Depending on who is asked, Republican Rep.-elect Allen West is either a hothead radical who will chip away at what little civility remains on Capitol Hill, or is an energetic, principled pragmatist who will bring a long-overdue dose of sanity to Washington.
But his sincerity isn’t in question: As supporters and critics alike say when it comes to the South Florida Republican, what you see is what you get.
“There are some candidates who are fairly standard politicians, who adopt the ‘tea party’ rhetoric … and then I think there are some politicians who are really fundamentally more tea party-ist than politician, and I think West fits into that category,” said Kevin Wagner, a political science professor at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.
“The rhetoric, he believes.”
Mr. West, a career soldier who retired in 2004 with the rank of lieutenant colonel, defeated Democratic Rep. Ron Klein by almost 9 percentage points in the Nov. 2 congressional elections. His aggressive, take-no-prisoners campaigning won over an electorate eager for change in Washington, and his biography and style made him instantly stand out, even in the massive new GOP freshman class that arrives on the Hill next week.
“People don’t normally get that energized about a candidate,” said University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus. “His military credentials are very impressive, and I think that had a lot to do with it.”
He was aided by a hefty tea party-infused campaign war chest of at least $6 million, which included donations from across the country - funding unavailable during his unsuccessful challenge of Mr. Klein in 2008.
Mr. West far outraised Mr. Klein, who had receipts of almost $3.8 million, in one of the most expensive congressional races in the country.
“Klein wasn’t a bad candidate. He just ran into a buzz saw,” Mr. Wagner said.
Like his tea party supporters, Mr. West embraces patriotic symbols and rhetoric and frequently rails against “socialist” liberals in Congress. He promotes a need to respect the “rule of law” and the Constitution, and holds particular scorn for “tax-and-spend” governing.
He attracted national attention long before he ever considered running for Congress, when the Army investigated his handling of a detainee while serving in Taji, Iraq, in August 2003. Then-Lt. Col. West acknowledged firing a pistol near the detainee’s head to elicit information to protect his troops.
After an Army investigation, he paid a $5,000 fine for his conduct and was allowed to retire with full benefits in 2004. He defended his actions as a way to protect his men, and his case became a cause celebre in many veterans and conservative activist circles.
The conservative media and an endorsement by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin helped spread his message nationwide. And a 2009 speech in which he evoked the Revolutionary War - viewed more than 2.3 million times on YouTube - made him an instant folk hero to many.
“When you look at our budget appropriations process, we have a government that just spends without any priorities,” Mr. West told The Washington Times in an interview earlier this month. “We need to get spending back to within the constitutional mandates of the federal government, and I think if we start to take those principled types of stances, which is what the American people are looking for us to do, we will right this ship that we’re on.”
Mr. West isn’t afraid to challenge leaders of his own party, already calling out House Republican leaders for scheduling “only” 123 workdays for 2011.