What Allen West And Abraham Lincoln Have In Common

U.S. Rep. Allen West came to Washington as part of the 2010 wave of Tea Party-backed candidates. He became known as aggressive and outspoken, but his tenure in Congress was short-lived. He recently conceded a close race for Florida's 18th District. West sits down with host Michel Martin to reflect on his term and his outlook for the future.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, on the eve of the inauguration of Mexico's new president, we'll talk with a Catholic nun who's been fighting for human rights in Mexico for many years. We'll hear how she fights for the disappeared and abused. It's our Faith Matters conversation, and it's coming up in just a few minutes.

But first, a newsmaker interview with someone who has become one of the most recognizable names in the U.S. Congress - Florida Rep. Allen West. We first spoke with Congressman West on the very first day of his first term in 2011. Over the course of the last two years - or thereabouts - Rep. West has made a name for himself as one of the most outspoken members of his party but also one of the most distinctive.

The former Army officer is one of only two African-American Republicans serving in the House. He was also the first in many years to join the Congressional Black Caucus, promising to add a different perspective on issues of concern to African-Americans. But he recently conceded defeat in a hard-fought congressional race for Florida's 18th district. And Congressman West is with us once again. Congressman, thank you so much for joining us.

REPRESENTATIVE ALLEN WEST: Thanks for having me, Michel. It's always a pleasure.

MARTIN: As we mentioned, we spoke to you on the very first day - really, minutes after you were sworn in.

WEST: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And when you look back over the experience that you've had in Congress - recognizing that, you know, there is still yet work to do, and important work to do, before you actually leave office - what do you think is the most important thing you learned?

WEST: Well, I think the most important thing that has to happen up here in Washington, D.C., is to restore honor, integrity and character to the political system and process that we have. And also, we have to make sure that people are here for - not their self-interest or special interests, but for the American interest.

And I think that having come from a career of service in the United States military, that gave me that focus of being here and continuing to serve as a citizen-servant to this country, just in a different uniform - not in the camouflage and the boots, but in a suit and tie; and to continue to talk about the direction that this country is heading in, and what we must do to restore our economy, what we must do to make sure we protect individual freedoms and rights. And we cannot believe that an overarching, large federal government is going to be the means by which we can have success in this country.

MARTIN: You know, you talked about a couple of different things there, just now. You talked about honor, integrity, and character; and you also talked about a specific philosophical perspective about the course that the country needs to take. Are you suggesting the people who don't agree with you, philosophically, lack honor, integrity and character? Or are you talking about different things?

WEST: No. I tell you, you almost have a separate political elite class that's being established, and that's what I'm trying to talk about. We cannot see ourselves as being above the American people. We have to see ourselves as serving the American people and we cannot seek to try to establish a different type of class.

And I'll give you a great example of that. When you look at a quote from George Mason that says that "nothing so strongly impels a man to regard the interest of his constituents than the certainty of returning to the general mass of the people from whence he was taken, where he must participate in their burdens." I don't think our Founding Fathers meant for us to have a career politician.

They wanted people to come here, to serve. They wanted people to go back and live under the laws that they had created. And I think that's what we have to get back to.

MARTIN: You know, speaking of the whole question of whether people in Congress are perceived as serving the interests of the people that they are sent here to serve, a lot of analysts, particularly after the election results, including many Republicans, have argued that the Republican Party did not do a great job of reaching out to people of color in 2012. This is a clip of former Arkansas governor, Mike Huckabee, talking about this on Election Night on Fox News. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS BROADCAST)

MIKE HUCKABEE: I think Republicans have done a pathetic job of reaching out to people of color, something we've got to work on. And it's a group of people that, frankly, should be with us based on the real policy of conservativism. But Republicans have acted as if they can't get the vote so they don't try. And the result is they don't get the vote.

MARTIN: You know, what is your perspective on this? When you won in 2010 you were running in a majority white district. After redistricting, your district was much more diverse. It had a much larger Latino demographic. But you were less successful there. I mean, what do you make of that? Why is that? Do you think it was your failure to reach out? What do you think that was?

WEST: No. You know, as a matter of fact, there were many people of color, if you want to talk about the Caribbean community, especially the Haitian community, that, you know, they understood the principles that I was talking about. They understood that, you know, we wanted to talk about the individual industrialism that leads to a thriving free marketplace of ideas, where people can, you know, come here with concepts and ideas and grow businesses and be successful.

You know, I had a good career in the United States military, but when people are going to run ads calling you a war criminal, when people run an ad that shows me as, you know, African-American punching white women in the face with boxing gloves or stealing money from black families, that's not what I talk about the type of integrity and character.

We should have a vigorous debate about issues. But when you want to try to destroy someone's character I think that that does have an impact and an effect in the electoral process, if we want to call it that.

MARTIN: Well, but you know what? In fairness, you gave as good as you got. Wouldn't you say? I mean, number one, you were very successful in raising money, so it would seem that you had the resources to answer these attacks or critiques or whatever people want to call it. And then also you were very outspoken, some would say to the point of abrasiveness, yourself. I mean, at some point you...

WEST: Never. Never abrasive.

MARTIN: Let me just - well, hold on.

WEST: I mean, you can bring it up but that's not a...

MARTIN: Let me just - I understand what you're...

WEST: It was not - Michel, it was not being abrasive. I mean, I think if I want to bring up...

MARTIN: Let me just give people the facts and then they can analyze how they feel about it. At one point you estimated that between 78 to 81 House Democrats were members of the Communist Party and people...

WEST: I didn't say member of the Communist Party. I talked about philosophy of governance.

MARTIN: OK.

WEST: And I explained that very well. Because when you look at the history of progressivism, where did that come from? And I think that once again, that's the type of the debate that we need to have instead of people relegating it to soundbites in trying to castigate someone negatively. I want people to think. I want people to understand, you know, what different governing principles are.

And I think that we have to get back to that. I want people to understand what it means to live in a constitutional republic or else we really don't understand how this country was established.

MARTIN: But is it your view that the attacks on you were unfair and all of your answers to those attacks were completely within the bounds of appropriate discourse? Is that how you feel?

WEST: No. I mean, I answer to that. But I'm saying when you sit up and call a 22-year veteran - look. My father served in World War II, my brother in Vietnam. My nephew currently serves. And you're going to call me a war criminal? I don't think that's a proper thing to bring up. And I don't think that that was part of, you know, what should've been the fair, open, and honest debate about issues and political discourse.

MARTIN: But...

WEST: That's all I'm saying.

MARTIN: Just to sort of tie a bow on it so I understand it, are you saying that the reason you feel you were not successful in your reelection is not that you didn't have a message that resonated, but you just feel that you were overwhelmed by negative attacks?

WEST: Well, there was also a credo SuperPAC that came down from San Francisco, and this is what some of the people that were out walking neighborhoods, these people were spreading rumors that I beat my wife. Also, there were some issues about voter fraud up in St. Lucie County. As a matter of fact, the certified results that were sent up from St. Lucie County, the supervisor of elections said that there were irregularities in it.

So there are a lot of things that happened down there, but this is not about me. This is about what type of legacy will we leave for our children and grandchildren in this country. And that's what I want to continue to stand for. And as Governor Huckabee talked about, we've got to make sure that we bring this message - a fundamental message that my parents brought me up with, even though they were registered Democrats - we've got make sure we can bring that message to all segments of this society.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. I'm speaking with Congressman Allen West. He is a Republican who currently represents Florida's 22nd district. After that state was redistricted, he was defeated in a hard-fought battle for Florida's 18th congressional district.

Speaking of the voter fraud issue that you just raised, the Palm Beach Post recently reported that the former chairman of Florida's Republican Party, Jim Greer, says that the purpose of some of the early voting initiatives or changes that we've talked about on the program, were for the intention of suppressing the Democratic vote.

He said, quote, "The Republican Party, the strategists, the consultants, they firmly believe that early voting is bad for Republican Party candidates and that party staffers and consultants pushed to eliminate early voting days." He says "it wasn't about fraud; it was, in fact, about curtailing the Democratic vote." And I'd like to ask what you say about that?

WEST: Well, I wouldn't put any credence into what Jim Greer is saying because he's - if I'm correct - in jail.

MARTIN: Well, I don't think he's in jail, but it is true that he stepped down as party chair after having been accused of misappropriating funds. That is true.

WEST: Yeah.

MARTIN: But he was also joined in those comments by former governor, Charles Crist, who was a Republican and is now an independent.

WEST: And who is - yes.

MARTIN: But, to the substance, you're saying that that's not true?

WEST: I think that, really, what we should have in the electoral process is, you know - it should be two things. I think that we should have absentee ballot voting and I think we ought to have election day voting and I think that election day in the United States of America should be a national holiday where - that everyone has the opportunity to get to their polling locations. I think we need to extend the hours, maybe from six in the morning until a little bit later at night, eight or nine o'clock.

But I think that there are some issues with early voting all across this country, different processes and procedures, different standards and, you know, I think that we need to go back and really look at the electoral process because I got to tell you, Michel. Right now, there are a lot of people that are losing trust and confidence in the electoral process in the United States of America. If people start to believe that their vote is not being counted, then we don't have the consent of the governed and we have something that is far less than what this country was intended to be.

And then, look, Florida needs a lot of help because it just continues to be a pain in our side as America - that Florida is consistently seen as having problems with its voting practices and procedures and processes.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I don't know if you saw the piece in the New York Times recently where your fellow congressman, Democrat Pete Welch of Vermont, talked about colleagues that he would miss. He said, you get into the routine of seeing certain people all the time and even the people who are your most contentious adversaries, you have certain affection for. I mean, you can't make up an Allen West. I think that was a compliment.

WEST: Oh, no. I'm - let me tell you. Pete...

MARTIN: Who - anybody you're going to miss?

WEST: Look, I have always said Peter Welch and Dennis Kucinich were great guys. You know, Dennis Kucinich and I came together on the whole Libya thing. Corrine Scott Brown - when we wanted to have the congressional medal recognition for the Montford Point Marines, the first African-American Marines, I mean, we worked together on that and we brought it to closure and the commandant was very happy about what we were able to do to get all those signatures.

So, look, people can say what they want, but if you want something to get done, if you want something to get done based on principle, you know, I'm the guy that folks even from the other side of the aisle came to and I will miss Peter Welch. I told him that very much so and I love the fact that we could have spirited debate that was based upon our beliefs and our principles, but we always wanted to see that we had the right thing for our country.

MARTIN: So what's next for you?

WEST: Look, you know, God closes a door so that he can open up greater doors. I will continue to, you know, stand up and fight for this country. That's my goal. I have two daughters, 19 and 16, and I want to make sure that they grow up in a great America that provides them all the opportunities that it provided to their mother and father.

MARTIN: Congressman Allen West is completing his term in Congress. He was kind enough to join us from a House recording studio on Capitol Hill here in Washington, D.C.

WEST: And always remember, Abraham Lincoln only served one term in Congress, too.

MARTIN: Duly noted. Congressman West, thank you so much for speaking with us.

WEST: Take care, now.

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