Allen West: CBC Needs Conservatism, Civility

The Florida Congressman has been labeled as a rising star within the Republican Party. He speaks with Michel Martin about Obama's jobs plan; the role of his lone conservative voice in the mostly Democratic Congressional Black Caucus; why more blacks aren't making it to elite military teams; and the end of DADT.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, as we continue to celebrate Hispanic heritage month we have a visit from the hosts of NPR music's All Latino podcast. Jasmine Garsd and Felix Contreras are going to tell us what's hot in music coming from Brazil right now. But first, we have a newsmaker interview with Florida Congressman Allen West. He is one of two black Republicans elected to Congress last year in the midterm elections, and Congressman West is the only Republican member of the Congressional Black Caucus, the CBC.

The Black Caucus kicked off its annual legislative conference here in Washington yesterday. Today Congressman West is hosting an event focusing on African-Americans in the military. He's a retired lieutenant colonel. He was kind enough to join us from the studios on Capitol Hill to talk about this and other pressing issues. Congressman West, welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

ALLEN WEST: Thanks Michel, it's always a pleasure to be with you.

MARTIN: Now, as you know, we've been checking in with you, along with another member of the freshman class whose district is alongside yours, just to get your fresh take on some of the major issues before the Congress. And as we are speaking now, in the past couple of days there have been some strong words from your Republican congressional leadership and from the president, with very different ideas about how to get the deficit down...

WEST: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...and how to get the economy moving again. And, you know, the president said in his remarks that people who are hurting right now don't have 14 months to wait until an election to resolve this difference of opinion. So, I'd like to ask you, from where you sit, how confident are you that the two sides can come together on some agreement?

WEST: Well, I think the first thing I would say is that I wish the president had not waited until 14 months to go before the November 2012 election, to get engaged in some of the fiscal irresponsibility that we've seen. I think that when you started off with a lot of the policies that he was putting forth, it kind of helped us along the path of a bad economy, as far as the debt and the deficit.

I have to tell you that when I hear the president talking about raising taxes at this time, I think that if we broaden the tax base and go to a flat tax, and maybe 15 percent, and only have two deductions - which is child tax credit and mortgage interest tax deduction - and then we have to look at flattening out our corporate business tax rate from 35 percent down to 21 percent and then eliminate all those loopholes and subsidies.

MARTIN: Okay, so how confident are you...

WEST: And I think...

MARTIN: ...that there is actually an agreement possible in this timeframe?

WEST: Well, I think that what you have to see is from the president not really giving speeches that really lean more so towards campaigning. And look, I think he's trying to pick a fight with House Republicans. I don't want to fight. I want to make sure that we do the right things for our country. You know, when he talked about his jobs plan, there was some interesting points in there that I would agree with him on.

You know, I put forth HR 1663, which is the Small Business Encouragement Act, which talked about tax credits to small businesses that hire people off the unemployment rolls. So, there's commonality there.

MARTIN: Well, you did make a reference to tone. In fact, there's been discussion, both about the difference in substantive perspective, but there's also been a lot of back and forth on tone. And you've been on the giving and receiving end of criticism about the tone of conversations here in Washington.

WEST: Well, I'm never going to back down if someone pokes me in the chest.

MARTIN: OK.

WEST: I think that's what you have to understand.

MARTIN: All right, I hear you. But recently, I wanted to ask you about one particular issue. You said you were reconsidering your membership in the caucus because of comments made by your fellow member Andre Carson of Indiana. This was at an event in Miami - a CBC event in Miami - he said that he felt some members...

WEST: No, I remember it well.

MARTIN: Do you remember it? Members of the Tea Party...

WEST: Oh, absolutely.

MARTIN: ...would like to see you and me hanging from a tree. You felt that that was uncivil. And we talked to the chairman of the Black Caucus about this, Mr. Cleaver, about this yesterday in our conversation with him. And this is what he had to say about the difference of opinion on that.

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EMANUEL CLEAVER: What I explained to Mr. West was that he is not subject to the emails and phone calls that many other members receive from the people who identify themselves as members of The Tea Party. If he, for example, answered the phone in the Congressional Black Caucus office, he might have some different thoughts.

MARTIN: You're saying that your folks are subjected to slurs and other...

CLEAVER: Yes, that's right.

MARTIN: ...things that, perhaps, Mr. West is not?

CLEAVER: That's right.

MARTIN: Mr. West is also African-American. Is that...

CLEAVER: Yes.

MARTIN: ...is that but he's not - you're saying he's not?

CLEAVER: He's an African-American, but he's not going to receive those phone calls from an organization to which he belongs.

MARTIN: So, what's your take on this? Is that how you all achieve the meeting of the minds?

WEST: Well, first of all...

MARTIN: He wasn't questioning your blackness, by the way, I just want to make sure that that's clear.

WEST: Yeah, no - no, well, first of all...

MARTIN: He was saying he doesn't think you're getting those kinds of hostile phone calls.

WEST: ...well, I'd like for him to come and answer the phones in my office as well. I've been called Uncle Tom, I've been called sellout, I have been called Oreo and many other variations of different racial epithets. But you're not going to hear me come out and say something incendiary which would bring up images of lynchings. I think that we have to be a lot more mature in what we're saying. So, you know, I still cannot condone what Andre Carson said, but I think that it's important for me to stay within the Black Caucus because you have to, as I said earlier, bring that bearing, perspective, and different outlook and insights from a conservative aspect.

And as I told the chairman, if he has people from quote-unquote the Tea Party and representing themselves as the Tea Party that call and use those type of, you know, racial tones, then let me know, because I will be more than happy to challenge the leadership in the Tea Party - which I have spoken at many different events - and tell them to knock it off.

MARTIN: But you've also been criticized for a lack of civility in some of your communications. You remember this exchange that you had with the Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, where she criticized you?

WEST: Sure.

MARTIN: ...and then you told her in an email to shut the heck up. And you said, she's not a lady and so...

WEST: But see, you've got to understand, once again, so many people are looking at that as a snapshot. No one said anything when Debbie Wasserman Schultz, in 19 - I mean in 2010, organized a protest and a rally outside of my campaign headquarters, accusing me for - of hating women and being a misogynist. And there have been many other instances where she has done things behind my back, down in the district, going and talking to veterans' clinics and talking about how I don't support veterans, things of that nature.

So, you all saw a snapshot, but I had turned the other cheek so many times I got a crick in my neck. And as I said, I'm going to stand up for myself and I'm not going to allow someone to continue to disrespect me.

MARTIN: Do you feel that those exchanges - you said that that's a snapshot. Does that kind of characterize the overall atmosphere on the Hill right now?

WEST: Well, this is what I'm going to be very blunt in saying, when you are coming from a party where all of your policies have, pretty much, so failed, the last thing you resort to are these vicious type of attacks. Look since I've been up here on Capitol Hill, I've heard people say that, you know, Republicans hate women, want to kill women, want to kill children. We remember the ads that were run where it showed a caricature of Paul Ryan pushing a senior woman off of a cliff from a wheelchair.

There's no place for this. And if you go back to what I had to endure in my campaign, in 2010, where people were accusing me of being a member of an all-white motorcycle gang and being a drug dealer, and also being involved in prostitution - there was no talk about the issues. It was all talk about character assassination. So let's come back to the issues. Let's come back to talking about how do we set the conditions here in Washington, DC for long-term sustainable economic and job growth.

MARTIN: We're talking with Congressman Allen West. He's a Republican who represents Florida's 22nd district. We're speaking with him as the Congressional Black Caucus, of which he is a member, convenes its annual legislative conference here in Washington, DC. And today, Mr. West, you're hosting an event at the Legislative Conference this week - that's actually today - about African-Americans in the military. You're featuring...

WEST: Absolutely.

MARTIN: And people that - for those who don't recall, you are a retired lieutenant colonel. You're featuring some distinguished veterans. One of the things you're going to be talking about is why aren't more African-Americans making it into Special Forces and other elite combat teams?

WEST: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Why is that? What have you come up with?

WEST: When I look at my career, there has always been a little bit of a recalcitrance to get African-Americans in our combat arms branches - you know, being the infantry, armor artillery, The Special Forces, Ranger Units, Navy Seals, things of that nature, Delta Force. So I think that we need to start looking at all the myriad of opportunities that are out there in our United States military. That - I'm not talking about you having a career in the military, but at least an opportunity to develop your leadership and challenge yourself, and look and see how you can become a better man or young lady.

And I think that, when I look at some of the scholarship opportunities out there, such as with the Navy, the Frederick C. Branch scholarship, which is named after the first black Marine officer, and the fact that those are going underutilized.

So we need to bring the attention to the entire black community. And when you think about when the first African-Americans put on that blue uniform back during the Civil War with the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, to where we are today, that's an incredible achievement that we have.

MARTIN: Along those lines, as we are talking, there's been another big event in the life of the US military this week. "Don't ask, don't tell," that's the 18-year-old policy that barred gays and lesbians who are openly gay from serving in the military, has been officially repealed. Any thoughts?

WEST: Well, this is what I will make an assessment on, having been a commander and a leader in the military for 20-some-odd years. The United States military - the mission is to support and win the nation's wars. And when we start to understand that the United States military is not a place that really does look at individual behavior, because what it does is it takes the individual's behavior, and it conforms it to a military institution.

The military's totally different from the civilian society. And if we ever get to the point where we start saying that the military has to conform to individual behaviors, then we're going to lose the essence of what the military is.

MARTIN: Well, there are many people, of course, who draw the analogy to the full integration of African Americans into the military...

WEST: That's a bad analogy.

MARTIN: You don't buy that?

WEST: No. I don't buy that. Because, very simply, when I walk into a room, there are two things that you know about me immediately. And you know that I'm a male and you know that I'm African-American, but individual behavior is something that you have to exhibit. And I think that, when we start to make that comparison, it's like apples and vegetables.

And so you can't, you know, start thinking that we have to make the military like the rest of the society, because it is not. And when I talk about the profit margin in the private sector, that's in dollars and cents. The profit margin in the military is in lives, and that's what we have to be focused on mostly.

MARTIN: If you check in a year from now or two years from now and find that force readiness has not been impaired, that the performance of the service members has not been impaired, will you say that you're wrong?

WEST: Well, I mean, I'll just say that it's working fine.

MARTIN: OK. And finally, before we let you go, today is the day of the third Republican debate, and it's actually taking place in your home state of Florida.

WEST: Yes, it is. In Orlando.

MARTIN: In Orlando. And I just wanted to ask how you think the race is shaping up so far and do you have a favorite yet? Is there someone who's caught your eye, at this point, that you want to tell us about?

WEST: Well, first of all, I think it's still too early. You still have some individuals that are pondering whether or not they'll jump in. I believe that, right now, it's kind of turning out to be a two-person race between Governors Romney and Perry. But I believe that, by the mid of November to the beginning of December, that's when you really start to see who is a frontrunner. And I'll make a better assessment then - but for me, it's still too early.

MARTIN: All right. Allen West represents Florida's 22nd district. He's a Republican, as we said. His district includes Boca Raton, as well as parts of Broward and Palm Beach Counties. He was kind enough to join us from the studios on Capitol Hill.

Congressman West, thank you so much for speaking with us once again.

WEST: Thank you, Michel. Great to be with you.

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