Rep. Allen West (R-FL) speaks to constituents at a town meeting in Deerfield Beach, Fla., on Thursday.
Rep. Allen West (R-FL) speaks to constituents at a town meeting in Deerfield Beach, Fla., on Thursday. Greg Allen/NPR
Members of the House are back in their home districts through next week. For freshman representatives, it's their first chance to report back and hear from their constituents.
In Deerfield Beach, Fla., this week, Republican representative and Tea Party firebrand Allen West held his first town meeting. But for the many West supporters who attended, it had the feel of a victory rally.
More than 300 people gave West a standing ovation when he arrived at the South Florida Bible College.
West began by holding up something that he told the audience was "pretty special." It was his congressional electronic voting card. "If you want afterwards, come by and see this, because this does not belong to me," he told the audience. "Even though it has my picture, it belongs to each and every one of you, the constituents of Congressional District 22."
In many ways, West is unconventional. He's an African-American Republican representing a mostly white, affluent district. And he became the first Republican in 14 years to join the Congressional Black Caucus.
Strong Tea Party support was a major factor in his victory in November. West defeated two-term Democrat Ron Klein in a swing district that stretches from Fort Lauderdale to Palm Beach.
During the campaign, his rhetoric was often heated. But Thursday night, he mostly took a more measured tone.
For reporters and others anticipating a confrontation in Congress between the GOP leadership and Tea Party proponents, West had this to say:
"We got all the media here and everything," he said. "Let me tell you guys something. Stop with this media manipulation of this group of Americans called the Tea Party."
West talked proudly of the first bills passed by the House, including a measure to repeal President Obama's new health care law. He reiterated a promise to vote against a bill to raise the debt limit unless it also includes measures to control the growth of government — such as a balanced-budget amendment and a cap on federal spending.
The Congressman's Budget Plans
West said he was there mostly to talk to his constituents about the nation's fiscal picture and the need to make hard budget decisions.
Using charts and graphs, he told this mostly over-age-50 crowd there would have to be significant cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
"The explosive growth of entitlement spending," he called it. "We've got to get it off of autopilot, we really do. We've got to make some hard looks at that."
West said he endorsed many of the ideas circulated by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan — such as raising the retirement age and changing Medicare's fee-for-service structure.
It was a sober discussion with no applause lines and which the audience met mostly with silence. West tried to reassure them.
"We're not going to do anything that's going to put the American people or our seniors or anyone's life at jeopardy," he said. "And I don't want to hear all of this fearmongering and the use of propaganda against what you all know that we must do. It is time that we start talking to the American people like adults, and stop talking to them like children."
There were some Democrats at the town meeting, including Donald Mello of Deerfield Beach. Mello voiced a political reality — that West and anyone looking to cut Social Security and Medicare would not find them easy targets.
"Senior citizens are probably the largest voting block that actually votes in this country," Mello said. "So I think if you are going to do that, you are going to put your office in jeopardy."
West referred several times to a well-thumbed copy of President Obama's State of the Union speech in which he had made copious notes. The audience seemed skeptical, but West said he saw in the speech places where he could work with the White House.
"That's the rhetoric. We'll see what happens with the reality," he said. "He talked about illegal immigration. He talked about the individual tax code. So there is an opening for us to work, as he said, in a bipartisan fashion to get these things done."
West said he thought the 87 new freshmen Republicans in the House would stay true to their ideals. As for congressional veterans, West said he had a message: "Either you go bold, or you go home."