In the past two weeks, after a gunman killed 21 people at a school in Uvalde, Texas, a Republican congressional candidate posted about two dozen signs throughout northern Palm Beach County of herself wielding an AR-15 rifle with a baby on her back.
Candidate Melissa Martz is taking aim at a perceived weakness in the platform of her opponent, three-term Congressman Brian Mast, a decorated soldier who lost both legs in Afghanistan. She points to his willingness, expressed in a 2018 New York Times opinion piece, to ban weapons he called “the best killing tool the Army could put in my hands.”
Martz, a patent attorney, is one of three candidates challenging Mast in the Aug. 23 primary for the Republican nomination in District 21, which covers the northern half of Palm Beach County — including Singer Island and all of North Palm Beach, Palm Beach Gardens and Jupiter — and Martin and St. Lucie counties.
While Martz believes the signs demonstrate the wrong-headedness of gun control, someone isn’t pleased. In just two weeks, she said, at least nine of the two dozen signs she put up have disappeared. She suspects her political rivals and plans to file police reports.
The sign atop this story, showing her pointing her rifle and a baby (actually a doll) resting on her back, is outside Palm Beach Gardens city limits on the lawn of a home at Hood and Prosperity Farms roads.
Divisive debate plays out on the sign
Martz relishes the debate the signs provoke, sharing a picture of a sign in The Acreage that turned into a platform for political graffiti with responses from both sides of the galvanizing debate.
On the sign itself, someone penciled in the names of mass shooting sites involving an AR-15-style rifle: Las Vegas, Uvalde, Buffalo, Parkland, Virginia Tech, Pulse Orlando, Columbine and Sandy Hook.
Below the sign, someone added a hand-written page pasted to cardboard with a different take. It said: “Banks have armed guards. Politicians have armed guards. Why don’t our children.” At the bottom, it offered a chart claiming the average number of dead at mass shootings without an armed guard is 43 and with a guard it is four.
“It’s good that people express themselves,” said Martz, who fought COVID mask mandates, arguing that “not wearing a mask is political speech” and that school mask mandates were “government mandated child abuse.“
The Acreage sign, which was posted at Persimmon Boulevard and State Road 7, has since been removed by people unknown, Martz said.
Mast holds huge fundraising lead
Mast, who has raised $4.3 million with a third of it coming from the Donald Trump-endorsed WinRed PAC, hasn’t had a serious primary challenge since his first election in 2016, when he won the nomination with 38 percent of the vote in a six-candidate field. He has gotten about 55 percent of the vote to defeat Democratic challengers Randy Perkins, Lauren Baer and Pam Keith in his three general election runs.
Martz, who lives in Loxahatchee Groves, has raised $289,000 but 95 percent of it comes as in-kind contributions, mostly from people displaying magnetic campaign signs on their cars.
She said her refusal to take PAC money shows she can’t be bought.
“We are fully grassroots and non-corruptible. I will NOT be beholden to big money when I get in to Congress to represent the people,” she said in an email.
A third Republican in the race, Jeff Buongiorno of Gulf Stream, has raised $618,000, but 95 percent of it is from himself. He originally planned to run in Lois Frankel’s south county district but filed for Mast’s seat instead.
Buongiorno viewed Martz’ signs as a terrible idea, saying it would hurt her if she advances to the general election. “If there’s an act of God and she wins the primary, she’s going to lose to the Democrat because of all the crazy, batshit signs she’s putting up,” he said.
A fourth Republican, Ljubo Skrbic of Palm Beach, has given his own campaign about $12,000.
The lone Democrat seeking the seat, Corinna Balderramos Robinson, has raised $15,500.
‘Waving around an AR-15 isn’t even special anymore’
But even as the gun debate rages anew after every mass shooting, images of candidates toting rifles are becoming a common campaign tactic, local political commentator Brian Crowley said.
“In 40 years of watching elections, it’s not unusual for longshot candidates to do things that are a little bit extreme,” he said. “Today, waving around an AR-15 isn’t even special anymore.”
The baby in the backpack, however, might cause a lot of people to cringe, he said.
Crowley, a frequent guest on WPTV Channel 5 and a former Palm Beach Post reporter, pointed to a recent campaign ad from Missouri Republican U.S. Senate candidate Eric Greitens showing him racking a shotgun and searching for “RINOs,” or Republicans In Name Only, with a team of men armed with assault rifles.
Martz “is taking this kind of militaristic challenge against a guy who lost two legs and part of a hand in war,” Crowley said. “If she could somehow convince people that Brian Mast is a RINO that might work for her.”
Martz said her signs aim to make two points: semi-automatic rifles like her AR-15 in the photo are not weapons of war and the conservative Republican Mast is vulnerable on the Second Amendment.
“An AR-15 in particular is not the weapon to be against,” she said, pointing out that the A in the name comes from the original manufacturer, ArmaLite, and does not stand for assault rifle. “There’s not much of a difference in the way an AR-15 fires and a regular handgun. It’s not a weapon of war like a lot of people like to say,” she said.
“The conversation has been hijacked. Why are we being told to focus on school shootings?” she asked. “How come nobody is talking about mental health? We have a real problem in this country.”
Mast in 2018: ‘I don’t fear becoming a political casualty’
Martz seized on Mast’s 2018 opinion piece, in which he described his military weapon as similar to the AR-15-style weapon “used to kill students, teachers and a coach I knew at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where I once lived.”
He continued: “I have fired tens of thousands of rounds through that rifle, many in combat. We used it because it was the most lethal — the best for killing our enemies. And I know that my community, our schools and public gathering places are not made safer by any person having access to the best killing tool the Army could put in my hands. I cannot support the primary weapon I used to defend our people being used to kill children I swore to defend.
“I don’t fear becoming a political casualty, either,” he wrote. “If we act now by changing laws surrounding firearms and mental illness, we too can save lives.”
Mast has since distanced himself from the opinion piece.
Since 2018, his campaign spokesperson Brad Stewart said, the Democratic Party has moved even farther left on gun-control and Mast has found it hard to trust that their measures would not be used to disarm Americans.
Mast voted earlier this month against Democratic bills raising to 21 the age for buying a semi-automatic rifle and a red-flag measure that would allow authorities to temporarily confiscate guns from people deemed dangerous.
Saying it made no sense to stop an 18-year-old who can be issued a semi-automatic rifle in the military from buying one at home, Mast said in a June 9 video: “I can defend my country. I can risk my life and my limb. But I can’t defend my home and my family the way I see fit. Terrible legislation.”
Asked to comment on what Mast thinks about the campaign signs, Stewart said, “Brian definitely supports her First Amendment right to put up these signs, but it’s honestly not something he’s given a lot of thought to. His focus is on what he can productively do to serve the community.”
© 2022 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.