One of Congress' rising stars will square off against one of Martin County's most tenured public officials next month in an election already drawing prime time national attention and cash.
U.S. Rep. Allen West, who has become a national Tea Party icon, faces longtime Martin County Sheriff Robert Crowder in an Aug. 14 Republican primary, and the winner will get his name on the November ballot for congressional District 18.
One expert's opinion: West could be Florida's most vulnerable sitting congressman.
Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg called District 18 a tossup contest with a slight Republican tilt in a June 29 report on House races.
Their potential prize — a new seat that keeps all of St. Lucie and Martin counties intact and tacks on northern Palm Beach. The district has close to an even split in registered Democrats and Republicans, and its voters picked President Obama over Sen. John McCain in 2008 by a 3-percentage-point margin.
The contest has attracted almost $10 million total, most of it for West and Democratic challenger Patrick Murphy.
Here's a look at Republican candidate Martin County Sheriff Bob Crowder:
STUART — In his quest to join Congress, Republican Robert Crowder hasn't formed a firm stance on President Obama's health care reform law.
The longtime Martin County sheriff won't condemn federal stimulus spending.
He hasn't explored the ins and outs of the Republican-offered federal budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan.
He will likely support GOP nominee Mitt Romney for president, but won't completely commit yet.
Frankly, he thinks that's all fine. He sees no fault in his lack of hard-line positions.
"I think these decisions and these actions we have to take are too important and too far-reaching to just snap up and form a hard opinion," Crowder said. "I think we need to determine basically where we want to go, and then we need to devise an effective way to get there without creating a lot of unintended consequences."
He thinks the district's St. Lucie-Martin-northern Palm Beach voters are tired of divisive party politics. Crowder is convinced they need a representative at the Capitol who works with all political affiliations.
First and foremost, the sheriff wants to ensure the residents he's protected for decades have a local in Washington who knows their priorities and has their back.
"First of all, I wasn't planning on running. We got a little late into this, prompted by something I heard on the news one morning about our new congressional district — and oh, by the way, fella from Broward County is coming up to be our congressman," Crowder said of U.S. Rep. Allen West, a Plantation resident who rented a Palm Beach Gardens house for the race. "I only took one year of civics in high school, but I did learn we're supposed to vote on things like that."
West, the sheriff's August primary competition, condemns Crowder as too uninformed to serve District 18 in Washington, or even to take the same debate stage. Crowder might as well be a Democrat in West's mind.
Crowder's lack of a firm stance on Obama's health care law particularly stirred up West.
"It's the most talked about public policy debacle in a generation! My opponent's inability to articulate an opinion on this issue disqualifies him as a serious choice for voters in the Aug. 14 primary," West wrote in a Palm Beach Post guest column.
Crowder, 66, has become entwined with Martin County's history and watched its politics evolve. He remembers when there was no connecting road on the Jensen Beach-to-Fort Pierce stretch of Hutchinson Island. He released sea turtles as a boy at Gilbert's Bar House of Refuge in the 1950s.
He's been a local Republican for more than three decades, but the relationship has gotten rocky. Announcing a run against West, who's achieved rock-star status in most Republican circles, is just his most recent offense.
His platform calls out party politics as the dividing force that's debilitating Congress, where compromise has become a bad word. West himself has said compromise usually means giving in to liberals.
Crowder has to hope fellow Republicans agree during the GOP-only primary next month.
"It looked like such a long-shot in the beginning, and now it's beginning to look quite possible," Crowder said.
WHERE HE STANDS
When Crowder had the pulpit during a 10th Street Center event in East Stuart last month, it was clear crossing party lines wasn't a concern.
At the NAACP candidate forum, largely attended by Democrats, Crowder made two points clear — he's not an expert yet on all federal issues, and he's willing to hear everyone out while sorting through potential solutions.
"What we call Obamacare was put together and basically only one party participated in the final product,"
Crowder said. "It wasn't because the other party was closed out. That was claimed later. But they chose not to join hands and work together."
Palm City Democrat Jim Horn, who's running in the primary for District 18, jokingly had a question for Crowder.
"Are you sure you're not a Democrat?" Horn said. "I've been asked that before," Crowder responded.
Crowder even told the crowd Democrats will be the difference-makers come August, because "you could be a Democrat, and become a Republican in the primary, and still vote for your Democrats in the general election."
Crowder said he doesn't have a big congressional staff behind him to digest all the issues, but he's formed bits and pieces of policy stances.
Now that the federal health care law has been upheld, Crowder frowns upon the common GOP notion that the law needs to be completely stripped from the books.
"I don't think it would be wise, after this much time and energy, and it's passed the test of being constitutional, to just throw it out and start over again at zero," he said. "That doesn't make sense. That's counterproductive."
He's not a fan of oil drilling in Florida's waters.
"I don't want to see oil wells out here when I take my grandchildren to the beach," he said. "I don't want to go down to the Everglades when my wife starts her hiking and see a dirty mess in the Everglades."
And he thinks the illegal immigration issue desperately needs attention at the federal level, not from the states.
He criticized a plan by state Rep. William Snyder, R-
Stuart and a former major under Crowder, for not being penalizing enough and potentially being costly. The Snyder plan died in the 2010 Legislature, and would have required employers to check the legal status of new employees, and would have let police check immigration papers of suspected criminals.
"You can get yourself a lot of publicity pushing for a law that's not really going to accomplish anything," Crowder said. "People don't stop long enough to think about the consequences."
CROSSING PARTY LINES
Crowder cast his first vote
45 years ago as a Democrat, but he didn't vote for a Democrat.
In the 1960s, the legal age to vote was 21 and Martin County was overwhelmingly Democratic. So Crowder followed suit.
But on his first ballot, Crowder opted to help elect Republican Gov. Claude Kirk, who took office in 1967 as Florida's first top GOP official since Reconstruction after the Civil War. Crowder found himself voting more Republican than Democratic in the following elections, and switched to Republican in 1980. By then, Crowder said Martin County had turned overwhelmingly Republican.
Not until recently — after George H.W. Bush's presidency, Crowder estimates — did the mood in politics become so combative.
"There was the typical rivalries and contests, but it was not so divided that it seemed like they hated each other, despised each other, said vile things about each other," Crowder said.
Crowder arrived in Martin in 1958 when he was 13 years old. His father had been a pilot in the Navy and moved his family to Florida when a civilian job opened up at Pratt & Whitney in West Palm Beach.
Crowder graduated from Martin County High School in 1963 before joining the U.S. Marines active reserves and ready reserves until 1971. Then he got his first law enforcement gig as a sheriff's dispatcher while attending Indian River Community College in 1965.
From 1968-69, he joined the Stuart Police Department and was promoted to Stuart's first police detective. Just three years later, Gov. Reubin Askew appointed Crowder the Martin County sheriff when the sitting sheriff was suspended. James Holt was elected to replace Crowder later that year.
Crowder took a one-year hiatus to head security at the St. Lucie Nuclear Plant and then returned to the sheriff's office as a criminal investigator in 1974. He became the St. Lucie County Sheriff's Office undersheriff in 1985.
Crowder was elected Martin sheriff as a Republican in 1992. He won re-election unopposed the next two terms, and won in landslides in 2004 and 2008.
He has also been a National Rifle Association member for about a half century and an avid wildlife watcher for years. Like West, he is a longtime motorcycle rider, but has since traded in his Harleys and BMW bikes for a Jeep Wrangler more suitable for his wife and dog to come along for the ride.
BATTLES WITH THE PARTY
Treasure Coast Republican officials never told voters who to vote for during August primaries that pitted one party member against another before. This year, that's changing. And their message is abundantly clear — vote for West over Crowder.
The St. Lucie Republican Executive Committee voted to endorse West. So did Palm Beach's. The Martin committee could make the move early this month.
For Crowder, it's not surprising.
He has a track record of deviating from conventional
party politics, and that's ruffled a lot of feathers in the GOP ranks.
Crowder said it stems back to 2004, when a group of Republicans put forth a candidate, Jonathan Milton, to try to take the sheriff's seat. Milton lost that contest.
Two years later, Crowder criticized state officials — all the way up to then-Gov. Jeb Bush — for their flaky funding efforts toward Martin County Sheriff Office's youth boot camp program. The successful Martin County Juvenile Offender Training Center closed its doors in 2006 after state dollars dried out.
Crowder was particularly irked at Negron, then a state representative and the House's top budget official, for failing to keep state money flowing in.
When former U.S. Rep. Mark Foley left Congress amid scandal in 2006, Negron stepped in as the Republican candidate. Crowder refused to endorse him, sending ripples through the local party. It prompted a group of local Republicans to introduce a write-in candidate against Crowder for sheriff. Crowder won easily.
He then butted heads with Negron over a Children's Services Councils bill that passed in 2010. Negron's proposal periodically puts the special taxing districts — St. Lucie and Martin both have their own councils — in front of voters to determine if they'll keep operating. The first referendum will take place in 2014.
Crowder's wife Debbie served a four-year term on the Martin County council from 2001 to 2005.
Crowder contended the main reason for the bill was many local Republicans were upset Martin's Children Services Council supported a Planned Parenthood program, though it's not one dealing with abortion. Crowder said the bill could hurt programs helping kids most in need.
The sheriff even mulled a state Senate run against Negron in 2010, but decided against it.
Crowder's most famous party-line deviation came during the 2010 gubernatorial race.
Before the St. Lucie Republican Executive Committee voted to endorse West last month, it played a now-infamous TV
commercial where Crowder told voters to choose Democrat Alex Sink over current Gov. Rick Scott.
Crowder said he personally knew Sink. He also feared the cuts to public pensions Scott promised and delivered in his first year as governor. He wasn't fond of the Medicare fraud allegations surrounding Columbia/Hospital Corp. of America, which Scott founded and ran as CEO.
He even offered a slight joke about the commercial during the NAACP forum.
"Part of the problem is the Medicaid and Medicare fraud that goes on — one of the single biggest items that eats into our economy. I know a fella here in Florida who had to pay
$2.7 billion and I've learned to leave him alone," Crowder said at the forum, referring to Scott.
Local GOP faithful found little humor in Crowder's commercial.
The Martin Republican Executive Committee censured Crowder in January 2011, citing the full gamut of anti-party offenses. The Palm Beach committee's chairman, Sid Dinerstein, calls Crowder a "special helper for the Democrats." And Bill Paterson, St. Lucie committee chairman, said the sheriff went "off the reservation" with the Sink ad.
Crowder said Scott has come around as a governor, and he thinks Scott is doing a pretty good job. But Crowder still doesn't regret the Sink endorsement.
"I knew I was going to catch hell for it," Crowder said. "I knew they were going to be critical of it. But it was the right thing to do."
Still, Crowder is sticking by his party. He's thought about it, but he won't switch his affiliation anytime soon.
"Even when you're upset at your party, if you're less upset with them than you are in disagreement with the other party, you stay where you are," Crowder said.
Sandy Thurlow, Martin County's most noted historian, has to rack her brain a minute to trace back how long she's known Crowder. Three decades, she finally estimated.
Thurlow doesn't get tangled up in politics often. But it didn't sit well with her when she saw two huge money candidates move in from outside the district in Broward County — West and Democrat Patrick Murphy. She's also tired of West's occasional bombastic comments.
After Crowder announced, Thurlow threw her support behind the sheriff by signing a $250 check for his campaign.
"To stir the pot with hatred, that is not what I like," said Thurlow, who is registered as a Republican but leans independent. "I like someone who can compromise and work with others, instead of calling names."
When it comes to big checks and hoards of loud supporters, Crowder can't compete with West. But Crowder says he sees his group of backers quietly growing.
"I think the reason so many people in the Republican Party who do favor me aren't vocal is because they are intimidated by the kind of harassment and haranguing they might receive from the others," Crowder said.
Seacoast National Bank CEO Dennis Hudson has known Crowder for 30 years
too. Hudson said he likes the idea of a congressman who knows his district in and out, like Crowder does.
"Bob is experienced and very competent and a clear thinker," said Hudson, who donated $500 to Crowder. "His background in government will be invaluable to him as our congressman. He knows what our needs are in the community because he has lived here for his whole life."
Troy McDonald, a Stuart city commissioner and conservative Republican, thinks West has accomplished quite a bit by highlighting wasteful federal spending through his first term. But the local connection is key for him, and he added that Crowder has been "solidly Republican" in his tenure as sheriff.
"My feeling is, let's look at someone with history in this community," McDonald said. "I think everyone is a little star-struck because West is a rising star. Crowder has great name recognition. ... I think he's going to surprise people come Aug. 14."
The campaign dollars haven't gushed in for Crowder. He said he's raised just about $60,000 through June, which doesn't touch the $7.7 million West has stacked up through March. Nor can he afford the $2 million in TV ad buys West has set aside through election season. He's using a local public relations firm, The Firefly Group, to run his grass roots campaign on a budget.
Regardless of the outcome, Crowder thinks Republican voters deserve the chance to choose between two very different candidates.
"At least the people have a choice," Crowder said. "And the people will make that decision, and our interests hopefully will be served. ... My life would be very complete without winning this election. But it's an opportunity to serve."
REGISTER TO VOTE
Voters must be a U.S. citizen, Florida resident, 18 years old or preregister at age 16, and not convicted of felony or have had your rights restored.
Register online, at supervisor of elections offices, designated banks, government offices, post offices, public libraries, chambers of commerce or social service offices.
The final day to register or change voter information for the Aug. 14 primary is July 16; only registered party members can vote in partisan primaries; if only one party is represented in the primary, all voters are eligible to cast primary ballots.
St. Lucie County Supervisor of Elections
Address: 4132 Okeechobee Road, Fort Pierce, FL 34947
Martin County Supervisor of Elections
Address: 135 S.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Stuart, FL 34994