For retired Army Lt. Col. Allen West, Republican candidate for Congress in Florida’s 22nd District, one word seems to sum up his campaign, his career, his life: “leadership.”
“We’ve got to rediscover what leadership is in this country,” West says during an interview in Washington. “In the last 2008 election cycle, we saw American Idol play on a grand scheme. And unfortunately, we believed that giving a good teleprompter speech meant leadership.”
It may sound like typical boilerplate rhetoric, but for West, leadership is a culture and a lifestyle he knows well. His father served in World War II, his older brother in Vietnam. Both were Marines, but West chose the Army, serving for 22 years and rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel. His nephew is an Army captain, serving stateside after two tours overseas. “I’m not from a political family,” West says. “I’m from a family of service.”
And it’s service to his country that West says drives him to run for public office. West is once again challenging Democrat Ron Klein, who in 2006 defeated 13-term representative Clay Shaw. In 2008, the then-unknown West unsuccessfully ran against Klein with little financial support from the NRCC. “We raised $583,000 all on our own and ended up with 45.3 percent,” he says. So what has changed between 2008 and 2010 that makes West confident enough to seek a rematch?
“It’s time,” he says, explaining there wasn’t enough of it for him in the last election. In 2008, a late presidential primary in Florida meant voters tuned into his congressional race by only March or April of that year. But for 2010, West has had a bit more time to get his name and message out. A video of his rousing speech in Fort Lauderdale in October 2009 went viral and now boasts over 2 million views.
West's campaign has raised $3.5 million so far this cycle, with $2.2 million cash on hand. That war chest makes him formidable in the task to oust Klein, one of the most well-funded Democrats in the House. This is a seat Nancy Pelosi would like to keep, and for good reason. “He’s trying to remake himself as a fiscal conservative, a moderate,” West says. “The tough thing is that Klein has a 98 percent voting record with Pelosi, so he can’t run from that.”
Nor can Klein hide from a bad economy. “We have 12.3 percent unemployment in the state of Florida,” West says. “You go up federal highway, US 1 through the district from Fort Lauderdale Airport all the way up to Jupiter Inlet, you see closed, closed, closed storefronts.”
West says the solution isn’t more stimulus by way of federal spending; it’s keeping more money in the pockets of Americans with lower taxes. “We have got to transfer the wealth of the American people back to them and out of Washington, D.C.,” he says. He predicts Randian consequences if Congress allows the Bush tax cuts to expire. “What happens in January of 2011 when the producers, the producing class of the United States of America, finds themselves with a 65, maybe 70 percent marginal tax rate? It’s done. The economy’s done, the economic engine of this country is done, and productivity, innovation, investment, ingenuity, it grinds to a halt.”
The economy aside, West’s main legislative interests, unsurprisingly, seem to be national defense and foreign policy. On Iraq, he says: “We can’t get complacent about Iraq, because I think when you telegraph to the enemy that you’re just going to be picking up and leaving on said date, they’ll just wait you out. They’ll come back in and do whatever scurrilous activities they want.”
On Afghanistan: “I think that we need to have a more agile, versatile military that can conduct those strike type of operations, not so much the nation building which unfortunately, that has been our focus.”
On military strategy: “I think the biggest thing we have to understand when you go back and you look at the nature of the 21st century battlefield, this is not about occupational warfare. This is about being able to deny this enemy their sanctuaries, to cut off their resourcing, man, material, the financial support. It is also about the information war that defeats their message and that is cordoning them off from different support areas.”
West would like to sit on the House Armed Services Committee if he’s elected. “I think 22 years active duty service gives me a pretty good perspective,” he says.
It’s what happened at the end of that service career that the Klein campaign could use to try to derail West’s campaign. An incident in Taji, Iraq in August 2003, during which West fired his pistol in the air while interrogating an Iraqi detainee to extract vital information, led to disciplinary action, and West eventually resigned and retired. The West campaign released a four-minute video explaining the incident, with West’s fellow soldiers offering endorsements of his actions and leadership. He hopes to tell the story in his own words before Klein or the Democrats can.
West testified during his hearing in December 2003 that he would have done what he did again if he had to. "If it's about the lives of my soldiers at stake, I'd go through hell with a gasoline can,” he said. West stands by that statement today, nearly seven years later.
Even though soldier West is now civilian West, he still views his campaign for Congress as a mission and a duty. “You’ve got to answer your nation’s call,” he says. “I’m going up there to get into the fight.”