Published: April 28, 2011
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Often, the most interesting thing about a person is the characteristic that lies beneath, that hidden thing that bobs up along the waves of time.
John Adkisson for The New York Times
Representative Allen B. West, a freshman and a leading fund-raiser, met with constituents this week in Fort Lauderdale.
But the most compelling part of Representative Allen B. West of Florida is his own biography, there for all to see: an African-American Tea Party activist Republican congressman and ally of hard-right Israelis who, after his beloved career in the Army ended under a cloud, defeated the sitting Democrat in a largely white, politically polarized district here and quickly became one of the right’s most visible spokesmen.
Mr. West’s fans in his district, which stretches over two counties along the east coast of Florida, are both numerous and loud; hundreds fill his town hall-style meetings, many of them favoring T-shirts bearing his image. At a recent Tea Party rally in Washington, supporters flocked to him like sea gulls to a crust of baguette. Among the 87 House Republican freshmen, he ranks third in the latest fund-raising period for his re-election campaign; his $433,551 haul came largely through individual donations.
Mr. West’s popularity among conservatives goes far beyond South Florida. He was chosen to give the keynote speech in February at the Conservative Political Action Conference, and is frequently featured on the Fox News Channel and in other conservative settings where he enjoys explaining, reiterating or unleashing any number of incendiary remarks concerning what he often calls “the other side.”
There was his recent observation that liberal women “have been neutering American men,” and that the president of the United States is a “low-level socialist agitator.”
Mr. West scoffs at the notion that he has become a sensation. “I don’t drink my own tub water or read my own press,” he said in a brief interview before a town hall-style meeting here this week. “I tell the truth and I stand on convictions and you know what you’re getting.”
While Mr. West’s decision to cast himself as an iconoclast has made him a conservative star, it is unclear how well it will serve him as he seeks re-election next year in this swing district, where far more voters are likely to come out for a presidential election than in the midterm cycle.
With its two new Congressional seats, Florida will likely receive intensified national attention among swing states in 2012, perhaps highlighting this district — which was central to the disputed 2000 presidential recount — as one of the best tests of the Tea Party’s endurance outside reliably Republican districts.
Democrats have singled out Mr. West as one of their key freshmen to defeat. “He is the king of rhetoric,” said Mitch Ceasar, the chairman of the Democratic Party in Broward County. “And that is what separated him in 2010. But what swept him in then may be the gust of wind that sends him out.”
The 22nd Congressional District, which may well be redrawn to favor Republicans, is roughly 48 percent quite conservative, and another 48 percent quite liberal, say officials from both parties, who also say each party covets the remaining 4 percent, who are swing voters. The district went for Senator Barack Obama and Senator John Kerry in their respective presidential races.
Mr. West’s place in the Democratic crosshairs stems, he said, from the fact “that I scare the liberal establishment.”
“You’re looking at a black man who was brought up in the inner cities, career military, a conservative, married going on 22 two years, two beautiful daughters, and for whatever reason that really does scare them,” he said. “My theory is that for whatever reason I could cause others like me to reject these liberal social-welfare policies.”
Mr. West, 50, was born and raised in Atlanta, received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Tennessee on an R.O.T.C. scholarship and holds two master’s degrees.
In the Army, he rose to battalion commander during the war in Iraq. His 22-year military career came to an end in that theater when he was relieved of his command after using a gun to coerce information from an Iraqi police officer during an interrogation. He retired with full rank, honors and benefits in 2004, and moved to Florida with his family. After a short stint as a high school teacher, he worked as a civilian adviser to the Afghan army, ran and lost against Representative Ron Klein in 2008, then came back to handily defeat Mr. Klein, a Democrat, in 2010.
Mr. West’s political beliefs hew closely to the most conservative members of the House; he was among the 59 House Republicans who voted against a deal worked out with Democrats to finance the government through the rest of the year, arguing that the included spending cuts did not go far enough, and says he will not vote to lift the nation’s debt ceiling without more cuts.
His views on the Middle East tend to tack even more to the right of the strongest supporters of Israel. During his campaign, Mr. West posted on his Web site a statement saying: “I do not support any creation of a Palestinian state, to do so would be to create a terrorist state. There is already a state for the Arabic people residing in the region called Palestine, Jordan.”
His recent remarks to a conservative Christian women’s group that women affiliated with liberal groups “have been neutering American men” are the sort that tend to attract attention. “America needs strong men,” Mr. West explained, adding, “the feminist movement was a great thing to push the equality of women but that does not mean you have to make men feel inferior or degrade them.”
Mr. West said he tends to keep to himself on Capitol Hill, where he is busy with hearings, meetings and constant reading. “So the end of the day I’m kind of tired,” he said, “about 10 or 10:30 at night I get to my little bat cave, then I’m back up at 5:30 to get in a five- or six-mile run and I’m back at it again. So right now it is not so much about hanging out with people as it is about making sure I am developing myself as a capable legislator.”
Ron Nixon contributed reporting from Washington.