

Murphy's campaign responded within a week with an ad that pointed out that West's deployment had resulted in an Article 15 hearing, a $5,000 fine, and his removal from command. The only problem was that West was able to carpet bomb the airways with his ad while Murphy's ad aired infrequently and was little more than a blip on the media radar screen.

West appeared to have grabbed the advantage and led in the polls. The West campaign continued to hammer away with negative ads up to and past the point of saturation. They were joined in the fray by outside groups, such as the Treasure Coast Jobs Coalition, which launched ludicrous broadsides against Murphy for supporting, among other things: the stimulus, $1 million bonuses for insurance executives, ant research, and using taxpayer money to send jobs to China. Anyone who realized that Murphy was a private citizen during the time that these supposed outrages were perpetrated was likely to be puzzled or even offended by the attacks.

West's momentum was blunted by the one televised debate which took place on October 19. An accomplished public speaker, West was expected by many to dominate in the debate, but did not. He looked foolish on at least a couple of occasions- when he unsuccessfully attacked Murphy's CPA credentials and when he tried to doubletalk his way out of his Medicare votes.

Murphy also won a lukewarm endorsement from the area's largest newspaper- the Palm Beach Post. It was better than not being endorsed and much better than anybody did in adjacent District 22 where the Post refused to endorse either candidate.

The campaign lurched into the final weeks. Many more volunteers climbed aboard for the final push. The phone-banking was transformed into a GOTV effort promoting both voting by mail and early voting. The West campaign continued to fill the airways with negative ads which, through sheer overexposure, seemed to have lost their power to do little more than irritate viewers.

Election day arrived and the race had tightened. The GOTV effort continued right up until the polls closed at 7 p.m. Murphy's election night party was held at the Double Tree in Palm Beach Gardens. Patrick showed up around 9:30 and mixed with everybody, thanking them for their hard work and patiently had his photo taken dozens of times with his supporters. By 10:30, over 80% of the vote was counted and West was up by about 2,000 votes. A glimmer of hope remained in the fact that many of the uncounted votes were in St. Lucie County, a Democratic stronghold. Most of the remaining St. Lucie votes came through around 1 a.m. and Murphy vaulted into the lead.

Meanwhile, Allen West's troops were holed up on Hutchinson Island. West never showed his face to thank his supporters, including over 100 volunteers who had traveled from Texas to knock on doors for his campaign. When West finally did make an appearance the following day it was to announce that he was filing suit to challenge the results of the election in Palm Beach and St. Lucie Counties. Florida law calls for automatic recounts when the margin of victory is 0.5% or less. Murphy's lead is currently greater than that and is expected to hold up.

I helped clean up the Stuart office after the election and then went around and collected and returned all the leftover Murphy roadside signs from my area. During the campaign, when I put out signs I checked on them from time to time. Some got vandalized, some got stolen, and some were obscured when West supporters placed their signs directly in front of mine. West's most avid supporters evidently shared their candidate's arrogance. The roads in my area are now mostly empty of Murphy signs while many West signs remain in place, neglected reminders of a lost battle.

The campaign is over and I have mixed feelings about my first intensive electoral experience. The good part was winning. The best part was beating Allen West and it felt really great to contribute to that victory. I know Patrick Murphy could have won without my help, but I also know he couldn't have won without the combined efforts of all the people like me. Close races increase the value of each vote and every volunteer.

The tale is incomplete, however, without recognizing the rest of the story. I spent a lot of time during the campaign talking to the people who gave Allen West 49.6% of the vote. They are detached from reality and one lost election is not going to change that for most of them. One of the darker truths emerging from the election is that Allen West could easily have prevailed in spite of our efforts if he had run a smarter campaign. His defeat was in large part a function of his flawed character- his propensity for self-righteous bullying.

Our win was one small victory, but our democracy as a whole remains in disrepair. Our electoral system is perverted by money, our media fail to inform the public on important issues, and the overall result is that the majority of voters are poorly equipped to defend their own interests and function as responsible citizens.










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