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In Florida: Anger, Confusion, Musical Chairs

There is plenty of evidence that the political discourse in this country has degenerated into the gutter. But anger, hatred, name-calling and political musical chairs all at the same time? Welcome to the soap opera that is Southeast Florida.

Last week, freshman Republican Rep. Allen West, a favorite of the tea party, announced that he would seek re-election in the proposed 18th district rather than in the 22nd district, which he currently represents. The 18th would be left open because two-term Republican Rep. Tom Rooney has announced that he will seek re-election in the 17th district.

West’s move prompted one of his Democratic opponents, Patrick Murphy, to issue a press release with the following headline: “Murphy: West Move to Rooney Seat an Act of Cowardice.”

West is, by any standard, a loose cannon who uses absurdly over-the-top language against his political opponents.

He has called Democrats “vile,” “vicious” and “socialist”; compared President Barack Obama to a “third-world dictator”; referred to the U.S. government as a “tyranny”; and called Florida Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz “the most vile, unprofessional and despicable Member” of the House. Civility apparently isn’t a high priority with the Congressman.

“This is a guy who makes a career of very tough talk, of being provocative toward Democrats … [and who] had just told Democratic leaders that they need to get the hell out of the country — and two days later, he gets the hell out of his district,” notes Eric Johnson, Murphy’s general consultant.

But a coward? For running in a different district after the state adopted new district lines? It sounds as if Murphy is itching to get into a playground fight that’s more about testosterone than about representative government.

Was California Democratic Rep. Jim Costa a coward because he switched districts after redistricting to improve his chances of being re-elected?

How about North Carolina Rep. Heath Shuler (D)? Was he a coward because he decided not to seek re-election in a district redrawn to make his prospects difficult?

And is Rep. Steven Rothman (D-N.J.) a coward in choosing to run against fellow Democratic Rep. Bill Pascrell instead of against Republican Rep. Scott Garrett?

Certainly not. Each was simply making a cold-blooded decision about his political future.

Members, Democrat and Republican, make these kinds of decisions all the time. They are merely strategic decisions based on what political hopefuls — incumbents and nonincumbents — see as their chances for victory.

Murphy, who has raised $1.3 million (some of it because he is running against the controversial West), is on particularly dangerous ground because he is a 28-year-old certified public accountant who works in his family’s business and, as far as I can tell, has no record of military service. Nor do I, I should point out, but then again, I didn’t refer to a Bronze Star winner who served in Operation Desert Storm, in Operation Iraqi Freedom and in Afghanistan as a coward.

Murphy, of course, has every right to call West loud, dangerous, extreme, radical or whatever he wishes, but when some kid who is wet behind the ears and has raised most of his money from people in the development and construction business — the same business his family is in — calls his opponent a “coward,” he risks looking ridiculous.

There is already talk that Murphy may follow West over to the proposed 18th district rather than staying in the 22nd district Democratic primary, which is already getting more crowded. I am sure that he’ll make that decision after looking at all the implications — and judging which choice maximizes his prospects. Whatever his decision, it won’t show either courage or cowardice.

Murphy’s main opponent for the Democratic nomination in the 22nd district has been Lois Frankel, 63, a former state House Minority Leader and one-time mayor of West Palm Beach.

But Broward County Commissioner Kristin Jacobs (who is also vice mayor) has just entered the race, and she offers a very attractive profile. Fellow commissioner (and Broward mayor) John Rodstrom is also saying that he is considering the race.

While West’s existing competitive district becomes more Democratic, Republicans are hopeful that former Florida House Majority Leader Adam Hasner can hold it for their party.

Hasner, born in Brooklyn, N.Y., just left the Senate race and parachuted into the House contest, and he previously represented parts of Palm Beach and Broward counties in the Legislature. The fact that he is Jewish is also an asset.

All of the political activity is occurring even though the state may be weeks or months away from having a map. The Florida House passed the new map last week, and the Senate could act as soon as today. The map, however, will still come under review by the Department of Justice and the courts.

Name-calling, of course, is not new in American politics or in Florida. Nor are political loose cannons. Just think, Florida might send West and former Rep. Alan Grayson (D) to Congress in November. If that happens, they could form their own loose cannons caucus.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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