FT. PIERCE, Florida — What were you doing on the night of Feb. 16, 2003?
Questions here about the whereabouts of the two congressional candidates more than nine years ago are dominating one of the nastiest House races in the country, a contest that pits Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), an outspoken freshman GOP lawmaker with a growing national profile, against Patrick Murphy, an upstart 29-year old Democratic candidate, who might also catapult to national acclaim if he can unseat the tea party-backed incumbent.
The closely-watched race is considered a tossup, according to The Washington Post House race tracker and ranks 14th on The Fix’s list of the 60 most competitive House races.
The focus on nine years ago began with West, who was an Army lieutenant colonel preparing to deploy to Iraq in February 2003 while Murphy was a 19-year old student at the University of Miami. Murphy was arrested on that February night outside a club on Miami Beach — a fact that West chose to highlight in a recent attack ad.
The ad’s announcer notes that on the night of Feb. 16, 2003, “Lt. Col. Allen West had just received deployment orders and prepares his men to go to war.” But that same night, “Patrick Murphy is thrown out of a club for fighting, covered in alcohol, unable to stand,” according to the ad. “Two men, a country in crisis: You decide.”
In response, Murphy unveiled an ad raising questions about West’s honorable discharge from the Army. The ad notes that “West was criminally charged with violating the Uniformed Code of Military Justice. Found guilty of three counts of aggravated assault and relieved of his command. The final Army report: West performed illegal acts, merited court martial, faced 11 years in prison. Allen West: He just isn’t who he says he is.”
In an interview, Murphy said he never intended to raise questions about West’s military record, “but he opened the door. He did not give all the facts as to what happened in 2003. The fact that I was a teenager I think is important to know. And the way he did this compare and contrast, he left out some details of what he did in the military. We’ll let the facts speak for themselves.”
West’s military career abruptly ended in 2004 after he used a gun in August 2003 to coerce an Iraqi police officer during an interrogation. The case earned national attention and was detailed in a lengthy New York Times story that helped propel him towards an unsuccessful run for Congress in 2008 — and victory in 2010.
West, 51, said he has no regrets about what happened in Iraq and was only trying to protect the men in his unit: “When you walk into my office in Washington, you see my honorable discharge and you see my certificate for service from President George W. Bush, so I think that ends that discussion.”
The congressman dismissed Murphy’s attacks as desperate: “When you don’t have anything to discuss, and my opponent wants to attack my military record, I don’t think that will play very well down here in South Florida, where you have a lot of veterans.”
West was one of two African-American Republicans elected to Congress in 2010 as part of the tea party wave. He won his race in the 22nd Congressional District, but the state’s redistricting process gave the district a Democratic voter enrollment edge. Facing tough odds, West moved to the 18th District, a more evenly-divided area that encompasses parts of three coastal counties north of West Palm Beach.
Murphy is a first-time candidate and Florida native, who began as an accountant at Deloitte and Touche, quit to join his family’s construction business and launched an environmental cleanup firm in the months after the 2010 BP Gulf Coast oil spill. He spent six months in Louisiana securing contracts and hiring subcontractors to help with restoration efforts — and has raised more than $3.5 million for his first race for Congress, a campaign he said he started in part because of West’s words and actions.
“I got tired of the extremism and the bickering and the name-calling and my opponent is the epitome of that, whether it’s calling his opponents defiled or despicable, or calling them communists or calling the president the dumbest person in America,” Murphy said of West. “That’s not what we need.”
West has said that President Obama is “probably the dumbest person walking around in America” and has stood by comments he made in April suggesting that as many as 81 Democrats who are members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus are not only secret Communists, but actual members of the Communist Party. He has raised more than $15 million for his reelection — making him one of the top congressional fundraisers of either party — and said that most of the money comes from loyal Fox News Channel viewers who see him frequently on the network’s primetime talk shows.
West said he often hears from Fox viewers and offered during an interview that he had just responded to an e-mail from a 13-year old fan in Nebraska.
“He said he appreciates that I’m standing up for his future and considers me a role model,” West said. “Just like in St. Lucie, Florida, where they also tell me they’re proud of me.”
Outside groups have spent at least $4 million to date on the race. In addition to labor unions and tea party-aligned groups, the House Majority PAC, which supports Democrats, plans to spend at least $1.5 million, while a super PAC started by Murphy’s father put up $250,000 to run ads in support of his son.