Politics & Government

Allen West didn't come to Washington to fit in with crowd

Rep. Allen West greets the crowd after addressing them during the Rolling Thunder Rally near the National Mall on May 29, 2011 in Washington, D.C.
Rep. Allen West greets the crowd after addressing them during the Rolling Thunder Rally near the National Mall on May 29, 2011 in Washington, D.C. Pete Marovich/MCT

WASHINGTON — Rep. Allen West doesn't do subtlety.

Take the recent suggestion to his congressional colleagues — Democrats and Republicans — pressing for a speedy exit of U.S. troops from Afghanistan: "I would take these gentlemen over and let them get shot at a few times and maybe they'd have a different opinion," says West, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who spent 22 years in the service.

Firm in his convictions and unafraid to share them. It was vintage West — brash, brusque and bombastic.

West, a biker and conservative Republican who became a fixture on the tea party circuit has brought his own brand to Congress.

"I'm not a career politician," West says. "I'm just being myself."

When West speaks his mind, it turns on his tea party fan base, which is hoping the fiery freshman will run for president in 2012. But Democrats consider him vulnerable. Two are already gunning for his seat, repeating the 2010 campaign attack line that he's too far right for the moderate Broward-Palm Beach district that went for Democrats Barack Obama in 2008 and John Kerry in 2004. Republicans are looking to defend him, putting his congressional seat in the first round of a national protection program aimed at keeping their most endangered candidates in office.

West, characteristically, has a blunt message for his opponents.

"Tell them to have fun, try," he said.

"I'm not a vulnerable candidate, I'm a target," he said. "I'm a target because the Democrats are not used to anyone who will stand up and confront them.

"A black conservative from the inner city and a retired military veteran is something that causes them concerns," he says. "I'm not the typical victim ... and they don't want to see me around."

There's little about West, 50, that says "typical." His graying military-style flattop, impeccably fitted suits and wire-rim glasses say buttoned-down businessman — albeit one who rides a Harley and starts every morning with a bracing miles-long run. (He's even incorporated his running into fundraising, inviting donors in May on a four-mile run across the National Mall).

And though he evinces pride at being the first black Republican from Florida since Josiah T. Walls arrived in Washington in 1876, he's been sharply critical of America's first black president, including President Barack Obama's middle name of Hussein, when he talks about him. He accuses the president of harboring "conscious, nefarious and malicious intent" for suggesting that any peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians should begin at the 1967 borders.

"I'm sorry," West says, sounding anything but regretful for his remarks. "But when you suggest putting our ally at risk, I've got to ask, 'Sir, what was the intent here?'"

West is a tea party superstar, but he hasn't always followed its script, either. He was one of just four Republicans to vote against a GOP bill that targeted the Democrats' health care plan by striking $100 million for school-based health care centers.

West defended his vote in a video interview posted on the conservative blog, The Shark Tank, saying he didn't come to Washington "to be a lemming."

Rep. Tom Rooney, a Republican deputy whip often charged with pulling his neighboring colleague into the GOP fold, acknowledges West is a tough sell.

"He's not very easily swayed off what his principles are, and I think that's an admirable trait," Rooney said. "When he explains to you why he is where he is on certain issues it's very hard to disagree with what he's saying, even if I'm trying to convince him to do something different."

West is a frequent guest on Fox News, gave the keynote address at the Conservative Political Action Conference and delivered a speech at the conservative Hertiage Foundation calling for more military spending.

Yet he rarely speaks on the House floor. And though he caused a stir when he pressed to join the all-Democratic Congressional Black Caucus, he rarely talks when the group meets.

"He has been very approachable," said caucus chair Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo. West didn't join the group when they met with Obama, prompting Cleaver's opening line, "Mr. President, I want you to know all the members of the Congressional Black Caucus are committed to your re-election, but one." Obama laughed, Cleaver said, "And said, yes, I know, Mr. West."

"I'm not here to come in and showboat," West said. "The most important thing as a young freshman is to sit back and survey the battlefield. ... When the time is right for me to speak, I do speak.

"The very smart military commander knows how and when to attack," said West, who retired following a 2003 military investigation into allegations he fired a gun near the head of a prisoner in Iraq. Authorities didn't pursue a court-martial against West, but he was fined $5,000.

Democrats have launched an aggressive campaign against West, believing they've got a potent weapon in their signature campaign against Republicans: his support for a controversial House budget plan that would remake Medicare. Future beneficiaries — those 55 and under — would get a government subsidy to purchase private health insurance.

The chances for Democrats may largely hinge on how the district is redrawn. It now has the seventh-highest number of seniors in the country, and Democrats have already put up radio ads and robocalls excoriating West for the Medicare vote.

West's two opponents, former West Palm Beach mayor and state legislator Lois Frankel and Patrick Murphy, a 28-year-old businessman, have begun raising money and campaigning.

But West isn't blinking — even as protesters shouted displeasure at his town hall meetings and Republicans lost a reliably safe seat in western New York after getting hammered on Medicare.

"You had a candidate who didn't run a very good campaign," West said of the GOP loss in New York, accusing Democrats of "demagoguing" Medicare without offering a solution.

"It's not going to happen to me," he said. "I understand how the other side works. They're very tough. I can be just as tough."

(Sherman, of The Miami Herald, reported from Miami. Clark reported from Washington.)

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