Tea Party star

"Tea Party star" Continued...

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

He attended grade school right across the street from Martin Luther King Jr.'s Ebenezer Baptist Church. West's family attended nearby Fort Street United Methodist Church, where he served as an altar boy and sang in the choir: "My parents invested in my spiritual growth as well as my physical and mental growth because they believed in the whole person concept. ... You knew where you were going to be on Sundays. That created a foundation for a life of faith."

His family also instilled in West a desire to serve in the military. His dad was wounded in Italy's Po Valley as an Army corporal during World War II. His mother worked for the Marines as a civilian, and his older brother served in Vietnam as a Marine.

West joined his high school's ROTC program in the ninth grade. After graduating from the University of Tennessee, he became a full-time soldier. He says the military helped him step outside his comfort zone. He was afraid of heights, and his first military assignment was with an airborne infantry company: "You don't have to operate in the realm of fear." West, who talks in military metaphors and carries a camouflaged military bag instead of a plain briefcase, carries that attitude "to this battlefield up here in Washington, D.C."

West first ran for Congress in 2008, but lost to the incumbent Democrat, Rep. Ron Klein, by about 10 percentage points. "All I needed was more time," said West, who holds two master's degrees including one in political science.

During the next two years, fears over the rapid growth of government spawned the Tea Party. West became an early activist for the movement. His impromptu speech at a 2009 Tea Party rally in Ft. Lauderdale became an internet sensation, gaining more than 2 million views on YouTube. With only minutes to prepare, West called on conservatives to "stand up, to get your musket, to fix your bayonet, and to charge into the ranks."

In 2010, he faced Rep. Klein again. This time West had name recognition and more than $6.5 million in the bank. He won the House seat 54 percent to 46 percent-in a congressional district where fewer than 5 percent of the voters are black. Of 87 House Republican freshmen, West and Rep. Tim Scott from South Carolina became the first black Republican lawmakers in the House since 2003.

West shares with many Americans the sense that things are not right in Washington D.C.: "The thing that discourages me the most about crossing the Potomac is that there are people up here who are very comfortable with lying."

The military rank and file still back West whenever his 2003 shooting incident is brought up. "Most of us are familiar with your history and most of us love you for it," Col. Mike Miller told West last year during a meeting with a group of military officers. He told them, when discussing his entry into politics, "I went from the most respected profession to the least respected profession."

At the hearing over the shooting incident, West had said, "If it's about the lives of my soldiers at stake, I'd go through hell with a gasoline can." He's now in Congress, which some say has become hellish, with a different kind of gas can.

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.


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