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Tea Party star

Politics | Allen West was on his way to a long and successful Army career, until unplanned events turned him into one of Capitol Hill's strongest conservatives

Issue: "Who will vote?," April 21, 2012

WASHINGTON-Allen West's journey to Capitol Hill began with a gunshot blast over the head of an Iraqi police officer.

In 2003, soldiers under then-Lt. Col. West's command had detained the Iraqi officer inside a military base north of Baghdad. The Americans believed he had information about a planned ambush of U.S. forces, but the Iraqi remained uncooperative. West fired his 9mm pistol near the prisoner's head. The frightened Iraqi cracked, providing the information West sought.

The U.S. military balked at West's interrogation technique and charged him with violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Relieved of his command, West potentially faced years in prison. "I know the method I used was not right, but I wanted to take care of my soldiers," he testified at a hearing during the investigation. West avoided a court-martial, but his 22-year Army career was over.

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Thousands of people wrote West to offer support, including 95 members of Congress who sent a letter backing West to the secretary of the Army. Now West is a colleague to many of those lawmakers.

West, 51, is the first black Republican to represent Florida since 1876. Pro-life, pro-traditional marriage, and anti-big government, he admits he'd still be in the military if the controversial interrogation had not occurred: "As it says in Jeremiah chapter 29 verse 11 to 13, God knows the plans that He has for you. Sometimes He has to get you off one course and onto another. I don't see it as a bad thing. I see it as a time when my faith and my spirit were strengthened."

West may have his faith and spirit strengthened more this year after redistricting put more Democrats into his district along South Florida's east coast. West, who called the changes to his original district an ambush, decided to run for reelection in the new 18th Congressional District where Republicans have a slight edge.

West's blunt manner has made him a standout with conservatives. He was one of 59 House Republicans to vote against a deal with Democrats to prevent a partial federal government shutdown last spring, arguing that the nation's top lawmakers-both Republican and Democratic-must stop their band-aid approach to the country's fiscal situation.

Angered at GOP leaders for their minuscule spending cut proposals, West said last year that the leadership had "to sit down and have a come-to-Jesus with themselves." In December, West again lashed out at top Republicans. He said the House leadership "sold us down the road" over the last-minute agreement to extend the payroll tax credit for two months instead of a full year. West called the temporary extension "absolutely pathetic policy."

West is even more direct when it comes to Democrats. He said the military cuts President Barack Obama announced in January show "incompetence." Last year he called Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a congresswoman also from Florida, "vile" and "despicable." He described the Democratic Party as "a 21st-century plantation" and called himself "a modern-day Harriet Tubman." He has said former Nazi leader Joseph Goebbels would be "very proud of the Democrat Party because they have an incredible propaganda machine."

West makes many of his fellow politicians uncomfortable with his harsh verbal attacks, but he displayed an easy rapport with rank-and-file Capitol Hill police officers during a walk to his office last year.

Most of Capitol Hill's lawmakers walk right by the army of security officers here, treating them like statues. But West knows many of them by name. "Look forward to seeing you on Fox," said one guard as West waited for his staff to go through a metal detector. "They can't get anyone else," joked West, who has become a regular on the conservative talk-show circuit.

West, who runs about 5 miles every morning, encouraged other guards stationed along the route to his office to get in their own daily exercise. "When you are a commander and it is one or two o'clock in the morning there is nothing wrong with going out to a soldier on guard post and spending 15 to 20 minutes chatting with them, asking them how they feel," he explained.

"People often forget who sent them to Washington," said Donna Brosemer, a Republican political consultant from South Florida who encouraged West to run for office: "But it is hard to imagine that ever happening to Allen."

West calls himself an introvert, "a little fat kid who used to get picked on" during his childhood in inner-city Atlanta. Suffering from severe asthma, he still enjoyed the outdoors. He fished, picked peaches for family-run roadside stores, climbed pecan trees so his grandmother could make fresh pies, and sold Cokes at Atlanta Braves baseball games.

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