WASHINGTON -- A pair of Democratic trackers didn't seem too disappointed last summer when they couldn't find Rep. Allen West at a venue on the outskirts of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.
They were hoping to catch footage of the then-Republican congressman that might help West's Democratic challenger, Patrick Murphy. They weren't too upset because they didn't think little-known Murphy could win Florida's Republican-leaning 18th Congressional District.
"He used to be a Republican," one said of Murphy before getting in a car and seeking other targets. "The donors, the activists, just don't like him very much,"
But Murphy, now the youngest member of Congress at 29, did win, in spite of getting outspent $18.5 million to $4.4 million, triumphing in a race that could be seen as a snapshot of what ails the Grand Old Party. Murphy, with a background in accounting and a job at his family's construction business, should have been at home in his old party. But between the Iraq war, the emergence of the tea party, and lingering intolerance, he bolted for the Democratic Party in 2011.
"As the Iraqi war began to evolve, and more and more information became available to us, I began to disenfranchise myself from the Republican Party because I thought we were being lied to," Murphy said in an interview with The Huffington Post.
Then the taxed-enough-already movement erupted with at least part of a message that Murphy said he liked -- fiscal responsibility. The problem was the way they went about it, with the accompanying social conservatism and episodes of virulent anger aimed at Americans they didn't agree with.
"The tea party movement went off on a more extreme agenda that I did not support at all, and was very frustrated by it, to the point that not only did I change parties, I decided to do something about it and run for Congress," Murphy said.
Allen West, a heat-seeking tea party darling and Iraq war veteran who left the service after firing a gun next to a prisoner's head, was almost the perfect foil for Murphy.
"West -- part of his demeanor and his rhetoric is why I wanted to get into politics," Murphy said. "I strongly disagreed with some of that rhetoric and some of the stuff that he said. It was very offensive."
A couple of liberal activists tracking West may have seen an unappealing moderate in the callow former Republican. But Murphy sees his GOP past as an asset in a class where nearly a dozen freshman Republicans refused to sign the infamous Grover Norquist pledge against raising any taxes.
Among his first efforts in Congress is an ambitious push with Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-N.C.) to launch a bipartisan caucus among the House's 84 freshmen called United Solutions that can provide a critical mass to support an elusive "grand bargain" on deficits and spending that the nation's leaders have failed to reach.
The effort came after the new members had an epiphany during their orientations, most of which were divided by party affiliation. But a few sessions weren't, and Murphy said they got to chatting over drinks or lunch.
"We'd sit around and talk. It turned out 80 percent of the issues or so, Republicans and Democrats were agreeing on everything and looking at solution," he said. "We said, 'Wow let's kind of formalize this.' This isn't as bad as people make it out to be. Things aren't as partisan, at least yet, in the freshman class."
Some 36 new members signed a letter last month urging the leaders to keep trying for a grand bargain.
The appeal to President Barack Obama, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) failed to move the needle -- to no one's surprise.
"We understood going into it that there's a pretty good chance we're not going to be necessarily the motivating force to force them to do this, but we are going to continue to start from the bottom up and drum up support and get more and more people on board with this philosophy," Murphy said.
The congressman said he believes the new group of legislators sees the big picture realistically.
"As a freshman class, we look at the numbers," Murphy said, with an acknowledgement that time is not on his side. "You realize there's some long-term issues facing the country, and we need to be smart about what we're doing. We can't let partisanship get in the way," he said, with a leery eye on the history of lawmakers who started off as reformers only to become among the most partisan of party warriors.
"If we're ever going to do it, if we're ever going to reach some bipartisan solutions, it's going to be now. If we wait a year or two or three or five, we're going to get more and more ingrained, I believe, in the partisanship," he said. "So we said, 'Let's do it now.'"
Below are lightly edited excerpts from the interview:
What are you trying to do?
We started off by saying, No. 1, this freshman class is going to work in a bipartisan manner -- not my way or the highway. No. 2, we want common sense solutions. We're not going to demagogue or blame President Obama or President Bush, or President Clinton or President Reagan -- it is what it is, there's plenty of blame to go around. Let's focus on solutions. And No. 3, We need to go big. We need a grand bargain. The silliness of the debt ceiling, the sequester, the fiscal cliff, all these new terms that are entering the mainstream media now. ... We all said this is silly. We all know what needs to be done. We need a grand bargain.
You used to be a Republican. What caused the change?
My dad's a Republican. My dad's my mentor. When I was 18 or whatever it was and I decided to register to vote. My dad's Republican, so that's what I decided to register as. ... As the Iraqi war began to evolve and more and more information became available to us, I began to disenfranchise myself from the Republican Party because I thought we were being lied to. In addition to that, my family has always supported the individual. It was never about the party, it was always about the person. That's how I was raised. You look at each candidate, so I've supported and voted for both parties. With the tea party movement that started as fiscal responsibility -- which I support -- but the tea party movement went off on a more extreme agenda that I did not support at all, and was very frustrated by it, to that point that not only did I change parties, I decided to do something about it and run for Congress.
What bothered you about the tea party extremism?
I don't think my way or the highway works, that mentality. And that's what the tea party has done, drawn a line in the sand. I'm sorry that doesn't work in business, that doesn't work in your family, it certainly doesn't work in government and our Congress. You have to give your view, and you have to be firm in your position, but at the end of the day, you have to look at the greater good, for what's good for all Americans, and all constituents. Right now the tea party is not getting as much attention as they used to, but a lot of members are just representing that group, and I don't think that's right. You have to represent 100 percent of your district.
How did you beat Allen West?
A lot of great support for a lot of people in the district. West, part of his demeanor and his rhetoric is why I wanted to get into politics. I strongly disagreed with some of that rhetoric and some of the stuff that he said. It was very offensive. So we had a lot of support of a lot of people who helped us get there. What I'm so happy about was this election help show money can't buy elections. We were outspent 5 to 1, 4 to 1, depending on how you count it, and we were still able to prevail.
Is Allen West's style what you're talking about with the tea party?
I don't support the notion of playing to the media, of playing to an extreme element, and trying to get on TV then using what you say to go raise money. After Allen West called X amount of people communists, he went and raised a couple million dollars. That's not what our founders intended. We shouldn't be running to the extremes and use it for fundraising. We need to come to the middle, we need to go the other direction. It's not just the tea party that's been guilty. Both parties have been guilty of this.
You're the youngest member of Congress. Why should leaders listen to you?
Right now, I don't think it's [Congress] working. I think we need some fresh ideas, some new blood, some new energy in here. It's a broken system right now. Part of what this letter was intended to do was change things and the way they work here, and bring the parties together. And I think it's saying something to get 32, 36 new members of Congress -- a pretty even mix of Democrats and Republicans -- together on a letter, on a framework, that has offended elements of my party and elements of the Republican Party. If you're doing that, then you're probably doing the right thing.
Being young, it's an age. I don't think about it very much. Part of me running for Congress was was an acknowledgement that a lot of the issues being discussed right now are going to affect my generation perhaps more than my parents and grandparents. We need to have a voice in that room. We need to be there in that conversation.
Does it feel weird to be telling people, many of them older than you father, what to do?
Frankly, we have healthy debates. I respect their opinions and experience, and I think that's important to have, but I also think if you keep doing the same thing and expecting different results, then, uh, you're probably going to get the same results.
Do you see the Republican Party continuing down the same road that led you to leave?
I wouldn't be comfortable grouping the party. I think they are very divided right now, and I think there's people splintering off. I think even a lot of Republicans would agree with that. Who's going to win this debate? Some of the more moderate Republicans, or some of the more extreme Republicans? Even within the freshman class and the members I've gotten to know a little bit better, a lot of them aren't happy with the tea party. A lot of them don't like the pressure that's being put on them. They want that more moderate voice, they wany to get something done, and acknowledge that the only way we're going to get something done in the Congress is if we do it in a bipartisan manner.
Are you the example of where the GOP has gone wrong?
I wouldn't go that far, but what i will tell you is there are a lot of people in my generation -- it's really all generations -- everyone I talk to is just so mad at government right now. They're mad a both parties equally, they're mad at every generation, there's just so much blame to go around, and they just want something to happen. These fights, the sequestration, these short-term solutions, are the exact opposite of what they want. These manufactured cliffs are the exact opposite of what we should be doing right now. Maybe the generation, the party change, maybe that can be played up. I think I'm probably similar to a lot of people in our country, and definitely my generation, that are fiscally responsible and socially more accepting, more open. And part of that probably is a bit of a more generational attitude.
Why did you get into politics?
That's what everyone says, Why would you do this? …. I was tired of complaining, that's the short answer. I was so tired of pointing a finger, and one day basically said, 'Who the heck am I to sit here and point a finger and not do something about it?' And back to what I said earlier, so many of the issues being discussed, being debated and legislated right now are going to affect my generation, and really wanting to be part of that solution.
What did your father say?
He put his hand on my forehead and asked if I was sick or something. No, he was very happy about my decision, and supported me in any venture I had and always was behind me for everything I try to do.