Of the unprecedented 14 African-Americans running for Congress as Republicans this year, none is more colorful, or more controversial, than Allen West.
The 49-year-old Iraq war veteran and Bronze Star winner served in the U.S. Army for 21 years, but was forced to retire in 2004 over an incident his supporters call heroic, and that his detractors call a possible war crime.
In August 2003, while commanding the 20th Field Regiment, West ordered his soldiers to pick up an Iraqi policeman, Kadoori Hamoodi, who West’s unit suspected of helping the insurgency. According to Hamoodi’s testimony, he was beaten and threatened, and at some point during the interrogation, West fired his pistol near Hamoodi’s head in a mock execution. Hamoodi was never charged with plotting against U.S. troops, and West later admitted he might have been wrong about the Iraqi.
After a hearing, West was fined $5,000 and allowed to retire with full benefits at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Despite the moment of introspection in the New York Times, remains unapologetic about the incident, often saying on the campaign trail that he would “go through hell with a gasoline can” for his fellow soldiers. The incident in Iraq made West a hero to conservatives who believed the media was focusing too much on incidents like Abu Ghraib.
West cultivates the adulation of the right, and has made his bravado a central feature to his brief political career.
He has become a YouTube sensation for his fiery speeches at Tea Party rallies; saying he would go to Washington and tell House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to “give me that damned gavel!” and enjoining his supporters to “gather your muskets” to fight what he calls the “tyrannical government” in Washington. He is particularly harsh in attacking President Obama, whom he has said he “absolutely can’t stand,” compared to Hitler, and called “probably the dumbest person walking around in America right now.” That rhetoric has helped him rake in more than $5 million for his campaign — outpacing his Democratic rival, and joining other conservative firebrands like Sharron Angle and Michele Bachmann as leading fundraisers — and prime targets of attack by those who consider their views to be extreme.
But West’s fiery rhetoric – he warns that the U.S. is in danger of falling under Sharia Law, saying the U.S. is at war with Islam and even lashes out at bumper stickers calling on people to “co-exist” — along with his controversial past, have even turned off some seemingly natural supporters.
Although he is a veteran, West failed to win the endorsement of the Veterans of Foreign Wars PAC to Klein, prompting an outcry from conservatives. Klein also got the nod from Veterans and Military Families for Progress, and the Broward Police Benevolent Association, and even from West’s primary opponent David Brady, who called West “extreme and radical.”
Second bite at the apple
This is West’s second run in Florida’s 22nd Congressional District, a politically split district encompassing parts of Broward and Palm Beach Counties, which was represented by Republican E. Clay Shaw from 1993 until 2006, when Shaw lost the seat to moderate Democrat Ron Klein. West lost narrowly to Klein two years ago, and this year, is running even with him in most polls.
He has amassed a campaign war chest larger than that of the incumbent fueled by a legion of out of state donors loyal to the Tea Party cause, as well as an array of corporate PACs and secret-donor funded groups like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads – which recently poured a quarter million dollars into the race.
And though he continues to cultivate a right wing base, West has balanced his harsh rhetoric on the stump with television ads that cast him as a garden variety conservative, just concerned with out of control spending in Washington by “Obama and Pelosi” Democrats like Klein.
“He has done a fairly good job of deflecting attention from controversial issues that directly involve him,” said Elgin Jones, an investigative reporter with the South Florida Times newspaper, who has covered West for years, “like writing columns for the raunchy Wheels on the Road biker magazine and his relationship with the Outlaws motorcycle gang.”Jones was referring to an NBC News report that linked West to the Outlaws, a biker gang the FBI says has been involved in criminal activity including drugs and violence, via an email he sent to a supporter who objected to his appearing with members of a “criminal gang.” In the email, West called for “no more references to criminal” and praised the Outlaws for how well they “guarded him” during an interview.
West’s monthly political column in Wheels on the Road, in which he refers to readers as “fellow riders” and often excoriates President Barack Obama and Democrats for being weak on the war on terror, has appeared in issues that also containing front-page advertising for the South Florida branch of the Outlaws. The magazine’s editor, Miami Mike, has written about attending events with the motorcycle club.
In addition, lewd depictions of women in the magazine, described in articles as “oral relief stations” and depicted in articles describing “a 19-year-old tied to a pole,” have prompted an outcry from women. On Friday, a group of women, led by Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, planned a protest outside of West’s campaign office to protest the depiction of women in the magazine.
WATCH THE NBC NIGHTLY NEWS REPORT HERE:
[MSNBCMSN video=”http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/32545640″ w=”592″ h=”346″ launch_id=”39693313″ id=”msnbc93ab2d”]
Ironically, West lives not in the 22nd District where he is running, but in Wasserman-Schultz’s district.
West has sought to distance himself from the magazine. He canceled a scheduled appearance this past weekend at a Wheels on the Road rally, and has tried to turn the issue into an attack on Democrats, including Florida Rep. Alcee Hastings and civil rights icon, Georgia Rep. John Lewis, for campaigning with Klein. Speaking to reporters after a debate with Klein, West said he could not be associated with the biker gang “unless I bleached myself white like Michael Jackson,” because the Outlaws do not admit “blacks, Jews or gays.” He went on to ask wither Lewis is linked to the corruption allegations against other members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Asked if he had any evidence that Lewis is personally involved in corruption, West said he didn’t need any, and that if NBC News could link him to the Outlaws because he writes for a magazine, he can link Lewis to Maxine Waters and Charlie Rangel.
West’s campaign has in the past declined to say whether West would join the CBC if elected, and the attack was a reminder of his sometimes curious relationship with race. In radio appearances, West has sparred with black callers who referred to him as the Tea Party’s “boy.” He has stated that in his view, “institutional racism is dead,” and says America has to “end the failed ideal of multiculturalism,” and he refers to himself as an “American patriot,” rather than an African-American.
Indeed, at West’s campaign rallies, the vast majority of his supporters are white. He has received Sarah Palin’s endorsement, and House minority leader John Boehner recently campaigned with him, even after West criticized the GOP’s “Pledge to America” as too weak.
Jones said West’s drive and ability to present himself have helped him, “He’s someone who strikes me as an ambitious person, who had rehearsed his positions on issues,” said Jones.”Those positions seemed to tow the Republican Party line, but outside of what most conservatives would consider the norm.”
Beyond his views, West has also faced scrutiny over his finances. The Klein campaign has made an issue of the fact that West faced an $11,000 IRS lien for back taxes, plus three more liens placed on his home for unpaid bills. And a judge ordered him to pay more than $5,000 in past-due credit card bills. West hit back, accusing the Florida Democratic Party of releasing his Social Security in a printed mailer attacking his finances. The party later apologized.
And like other Tea Party candidates including Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Florida’s Marco Rubio, who have faced questions over their finances, West simply brushes the charges aside.
“If I was a fiscally irresponsible person, I’d be a member of the Democrat party,” he said during a recent debate.
Allen West and his campaign did not respond to requests for an interview.