Republican voters shouldn't count on seeing a debate between U.S. Rep. Allen West and Martin County Sheriff Robert Crowder before they choose between the two GOP congressional hopefuls in August.
In a news release Tuesday, Crowder called out West for declining to debate him before the two-candidate August primary for the District 18 seat, which covers parts of St. Lucie, Martin and Palm Beach counties. West's campaign came back Tuesday by labeling the longtime Republican sheriff a Democrat, and saying the time to debate Democrats will come after the primary election.
West opted out after The Palm Beach Post recently offered to host a televised pre-primary debate with Crowder, and his campaign will hold off on debates until after the GOP primary, the Crowder release states.
West, a Plantation tea party favorite with a house in Palm Beach Gardens, missed a Martin County NAACP forum Thursday because of a previous speaking engagement. He also won't attend a Martin County Council of Chambers and Economic Council debate Thursday at Hobe Sound Bible College because he'll be in Washington.
Crowder's challenge came days after the St. Lucie County Republican Executive Committee finalized a rare endorsement before an August primary, picking West over Crowder. West then refused to shake the sheriff's hand on the way out of the meeting, Crowder said.
Palm Beach's committee voted on a West endorsement last Wednesday, and the Martin committee could make the same move next month.
Before Crowder spoke at the Saturday meeting, the St. Lucie committee replayed a commercial in which the sheriff endorsed Democrat Alex Sink over Republican Gov. Rick Scott in 2010. Committee members peppered Crowder with questions before voting to endorse West. When Crowder reached out his hand to shake West's on his way out, West crossed his arms and said, "No thanks," the release states.
"I didn't expect it to be as vile as it would be," Crowder said. "There was no interest in being civil."
St. Lucie's GOP committee chairman Bill Paterson responded Crowder wasn't mistreated — he was "treated like a gentleman." Paterson said the endorsement had to happen because Crowder "went off the reservation" by endorsing Sink and refusing to endorse Stuart Republican Sen. Joe Negron in past elections.
In response to the no-hand-shake and refusing-to-debate claims, West campaign manager Tim Edson accused Crowder of lying during Saturday's meeting about a statement he made at an NAACP forum Thursday. Paterson backed Edson's claim, but Crowder vehemently denied the accusation.
The meeting was closed to the media and public. Crowder campaign manager Stacy Ranieri said her candidate was told to attend alone.
"There will be plenty of time to debate Democrats after the primary," said Edson, who attended the meeting. "The only thing cowardly and dishonorable is Bob Crowder's refusal to man up and take responsibility for his own words. At the St. Lucie REC meeting on Saturday, Crowder denied having encouraged Democrats to vote in the Republican primary at a recent Martin County NAACP forum.
"Bob Crowder can pound the table and stomp his feet, but it doesn't change the fact that he's been caught in a lie. His dishonesty makes him unfit to serve in Congress, and his retirement as sheriff can't come soon enough."
At the NAACP forum, Crowder said, "Although I love my Republicans, the ones who are going to make the difference this election are the Democrats. Because you could be a Democrat, and become a Republican in the primary, and still vote for your Democrats in the general election."
But Crowder remarked that Edson blatantly lied about what was said during the St. Lucie committee meeting.
"That's not true, and (Edson) knows that," Crowder said. "I took responsibility for that, and I certainly would appreciate those (Democratic) votes."
The sheriff and the congressman have shaken hands before — the first time, when they met at a store opening party for the House of Brews in Jensen Beach. Both politely joked about breaking the flash light-bulb on the camera while posing for a photo.
A campaign official for Democratic candidate Patrick Murphy, a Fort Lauderdale accountant who moved to Jupiter, said West has been overly disrespectful to Crowder. Murphy attended the NAACP forum, but will miss the Hobe Sound event Thursday due to scheduling conflicts.
"We believe that Sheriff Crowder deserves a lot more respect than Allen West is giving him," said Eric Johnson, Murphy's communications manager.
Palm City Democratic contender Jim Horn could not be reached for comment. Port St. Lucie Democratic candidate Jerry Buechler said West is backing away from a challenge by not debating.
"We need good, healthy debates," Buechler said. "If he wants to run a campaign of innuendo and slander, then I don't think he's the candidate we need."
DISTRICT 18 CANDIDATES
Martin County Sheriff Robert Crowder, Stuart Republican
U.S. Rep. Allen West, R-Plantation (has Palm Beach Gardens house)