Wednesday, November 24, 2010
Colonel Allan West heads to Washington
Allen West, one of two black Republicans just elected to House, goes against grain By Krissah Thompson Washington Post Staff Writer Wednesday, November 24, 2010; 12:42 AM Allen West, a 22-year Army veteran, is preparing for Washington a bit like he would for a battlefield. His "high and tight" hairstyle will be one of the only buzz cuts in Congress. He plans to carry a camouflage bag, not a briefcase. And on a recent morning, while others in the Republican Party's large incoming freshman class jockeyed for office space, he declared himself largely indifferent. "I've lived in tents," said West, who in January will become the first black Republican to represent Florida since 1876. Since its last black lawmaker retired from the House in 2003, the GOP has been eager to elect high-profile African Americans. The party's desire to demonstrate inclusiveness has been especially pressing since the election of Barack Obama and the rise of the predominantly white tea party movement. West is one of two black Republicans elected to the House this year. The other, Tim Scott, a longtime politician in South Carolina, was quickly drafted into the GOP leadership as a representative of the freshman class. West brings to the party a strong personality and, with repeat appearances on Fox News and a spot this past Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press," a profile that many incoming members of Congress would covet. But he's also an unpredictable force, inclined to be an outsider - even within the GOP. In an interview, he said he doesn't admire anyone in Washington. On the campaign trail, West found support among anti-establishment groups, including the tea party and motorcycle clubs. He briefly hired as his chief of staff Joyce Kaufman, a local conservative talk radio commentator. She resigned amid controversy over inflammatory comments she made, including disparaging illegal immigrants and referring to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as "garbage." West responded by saying he is "even more focused that this liberal, progressive, socialist agenda, this left-wing, vile, vicious, despicable machine that's out there is soundly brought to its knees." 'Truth in boldness' West, 49, sees himself stepping to the front lines of an ideological war in which he is fighting liberals who want "a country that creates victims where we enslave the American spirit," he said. Cris Kurtz, the leader of USA Patriots, a tea-party-affiliated group in Tulsa, likened West's influence in the movement to that of Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who has sometimes bucked his party's leadership. Kurtz described West as "awesome" after hearing him speak at a Kansas rally to support U.S. troops imprisoned for killing Iraqis in violation of U.S. policy. "He speaks truth in boldness,"Kurtz said. West was charged by military authorities and forced to retire after firing a handgun near the head of an Iraqi police officer during an interrogation in 2003. The officer was suspected of having information about attacks on U.S. forces in the area. West admitted wrongdoing and paid a fine. His case became a cause celebre for conservative media personalities, and 95 members of Congress signed a letter to the Army secretary in support of him. "I've been there," West said in a video recorded after the Kansas rally. "We've got to get away from political correctness on the battlefield. Stop believing we can treat the enemy in such a kind and benevolent way." Timothy Johnson, a leader of the Frederick Douglass Foundation, which brings together black Republicans, said West is independent thinker. "You don't become a black Republican or get into going against the grain without being real strong about who you think you are and what you believe," said Johnson, an associate of West's and a vice chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party. "Despite the perceptions, the black community is not monolithic looking, thinking or voting. Allen is working on making sure people know that." 'Fight for America' West ran for the same House seat two years ago. He received little attention from the Republican establishment and had trouble raising money. This year, national Republicans invested heavily in promoting a diverse slate of candidates for House races. Michael S. Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, has noted in speeches that the party recruited 32 African Americans for public office, more than ever. Most lost in primaries. West was named one of the National Republican Congressional Committee's Young Guns, a designation given to newcomers whom the committee considers viable. His campaign raised $5.3 million, and he was among a handful of conservative military veterans who were endorsed by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin. West won comfortably in a district that is 83 percent white. Race played little role in his campaign against Democratic Rep. Ron Klein, who worked to convince voters in the South Florida district - including Broward and Palm Beach counties - that West was too extreme. Voters in the district lean Republican and have traditionally been represented by moderates, said Kevin Wagner, a political science professor at Florida Atlantic University. "This was one of the few years where a candidate who has said some of the things that West said could have been successful in this district," Wagner said. Even before Palin's endorsement, West became a tea party phenomenon because of an impromptu speech he gave at a 2009 Tea Party Express rally in Fort Lauderdale. A video of the speech, in which he invokes the Revolutionary War, has been viewed more than 2.3 million times on YouTube. It is vintage West. The crowd of a few hundred had been bored by a series of dry speeches, West recalled, and the organizer asked him to say a few words. With three minutes to compose his thoughts, West took the microphone and shouted: "You better get your butts out there and understand it's a fight, and you better fight for America. "You need to leave here understanding one simple word and that word is 'bayonet.' You need to leave here and charge this enemy for your freedom." A 'role model,' 'example' West was raised in inner-city Atlanta. His father was a World War II veteran who worked at the local veterans hospital. His mother held a job at the Marine barracks. "No question I was going into the military," he said. He joined the Army at age 21, straight out of college, where he studied political science and later military strategy. West's family home was not far from Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached, and he remembers walking along Auburn Avenue with his folks and marveling at the "black entrepreneurial spirit." His parents voted for Rep. John Lewis, an Atlanta Democrat and civil rights hero, but they also taught him conservative values, West said. "One of the implied responsibilities that I do have as a black member up here is to be a role model and an example," West said. Scott, the other African American Republican joining Congress, has said he will not join the Congressional Black Caucus because he's not interested in groups that separate people by race. J.C. Watts (Okla.), the last black Republican to serve in Congress, took the same stance. West told Fox News commentator Juan Williams recently that his late parents would be "absolutely appalled" if he won a seat in Congress but refused to join the black caucus. The group said it would welcome both Republicans, though at least two members of the caucus campaigned against West. West seems unconcerned about any tension that might arise from his presence in the caucus. "You want to talk about bipartisanship?" he said. "Well, I'll bring it to the CBC."