- The Washington Times - Monday, December 27, 2010

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.

“Congress needs to work to create jobs, reduce the deficit, strengthen our economy, limit the size of government and contend with a plethora of national security issues,” said Mr. West in a letter to incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican. “How are we to do that when, among other things, we start off being in session only 10 days the entire month of January?”

He also has questioned GOP plans for several congressional retreats in early 2011, and has vowed not attend at least two of them.

As the first black Republican elected to Congress from Florida since Reconstruction, he plans to join the Congressional Black Caucus - an exclusively Democratic club since the 1990s.

“There are two qualifying criteria, to be black and a member of Congress, and I think I meet them both,” he said. “Everyone talks about bipartisanship, and I think it’s time to bring a different perspective and insight to that body politic.”

Newly elected Rep. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who will be the only other black Republican in Congress next year, has said he won’t join the caucus.

Mr. West’s path to Washington wasn’t without a few hiccups. He was accused of having ties to the Outlaws, a motorcycle club associated with criminal activities - an allegation he denies.

And soon after the election, he caused an uproar by naming controversial conservative radio host Joyce Kaufman as his chief of staff, then bowed to outside pressure and dropped her from his staff. Ms. Kaufman has been castigated for incendiary comments against Democrats and illegal immigrants, among other things.

Mr. West said he ignores his critics because it simply comes with the role of being a public figure.

“No matter what I do, when the people that are criticizing me, the only way I can make them happy is to become a liberal progressive,” he said.

“The people made a solid choice the second of November, and they accepted the message that I brought forth, and I think that it is a message that is rooted in the values and the principles that made American what it is - a great nation for 234 years.”

Mr. West, who routinely touts his Army experience in Iraq and tenure as a civilian adviser in Afghanistan, received one of his top choices when House Republican leaders assigned him to the House Armed Services Committee. He will also serve on the House Small Business Committee. He said he had been seeking the Armed Services assignment to help strengthen the nation’s defenses abroad and to shore up its borders.

“No matter how great the economic policies you come up with, you still have to make sure the American people are protected,” he said. “We have to recognize there is a vicious and vile entity out there that we must confront and definitely recognize all across this world.”

Despite his election success, some don’t consider Mr. West a lock for re-election in two years. His South Florida district, which was at the center of the disputed 2000 presidential election in Florida and the state’s ensuing election recount, is only mildly conservative. And because he is viewed as a fiercely partisan figure, wooing independents and Democrats will be a challenge.

“He’s going to be vulnerable, no matter what happens,” Mr. Wagner said. “The question is whether he really tries to moderate himself as an average politician does, or he stays true to his sort-of tea party roots. And if he does, he may be more satisfied with himself, but he might be limiting the length of terms he can serve.”

But Mr. West said the art of compromise is a slippery slope he will be careful to traverse.

“Compromise should mean that you never sacrifice your principles,” he said. “I understand the Beltway two-step - or whatever you want to call it - of compromise, but you can’t surrender your principles, because when you do it the first time, it just becomes easier to do it each and every subsequent time.”

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