One of Congress' rising stars will square off against one of Martin County's most tenured public officials next month in an election already drawing prime time national attention and cash.
U.S. Rep. Allen West, who has become a national Tea Party icon, faces longtime Martin County Sheriff Robert Crowder in an Aug. 14 Republican primary, and the winner will get his name on the November ballot for congressional District 18.
One expert's opinion: West could be Florida's most vulnerable sitting congressman.
Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg called District 18 a tossup contest with a slight Republican tilt in a June 29 report on House races.
Their potential prize — a new seat that keeps all of St. Lucie and Martin counties intact and tacks on northern Palm Beach. The district has close to an even split in registered Democrats and Republicans, and its voters picked President Obama over Sen. John McCain in 2008 by a 3-percentage-point margin.
The contest has attracted almost $10 million total, most of it for West and Democratic challenger Patrick Murphy.
Here's a look at U.S. Rep. Allen West, R-Palm Beach Gardens (relocated from Plantation):
WASHINGTON — Allen West let loose a giddy laugh, his grin spread ear to ear and he fist-bumped his legislative director.
If all the flat-screens in his top-floor office weren’t already tuned to Fox News, they were now.
The TV glowed off his wire-frame glasses while Fox reporters described a letter West just sent to the President. The congressman’s note scolded Obama for releasing a suspected Hezbollah terrorist, and West demanded a response from him. He never got one.
But national airtime was cause for celebration on a May workday in D.C.
“Interesting they did pick it up. That’s good, because I think that’s a topic for national discussion,” said West, a Plantation Republican who’s renting a Palm Beach Gardens home. “Why did we release a Lebanese Hezbollah terrorist who’s responsible, without a doubt, for the death of five U.S. military tortured?”
West is a multimillion-dollar fundraising machine and a national media lightning rod for his controversial quips. Many fiery small-government Tea Party supporters consider him a beacon of hope in an Obama-plagued country. His naysayers think he’s a great divider representing everything that’s wrong with party politics.
But at the Capitol, West is still a freshman putting in his time and paving his path.
His team bunks in tight office accommodations and he mostly walks the Capitol’s halls alone. He’s a stickler for his attendance record and he usually munches a grilled hot dog for lunch in the public cafeteria.
Working in the marble-coated Capitol, West is 1,000 miles from the Treasure Coast and campaign ground zero for one of the country’s highest-profile congressional races. While he’s preaching the doctrine of limited government in D.C., West’s campaign money machine churns in St. Lucie, Martin and northern Palm Beach counties.
The barrage of all-things West is just now picking up — he’s racked up double-digit local town hall appearances, run a Port St. Lucie half marathon, eaten at a horse ranch barbecue and sat down at business and doctor round tables.
If you don’t catch him in person, his ubiquitous TV spots, radio commercials, anti-Obama Internet ads, direct mailers, robo calls and email blasts ensure voters can’t ignore the retired lieutenant colonel.
Entire groups — both local and national, some Democratic Party-affiliated — have skin in the game just to see West lose, and their slam messages pelt local voters accordingly.
With the August GOP primary against Martin County Sheriff Robert Crowder a month away, the Treasure Coast is just getting to know West. And he isn’t as easy to sort out as either his bashers or backers suggest.
The congressman made national news when he said he supported small portions of Obama’s health care law and remarked that at some point in the future, he would consider tax increases.
He’s beloved by the tea party, but a conservative Club for Growth survey said he’s opted against their agenda in more than three of 10 important votes. Per the congressional tracker GovTrack.us, he actually clocks in as a moderate Republican.
He’s deemed one of the most intelligent speakers in Congress, according to the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation’s analysis, and decries the sound byte reality of national politics.
But his opponents call him the most spotlight-seeking lawmaker.
He’s told Democrats to “get the hell out of America,” insinuated U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz makes him want to vomit and said she’s “not a lady,” and blanketed about 80 House Democrats with the label of “Communist” during a Jensen Beach town hall.
“This is who I am,” West said. “I’m a person who will tell the American people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.”
FROM THE BAT CAVE TO CAPITOL HILL
At about 5:30 a.m., West emerges from his Bat Cave.
The congressman camps out in a D.C. basement two Metro train stops away
from the Capitol. Everyone got his name wrong growing up — intentionally or unintentionally — and called him Adam West, the actor of original 1960s Batman fame. So he’s named his one-window underground lair accordingly.
His Hummer stays in South Florida, so in Washington he hops the train to work after a daily 5-mile run.
Climb to the seventh floor of the 1960s-constructed Longworth House Office Building, and most of about 10 West staffers and interns share desks in cozy-but-crammed quarters.
Military medals spill across West’s end table, and a little porcelain bald eagle riding a motorcycle and a University of Tennessee hoodie-wearing teddy bear greet guests on his desk. He’s collected paperbacks filled with political and war quotes, which he uses on the campaign trail along with movie references from “The Matrix” and “Dave.”
One of two black Republicans in Congress, West’s flat top, Harry Potter-style glasses and soldier-like posture make him easy to spot in the congressional halls.
Most of the seven bills West has sponsored stem from his military and foreign affairs knowledge. West’s one proposal that passed the House, HR 1246, calls for a 10 percent cut on printing costs for the Department of Defense and promises about $180 million in savings by 2016, mostly by reducing glossy print materials. It passed the House, and is sitting in the Senate.
West also proposed included cutting down defense studies and denying pay raises for civilian defense workers with poor evaluations. His other bills would provide small businesses tax credits for hiring the unemployed and offer better life insurance or death gratuity payments for certain foreign service or executive branch employees who were killed.
West was added to the conference committee that will sort out the big defense spending differences between the Republican House and Democratic Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act.
In his defense committee work, West frequently runs into U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, the Tequesta Republican who’s covering the chunks of St. Lucie and Martin that West wants to inherit.
A GOP reshuffling plan sent the agriculturally focused Rooney west into central Florida’s farmlands to run for a rural district. That opened District 18 for West to seek, since his current District 22 turned Democratic in redistricting.
Rooney said the two speak the same military language, but admits he falls into lawyer talk and has learned from West’s blunt, straightforward style. West supporters appreciate it, too, and start signing checks when they see him on TV blasting Wasserman-Schultz, decrying Obama and calling Democrats Communists.
West has brought in $7.7 million, and spent $4.4 million of it already. He’s also spoken at fundraisers for conservatives nationwide, and has formed joint campaign committees with several representatives, including two in Georgia.
“He helps other Republicans in other races across the country get elected,” Rooney said. “People look very favorably upon that, especially because he has the capacity to do so because he is a national figure. ... Nobody’s asking me to do that.”
HIS PATH TO CONGRESS
In 1960s inner city Atlanta, West didn’t grow up wealthy.
His dad was a World War II veteran. His mom worked in the civilian Marine Corps, and his older brother served in Vietnam. West joined the Army out of college. He’s earned masters degrees from the University of Tennessee and Kansas State University in political science, political theory and military operations.
West rose to lieutenant colonel in his 22-year military career. While serving as a battalion commander in Iraq in 2003, he fired a gun near a prisoner’s head to attempt to scare the prisoner into giving up info on ambush plans. He was fined $5,000 for misconduct and assault. The Army opted against a court martial, however, and he was honorably discharged with benefits.
After the ruling, supporters across the Internet painted West as a military hero and victim of the system. Opponents blogged about how they thought West should be a war criminal and end up in prison for the act.
West moved to Plantation in 2003 with his wife and two daughters, one now in high school and one in college. He taught social studies one year at Deerfield Beach High School.
Next, he rekindled his military connection working for a defense contractor in Kandahar for more than two years. He was a civilian adviser for the Afghan National Army.
In 2008, he lost against Democratic U.S. Rep. Ron Klein for the District 22 seat West holds now.
In a 2010 rematch, Klein produced an ad about West having about an $11,000 tax lien against him from 2005 and several other personal finance issues. According to Politifact, the lien was against West and his wife’s personal income, not property, in Indiana. The lien was paid off quickly. West’s campaign said the congressman was in Afghanistan at the time and initially denied the claim. But at a 2010 debate he said he took responsibility for the tax issue.
also alleged West was a member of an all-white motorcycle gang, the Outlaws. West flatly denied association with the purportedly criminally linked bike group, and occasionally jokes about the accusation.
West ripped Klein as a “pathetic liberal” and a “mama’s boy” for siding with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
A wave of tea party support carried West to victory. He trekked a camo military helmet bag through the halls of Congress when he first arrived in December 2010.
This election season, he’s built more financial campaign support than any other U.S. House member, aside from Speaker John Boehner and former GOP presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann. The money comes in nationwide from individual donors, and from various business and conservative political action committees.
The West effect is so strong that the Democrats’ choice to compete against West, accountant Patrick Murphy, has the third-most money raised out of all Democratic challengers nationwide — $1.8 million total, $726,000 already spent.
WASHINGTON WORK DAYS
Despite frequent campaign trail obligations, West has only missed two of 1,358 floor votes since he became a congressman. He’s the top attendee in the Small Business Committee.
By the end of an afternoon Small Business Committee meeting at the Capitol in May, the guest panelists outnumbered the lawmakers. The House committee has 26 members — 15 Republicans, 11 Democrats.
Thirteen legislators greeted five panelists to start the meeting. Only West, the committee chair and the Democratic ranking member were still there by the meeting’s end.
“You don’t have to have a title to be perceived as a leader, and I think that we’ve been able to show that in certain instances,” West said.
In Congress’ halls, heated campaign rhetoric often becomes white noise amid the bustle of day-to-day work. After West labeled people Communists, the comment became fundraising fodder. House leadership ignored it.
“There’s very little that’s going to stop this city in its tracks and say, ‘Wow,’ ” Rooney said. “I don’t think other members sit there and harp on the fact of something that Allen West might have said in a town hall meeting in his own district.”
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, of the alleged Communist-bent Congressional Progressive Caucus, said West is a “different kind of fella” who’s always looking to get on camera. West’s comments do have a big impact in the Capitol — one that doesn’t bode well for moving bills, he said.
“The people who make the most outrageous comments and are most in the press are generally not players in the Congress,” said Cohen, D-Tenn. “They’d have trouble passing gas.”
West simply thinks the media has made him into a caricature.
“I would like to see our country move away from being a sound-byte type of mentality, which is something that the media has capitalized on when we went to a 24-hour news cycle, to really getting in-depth and doing their research and study on their own,” West said.
From West’s perspective, doing thorough research reveals Tea Party principles are the key to righting the ship. Any other route turns America into a “bureaucratic nanny state.”
But in a study of the 87 Republican freshmen, Club for Growth found West voted “tea party-line” 64 percent of the time in what the group considered the 37 most important votes.
The group wasn’t fond of West’s vote to raise the debt ceiling; against cutting the agricultural budget 5 percent; against cutting the water spending bill by 5 percent; or against cutting most continuing appropriations 5.5 percent.
“I guess that kind of debunks all of that crap about how I’m a radical and extremist,” West said of the Club for Growth survey.
West drew skepticism from some tea party leaders when he landed a $21 million grant in March 2011 for a new commercial runway at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. A West press release said the project will create at least 11,000 jobs and wrap up in fall 2014 at a $791 million cost.
Michelle Stanley, of the Virginia-based Richmond Patriots limited government group, blogged afterward that West needs to check the definition of “wasteful spending.”
“It pains me to say this because the new freshman congressmen is one of my favorites,” Stanley wrote.
CAMPAIGN UNDER WAY
It’s early in the District 18 race, but West isn’t backing away from the rough-and-tumble tone that defined his 2010 election.
He won’t debate Crowder, because in West’s mind, the sheriff’s a Democrat and doesn’t know the issues. West’s campaign manager Tim Edson accused the sheriff of lying to the St. Lucie GOP committee. Crowder asked Democrats to become Republicans and vote for him at an NAACP forum, and Edson said Crowder denied asking them to switch. Crowder said afterward that Edson’s accusation isn’t true. Edson also said Crowder’s “retirement as sheriff can’t come soon enough.”
West refused to shake Crowder’s hand during a St. Lucie Republican Executive Committee meeting this month. The two have already shaken hands
Crowder has taken some shots at West, too. And Murphy regularly throws barbs at the congressman. Virtually all his emails call the congressman anti-middle class, against women’s rights or just outlandish and unreasonable.
But West still has little to say about Murphy, who also said his handshake was declined when he first met.
“He’s irrelevant,” West said about Murphy. He also told The National Journal that Murphy “isn’t very smart.”
It’s not much of a surprise to hear the lieutenant colonel confidently answer the question: Are you in for a dogfight in 2012? His one-word response: No.
His team is thinking about keeping the top-floor office if elected again — it’s tiny, but it’s got a view of the whole Capitol complex. West vows he won’t become a career politician, and he said term limits are well overdue.
But for now, the congressman who rose to stardom rallying against Washington wants to stay two more years.
“When you wake up and you run down past the Capitol, that’s where I go to work,” West said. “It’s a phenomenal feeling.”
Sun Sentinel contributed to this report.
REGISTER TO VOTE
Voters must be a U.S. citizen, Florida resident, 18 years old or preregister at age 16, and not convicted of felony or have had your rights restored.
Register online, at supervisor of elections offices, designated banks, government offices, post offices, public libraries, chambers of commerce or social service offices.
The final day to register or change voter information for the Aug. 14 primary is July 16; only registered party members can vote in partisan primaries; if only one party is represented in the primary, all voters are eligible to cast primary ballots.
St. Lucie County Supervisor of Elections
Address: 4132 Okeechobee Road, Fort Pierce, FL 34947
Martin County Supervisor of Elections
Address: 135 S.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Stuart, FL 34994
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