Allen West and Alan Grayson: Florida’s contribution to congressional partisanship

JOE SKIPPER/REUTERS - Republican U.S. Rep. Allen West speaks at a campaign stop in Boca Raton, Florida October 18, 2012.

They’ve never met. They sit at opposite ends of the political spectrum. And they are not running against each other. But Rep. Allen B. West (R-Fla.) and former congressman Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) are the very embodiment of the hyperpartisanship that has gripped Washington in recent years and the best example of why it is likely to continue in the next Congress.

Grayson once said of Republicans: “We’re dealing with people on the other side who are utterly unscrupulous. These are foot-dragging, knuckle-dragging Neanderthals who know nothing but ‘no.’ ”

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West would later observe of Democrats: “I must confess, when I see anyone with an Obama 2012 bumper sticker, I recognize them as a threat to the gene pool.”

Each man became an iconic representation of his party’s political fortunes two years ago, when Democrats lost their majority in the House and Republicans assembled a more conservative class of 87 freshmen determined to change the way Washington worked.

If Washington changed at all, the consensus would be that it was not for the better.

That has left some victors in 2010 on the defensive in 2012, while some of the Democratic losers are plotting comebacks.

Grayson is one of several former House Democrats, including former congressmen Charlie Wilson (D-Ohio), Dan Maffei (D-N.Y.) and Bill Foster (D-Ill.), who are running in hopes of returning to Washington. Grayson’s victory appears all but guaranteed.

Todd Long, Grayson’s poorly funded GOP opponent, said the former congressman doesn’t deserve another term: “He had his chance, he was thrown out. Grayson, instead of working with people, just started screaming at Republicans and calling people names.”

Along Florida’s Treasure Coast, West remains locked in one of the year’s most competitive races involving a GOP lawmaker despite raising about $15 million for his reelection. The sum is the most ever by a rank-and-file House member, but Democrat Patrick Murphy, a 29-year-old who helps run his family’s construction company, is using his $3 million campaign war chest to remind voters of West’s attacks on the Obama administration and House Democrats.

“We get calls from Republicans every day who say, ‘We’re lifelong Republicans, but we’re not going to support West,’ ” Murphy said. “We need fiscal responsibility, but he went off on a social right-wing agenda.”

West was one of two African American Republicans elected to Congress in 2010 as part of the tea party wave. A former Army lieutenant colonel who was honorably discharged amid questions about his interrogation of an Iraqi military official, West won his race in a Palm Beach-area district, but moved into a neighboring district when his home turf was redrawn and Democrats gained an edge in voter enrollment.

“If you dislike me just because of the things I say, okay, so what?” West said in a recent interview. “I’m not here for a popularity contest. If you want to reduce me to a sound-bite caricature, good luck. It’s a free country, you’re free to hate me, but I’m free to continue to fight for your liberties and freedoms, and that’s exactly what I’ll do.”

This election could produce a result that’s the reverse of 2010, sending Grayson to Washington while short-circuiting West’s political career. It’s also plausible that both may win, giving Florida two of the most volatile and unapologetically partisan lawmakers in Washington.

“Just the potential of having Allen West and Alan Grayson serving at the same time in the same delegation is a fun scenario to think about,” said Nathan L. Gonzales, deputy editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.

A win by West would follow his decision to defend several outlandish statements, including suggestions that some House Democrats are communists and that President Obama is “probably the dumbest person walking around in America.”

Grayson, during debate over the health-care reform bill about a year before his defeat, took to the House floor and suggested that “If you get sick, America, the Republican health-care plan is this: Die quickly! That’s right. The Republicans want you to die quickly if you get sick.”

Grayson later called his remarks a sarcastic attack on GOP obstructionism, but the comments led conservatives to spend millions against him.

“I was a guinea pig for what the other side could get away with after the Citizens United decision” by the Supreme Court removing many limits on campaign spending, he said.

Neither Grayson nor West is known for securing final passage of significant legislation, and neither has a realistic shot at holding a leadership position or chairing a committee in the coming years. But both men can tie their political success and fundraising prowess to time spent on the national airwaves espousing outspoken views on the issues of the day.

The day after the final presidential debate, West called into a Fox News Radio program and said that Republican nominee Mitt Romney should have more forcefully pushed Obama on his failure to keep troops in Iraq: “He didn’t use the term, but I’ll use it — the president, in failing to get that status-of-forces agreement, in essence cut and run from Iraq.”

Hours later, Grayson appeared on Eliot Spitzer’s Current TV program and was asked whether Obama had effectively allayed the concerns of Florida’s Jewish voters who are upset with his policy towards Israel.

“Honestly, no, I don’t think the president closed that gap,” Grayson told the former New York attorney general. But he defended Obama against what he called “a whispering” effort by Republicans to scare Florida’s Jewish voters.

Both men said they’ve used their television and radio appearances to raise millions of dollars from supporters far away from their home districts.

West said he’s raised most of his money from small-dollar donors who see him on Fox News Channel programs, including a 13-year old boy from Nebraska who “said he appreciates that I’m standing up for his future and considers me a role model.”

Grayson said his “fan club” watches him on TV, hears him on the radio and watches video clips on his popular YouTube Web site. Tapping an e-mail list with 400,000 supporters, he can quickly raise six-figure sums from supporters who once placed 80,000 calls on his behalf in one day.

Over lunch at an Orlando restaurant, Grayson said he would change little if he is reelected. “We did a lot of good for a lot of people, and I developed a national following for saying what other people were thinking when nobody else would say it,” he said. “Maybe they’re afraid to say it, I don’t know. But a lot of people look at me today as a hero, so to me, a part of this experience was a success.”

 
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