July 15, 2012 at 7:48 pm
By Jonathan Mattise, Treasure Coast Newspapers
PORT ST. LUCIE — A year and a half ago, Patrick Murphy was a Republican in Fort Lauderdale working for his family’s successful Miami-based construction company.
The University of Miami alum spent three years in accounting at Deloitte & Touche. His family’s business historically sprinkled contributions between Democrats and Republicans.
After high school, he had a 90 mph fastball and a college baseball scholarship offer. But political experience wasn’t on Murphy’s resume.
The 29-year-old now hopes to represent District 18 as a Democratic congressman. There are fewer than 10 certified public accountants in Congress, and Murphy thinks government needs more trained eyes to sift through its books.
His road to Congress takes him into new territory in St. Lucie and Martin counties, and could pit him against outspoken Republican U.S. Rep. Allen West.
West helped inspire Murphy’s party affiliation switch, his candidacy, his move to a Treasure Coast district and his national Democratic Party backing.
Murphy has become the third-highest money raiser of all Democratic U.S. House challengers. The party switch was in name only, he says — he’s been leaning Democratic for years.
“As a Democrat, I’m very comfortable,” said Murphy, who moved to a Jupiter town house he rents in Abacoa. “That’s how I’ve been voting for a long time. … That’s where my values lie.”
But, as an out-of-towner like West who also relocated for the race, Murphy still has to get to know a new group of voters. Several local Democratic figures are confident voters will like what they see.
“Nobody local stepped up and said, ‘I’m willing to do what it takes to run for Congress.’ It’s a big risk,” said Adam Fetterman, a Port St. Lucie Democrat running for the state House. “ … Once people get to meet Patrick, these concerns seem to fall by the wayside.”
Others cast his candidacy as top-down party politics sweeping into the Treasure Coast.
“For the party to bring someone from Miami to represent the Treasure Coast, I think it robs the future of having someone as our own representation,” said Palm City’s Jim Horn, one of Murphy’s Democratic primary challengers.
CHANGING PARTIES, CHASING WEST
Murphy was a Republican for years and helped candidates from both parties. His dad was a Republican, but his family focused on the best candidate, he said.
Murphy donated $2,300 to GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney before the 2008 primary.
“At that time, Romney was pro-gay rights, pro-choice, universal health care,” Murphy said. “This was a very moderate Mitt Romney, governor of Massachusetts, much different than he is now.”
He assured he’ll pick President Obama this election.
Murphy gave $2,400 to former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist’s failed U.S. Senate bid. On the Democratic side, Murphy has funneled thousands of dollars to Obama, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and others.
When the war in Iraq began, Murphy said his frustration with the Republican Party boiled over and he started voting predominantly Democratic. The divisiveness he saw in the conservative tea party movement, which ushered West into office in 2010, was the last straw.
He flipped to Democrat in January 2011, and announced that March he would take on West in the Palm Beach-
Broward District 22.
But several Florida GOP congressmen switched their races earlier this year, sending current Treasure Coast Rep. Tom Rooney west for an agricultural district and West north to District 18. Murphy followed the retired lieutenant colonel to a new, unknown battlefield.
After three big fundraising quarters, Murphy grabbed the national Democratic Party’s attention. He started meeting with Schultz last summer and Democratic leaders picked Murphy to follow West into the District 18 race.
One misstep has surfaced for Murphy. The Palm Beach Post reported he was arrested when he was 19 years old outside a Miami nightclub for using a fake ID and disorderly conduct stemming from a bar fight. Both charges were dropped or dismissed, and Murphy called it “the biggest mistake” of his life.
GETTING ‘THE AMMO’
A Republican-turned-Democrat himself, former Treasure Coast U.S. Rep. Tim Mahoney said a conservative Democrat works for District 18.
Mahoney said Murphy now is ensuring “he’s got the ammo” to battle West. Murphy frequently calls out West in emails for his congressional votes and explosive comments, then asks for a check.
West said Murphy “isn’t very smart,” called him “irrelevant,” and West’s campaign manager Tim Edson chided Murphy for “cozying up” to former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Schultz and Obama.
Murphy also has offered some takes on federal issues — he’s against drilling off Florida’s shores and in the Everglades; supports the Buffett rule for higher taxes on millionaires; and only wants to extend the Bush tax cuts for earners of $1 million a year or less.
In terms of Obama’s health care law, he likes closing the donut hole for seniors, kids staying on parents’ insurance until 26 years old and not limiting coverage because of pre-existing conditions. He has vowed to keep Social Security and Medicare intact.
The money’s already pouring in; the political personalities could be next.
“I would love a Bill Clinton to come down,” Murphy said. “I’ll ask as many times as I can for something like that. I’m not sure how this stuff works behind the scenes.”
Murphy’s family runs one of the country’s hundred biggest general contractor firms, Coastal Construction Group.
The group has worked on Donald Trump’s South Florida high-rises, college buildings, resorts and more. Murphy also helped spin off a subsidiary, Coastal Environmental Services, where he cleaned up after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill for eight months.
Through various donations, Coastal Construction’s employees have put almost $72,000 toward Murphy’s election bid — the most of any single group. Employees or PACs from five other top-donating developers gave $43,000 combined, according to the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Coastal Construction is the fifth largest fundraising source for Schultz, the Democratic National Committee chair. She has received $16,800 from the company’s donors this cycle, according to Center for Responsive Politics figures. The group is the 11th-most generous general contractor for all political campaigns in 2011-12, with $216,300 given to federal PACs and candidates. About 95 percent went to Democrats.
Construction only makes up a chunk of the $1.8 million Murphy received through March. More than $1 million came from Miami or Fort Lauderdale donors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Close to $5,000 came from Treasure Coast residents.
West has raised only $36,300 on the Treasure Coast through March. More than half of his $7.7 million in total donations through March came from out of state.
Murphy added another $508,000 from April through June, and West gained $2.1 million last quarter while spending $1.7 million.
“My dad and my brothers, my family have been very supportive financially,” Murphy said. “But there are limits on these things. … It’s just a lot of breakfast, lunch and dinner with people selling your story, a lot of time on the phone.”