GOP's Rep. Allen West Draws Black Caucus Spotlight : It's All Politics Though Nancy Pelosi was warmly greeted, it was the GOP's Allen West who drew the most attention. The new congressman was the first black Republican in the caucus since 1997.
NPR logo GOP's Rep. Allen West Draws Black Caucus Spotlight

GOP's Rep. Allen West Draws Black Caucus Spotlight

The ceremonial swearing-in of the Congressional Black Caucus Wednesday morning delivered another sign of the changing times in Capitol Hill: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s appearance was less electric to that of freshman black Republican Rep. Allen West.

Indeed, Pelosi (D-Calif.), the keynote speaker, drew warm applause as she saluted the caucus’ incoming chairman, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), and sought to rouse her troops for the forthcoming battles against the new Republican majority in the House.

“We extend the hand of friendship to our [Republican] colleagues to create jobs, grow the economy and lower the deficit,” Pelosi said. “But where we cannot find common ground, we must stand our ground on the pledge that we took of liberty and justice for all…and that includes economic justice.”

As she concluded, Pelosi placed her hands on her hips and vowed, “Two years from now when we come together, things will be different.”

While the rest of the black caucus enthusiastically applauded, the group’s newest member—and the lone Republican—sat stoically among them. West, a retired Army officer and decorated combat veteran, kept his squared jaw tight and soldiered through with a blank expression on his face.

A novice politician and a favorite of the Tea Party groups, West brings his military, gung-ho style to the House as an avowed conservative unafraid of hurling barbs at Democrats or the Washington political establishment, even his own party’s House leadership.

And he hasn’t spared his new black caucus colleagues, all of whom are Democrats and liberal.

After his election in November, West declared that he’d join the Congressional Black Caucus to shake up its “monolithic” ideology that hasn’t delivered effectively for African-American communities. He said the caucus has promoted a culture of victimization among its black constituents.

Caucus members have bristled at his attacks, but their outgoing chair, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), nonetheless extended an invitation for West to join.

West is the first Republican member of the caucus since 1997. He’s the first black Republican congressman from Florida since Reconstruction.

The other black Republican elected to the House in November, Timothy Scott of South Carolina, declined to join the group.

Five freshmen Democrats also joined the black caucus on Wednesday. The group has a total of 43 members in the 112th Congress, all in the House.

At the swearing-in ceremony’s conclusion, Pelosi was long gone while West immediately found himself swarmed by reporters. They orbited him as he was rushed to a live interview on NPR’s Tell Me More.

As he exited, West offered a more conciliatory tone toward his fellow caucus members.

“The reception has been great,” West said of his caucus colleagues. He said one way he plans to influence the caucus’ traditionally liberal agenda will be in “resurrecting entrepreneurial spirit of the African-American community, particularly through small businesses.”

In his inaugural speech, Cleaver rejected assertions that his group has become irrelevant in a “post-racial” era.

“To that spectacular assertion, I must say ‘get real,’” he said, to rousing cheers. “It is imperative that we obliterate the notion that we have reached race nirvana because the failure to do so prevents us from engaging in the demanding but necessary work. Clearly, we’ve come a long way but our work is far from over."