Tea Party Favorite Allen West Ready To Legislate

Incoming Congressman Allen West of Florida is a tea party darling. The retired US Army Lieutenant Colonel received an endorsement from Sarah Palin and, in the process, became one of two black Republicans elected to the 112th Congress. Host Michel Martin talks with West about why he ran and what role race played in getting him elected.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now to one of the rising stars of the freshman class of the 2012 Congress, the 112th Congress. Hopefully no fisticuffs will be thrown, but he's already shown a skill for throwing a verbal jab or two. He is a Republican making history as one of two African-American Republicans elected in November. That's the first time that's happened since J.C. Watts left the Congress back in 2003. His name is Allen West and he represents parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties, and he's with us now from Capitol Hill.

Welcome to the program and happy New Year to you.

Representative ALLEN WEST (Republican, Florida): Well, thanks so much, Michel. Happy New Year. And I don't know about this rising star stuff. We'll see what happens with that. I don't want end up being a comet.

MARTIN: Well, you know, we mentioned that you've already made history and are getting some attention because of your background and profile. You're, of course, endorsed by former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and the tea party. You are a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army, an Iraq War veteran, and as we said, the first African-American Republican, one of two to be seated in a while. But presumably that is not why you ran.

Rep. WEST: Yes.

MARTIN: So for those who follow - have not followed your campaign, can you tell us why you wanted to be in Congress and what you hope to accomplish while here?

Rep. WEST: Well, I think, you know, when I look at being in Congress, it was not something that I planned to do when I retired from the Army back in 2004. But when people came to me and convinced me of going back and serving my country, just in a different uniform, in a suit and tie this time - and the absolute incredible thing, you know, this morning, I got up about five o'clock and did a, you know, seven-mile run around the National Mall - I thought about how the 22-year career that I had, that you fought to preserve and protect these institutions that make this Republic so great, and now you get the opportunity to serve within these institutions and continue to make it great, you know, by being a citizen legislator. So, I think that's one of the reasons why.

It's just a continuation of the service to the country that started with my father who served in World War II, an older brother who served in Vietnam and my nephew who is here, who is the fourth generation in my family to serve, following my footsteps as an artillery officer and a captain. So it's about serving this great nation.

MARTIN: Your style has been described as gung ho, brash and hard-charging. And this isn't just felt by your political opponents, but also members of your own party. Last month you wrote a letter to incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor asking why, given all that is on your plate, that the schedule seems to allow for so much time outside of Washington. I'd like to ask you how you will know whether your own party is keeping faith with the principles that you believe brought you here and brought many of the new members here.

Rep. WEST: Well, the thing is, as I sat down and looked at that congressional calendar back in December, 123 days of session, I had some questions about that. And I think that the constituents that sent me up here sent me up here not to just be a bandwagon follower, but to be someone that will challenge assertions and do that wisely and respectfully, which is what I did.

So, you know, the thing is I think that the most important thing is to have that open communication with the leadership and this is not about being gung ho or brash or anything like that. It's about being the son that my mother and father raised to stand up for the convictions and the things that you believe in.

And I think that one of the - I don't know, I think a lot of people in the media here are very surprised at people that talk truth and don't talk spin. And I think that that has kind of, you know, propelled me into this light of scrutiny. And I'm just going to continue to say the things that I think the constituents and the American people want to have said.

MARTIN: Who or what is going to be keeping you accountable? And we only have a minute here. We need to take a short break, but we'll be coming back for more conversation. But who or what is going to keep you accountable for the principles that you believe brought you here?

Rep. WEST: Well, I think the people keep me accountable. And I also think that my faith in God and my wife and my daughters will keep me accountable.

MARTIN: We need to take a short break and when we come back we'll continue our special broadcast from the U.S. Capitol. It's the opening day of the 112th Congress. Our conversation is with incoming congressman, Allen West of Florida. We'll talk about his thoughts on leadership, President Obama and joining the Congressional Black Caucus, among other things.

Please stay with us. You're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're here at the U.S. Capitol. It's the opening day of the 112th Congress. In a few minutes we'll be touching base with two veterans of Congress who are taking on new leadership roles. They are the new leaders of the Congressional Black and Hispanic Caucuses. That is later.

But, first, we continue our conversation with Allen West, the Republican elected in the midterms to represent Florida's 22nd congressional district. That includes Boca Raton, parts of Palm Beach and Broward counties. He's already made waves as one of two black Republicans being seated. That's the first time there will be an African-American in the Congress - African-American Republican in the Congress since 2003.

Before the break we were talking about how your style has been described as both brash and gung ho. And I wanted to talk to you about a new Gallup poll which was taken in mid December. Congress has its lowest approval rating in many, many years. There's not much difference between how Republicans, Democrats and independents view the Congress. And some people attribute that to a sense that there's such profound polarization here that very little is getting done.

First I'd like to ask your interpretation of those numbers. And, secondly, what are you personally planning to do to overcome this partisan divide?

Rep. WEST: Well, I think the most important thing is the American people, as you say, with a 13 percent approval rating, have lost trust and confidence in the people they have sent up here as elected leaders. And I think that it is so important that we reconnect to the people. And I think that what you saw in this last election, it was not so much that people weren't running back to the Republican Party. They did show that they weren't happy with the policies coming out of the Democrat Party.

But they are trying to find individuals that will go up and be their voice, that will resemble them, that will take their cares and concerns to Washington, D.C. So I think that that is the way that we try to break down this partisanship, is talk about the American values, talk about the American fundamental principles that make us exceptional, make us who we are, that built this country in 235 years. And there are certain principles that work and there are certain principles that have been proven not to work.

MARTIN: You know, to the question of civility, though, you are quoted as having said that President Obama is one of the dumbest people, the dumbest person walking around right now. Did you really say that?

Rep. WEST: Well, I don't know at what time that I said it, but maybe there was some type of decision that he had made that I thought was a very dumb decision. I will tell you this. I think that when you go back and you look at the fact that we're involved in two combat operations and multiple other type of skirmishes, the fact that we almost have a third world war brewing south of the border, the most important issue was not "dont ask, don't tell."

I think that when you look at the rules of engagement, when you look at what type of strategic goals and objectives that we're going to have in Afghanistan to lead toward victory, those are the type of things that leaders, that principled leaders, visionary leaders are focused on. So there have been some dumb decisions that have come out of this administration and as well out of this Congress.

MARTIN: But does that contribute to the atmosphere of civil discourse that many Americans are saying that they want to see right now?

Rep. WEST: Well, I'll tell you what. You know, when you sit around and think about some of the things that happened in my campaign, when my 17-year-old daughter picks up a mailing piece and it's got my Social Security number in it, when there are TV ads that are run about me saying that I'm a member of an all-white motorcycle gang and I run drugs and I hang out with prostitutes. You know, let's talk about civil discourse on both sides of the aisle.

MARTIN: Well, exactly.

Rep. WEST: Yeah.

MARTIN: To that point. But many people who feel that some of the criticism directed at the president is just totally out of balance, as to you.

Rep. WEST: Yeah, but if I say something dumb, it's based upon a policy decision. But I don't think I've been running drugs and hanging out with prostitutes my entire life.

MARTIN: To that point, this whole question of sort of reaching across the aisle, it's gotten some attention that you do plan to join the Congressional Black Caucus. In fact, you were there...

Rep. WEST: We just got sworn in.

MARTIN: ...at the swearing-in just now. What do you hope to add to this body? This body has been all Democratic for quite some time. In fact, J.C. Watts, who was the last African-American Republican to serve in the body, did not join.

Rep. WEST: And I think that was a mistake. I think it was a mistake. And, you know, one of the things that I really believe, my parents, who, you know, since passed, are looking down proud of the fact that I did join. And when you look at it, we need to bring those variant perspectives and voices to that body politic, you know, no one is really talking about an amazing story of this congressional cycle that you have 42 African-Americans who ran on the Republican ticket. Fourteen made it into the general election and two of us made it here to the United States House of Representatives.

We have a black female Republican lieutenant governor down in Florida, Jennifer Carroll. So there is a different voice out there and that voice needs to be heard. And this is about that bipartisanship that you just said. You know, as I listen to Chairman Cleaver of the CBC talk about how we need to rebuild the walls using the Jericho metaphor, you know, I stood on those walls for 22 years guarding this country.

Now I want to make sure that we build these internal walls of our principles. And I think one of the critical things we can look at, you know, being on the small business committee, how do we reinvigorate? How do we resurrect that individual entrepreneurial spirit in our small business community, especially in the black community? So it's those type of things that I can bring to the table.

MARTIN: I do want to ask about that. I mean the election is over, but we did report on this unprecedented number of African-Americans running on the Republican line. I wanted to ask why you think that is. Do you think it's demographics? Is it recruiting? Was it the fact that the chairman of the party was - Michael Steele was also an African-American? What do you think? What do you attribute that to?

Rep. WEST: I think that people are, you know, heeding an internal message. They are looking and making their own evaluations. You know, let's never forget that, you know, the last time there was a black member of Congress from - a Republican member of Congress from Florida was the Reconstruction. So the first members of this body up here were Republicans. So, somehow we've got to understand that historical tie, that historical bond, resurrect those principles. And, you know, everyone keeps beating up the Republican Party about not going to the black community. Well, that's why I'm there in the Congressional Black Caucus.

MARTIN: And a couple more questions before we have to let you go - and you've been very generous with your time in what is a very busy day. Congressional leaders, Republican congressional leaders have said that one of their first orders of business is to try to repeal health care reform. As a person yourself who's had health care presumably because of your job, what do you say to all the millions of people who have not?

Rep. WEST: Well, the thing is there are free market, free enterprise solutions that we can look to reform our health care system. But when I talked to the doctors, when I talked to the small business owners in Congressional District 22, especially small business owners that are dropping people off of health care because they cannot afford it or putting people on part time, that's a jobs issue and it's also an economic issue.

When I look at the fact that we're talking about $500 billion cuts in Medicare, 159 new government agencies, you know, those are things that we can't focus on building the bureaucratic nanny state if we're going to pull out of this debt and deficit. And I think that's why we've got to look at this health care reform law. There are things that are very good in it, as far as preexisting conditions, as far as small businesses pulling together as far as closing the donut hole. But I can tell you, you know, with my limited education, I can probably package that in five to 10 pages. The other 2,490 pages, that's what we need to focus on.

MARTIN: In the time that we have left, do you mind if I ask you a personal question?

Rep. WEST: My shoe size is nine and a half.

MARTIN: Oh, that wasn't going to be my question.

Rep. WEST: OK.

MARTIN: My question was going to be...

Rep. WEST: And I'm not going to color my gray hair.

MARTIN: You're not color your gray hair. Well, I was going to ask how you plan to continue to be you while you're here. Many people come here and find that there are all kinds of accommodations they have to be. What are you going to do to be you while you're changing the world?

Rep. WEST: It's very simple. You stay in touch with the friends that you've known throughout your years. As a matter of fact, one of the guys that's here today, Colonel Theron Williams, he and I were young captains back in Desert Shield, Desert Storm. So, those are the type of people that will keep you grounded.

MARTIN: And, finally, I do have to ask about one of the hottest issues in Florida right now. Not in your district, but the Heat, you know, the big three, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, are they going to take it?

Rep. WEST: They gel.

MARTIN: Are they going to take it all the way?

Rep. WEST: Well, I don't know if you can say they're going to take it all the way, because you can never know what will happen in the playoff season, but they have finally come together.

MARTIN: Allen West has been elected to represent Florida's 22nd district. That includes Boca Raton, parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties. He is, as we've said, one of two African-American Republicans being seated in this Congress, the 112th. And he joined us here on Capitol Hill for this special broadcast.

Congressman West, thank you so much for joining us.

Rep. WEST: Thank you so much, Michel. Thanks.

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