In just three years, Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., has gone from bystander to the belle of the ball.
On Saturday night, when the freshman lawmaker gives the closing keynote address at the Conservative Political Action Conference, it will cap an improbable journey. Three years ago, West was a first-time candidate trying to get a campaign off the ground and didn't even have a speaking slot at the annual CPAC gathering. This year, he's been rewarded with a prime slot usually reserved for presidential aspirants or major media commentators.
Just one month into his first term in Congress, West is hardly a household name nationally. But he's already compiled some unusual political credentials. One of only two African-American Republicans in the House, he's a member of both the Congressional Black Caucus and the Tea Party Caucus. And among the cadre of conservative enthusiasts who will pack the ballroom for CPAC's closing event, he's already got a devoted following. In just a few years, West has become not only one of the best known figures among the Tea Party faithful but also one of the most controversial of the GOP's up-and-comers, thanks to his penchant for provocative statements.
Since arriving in Washington, West has:
- Shrugged off calls for a moratorium on gun metaphors and military rhetoric -- something West has frequently employed -- after the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz. West said the proposals for less combative discourse showed "how low people will go for political opportunism."
- Instigated a furor with remarks he made about his Muslim colleague, Rep. Keith Ellison ,D-Minn.
- Drawn unflattering headlines after former Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., who resigned in disgrace following allegations of misconduct with congressional male pages, spoke at the opening of one of West's district offices.
West wasn't CPAC's first choice to close out the three-day conference. That would have been former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who once again rebuffed a prime CPAC speaking slot. But that didn't bother West, who benefited from Palin's endorsement in his own race. He tweeted the news on Wednesday that he'd accepted the slot, writing that he was "humbled" to be asked.
Originally scheduled to speak with some other Republican freshmen lawmakers on the first day of the conference, West now enjoys a much more high-profile platform. West's office said that the congressman was busy preparing his speech and couldn't be interviewed for this article, but did reveal that the theme of his address would be "Our Sacred Oath, Dawn of a new America." In a statement to National Journal, West said he "will be challenging conservatives to reaffirm their commitments to the fundamental principles of what we believe."
The fiery Republican made his first run for Congress in 2008 against Rep. Ron Klein, D-Fla. A retired Army lieutenant colonel, West boasted a military career that was lengthy but not without controversy. In 2003, West was charged by the military after threatening to kill and firing a handgun near the head of Iraqi police officer while interrogating him about attacks on U.S. forces in the area. But the investigation resulted in no court martial. The conservative media came to West's defense. But, facing a Democratic headwind and a much better funded opponent, West fell short by by 10 percentage points in his first political foray.
That was before the rise of the tea party. West began running again the next year, and he became a conservative internet celebrity after an October 2009 video of his barnburner of a speech at a Ft. Lauderdale tea party rally went viral, getting over two million hits after he told attendees to "stand up, to get your musket, to fix your bayonet and to charge into the ranks."
Harnessing that celebrity, West went from simply attending CPAC in 2008, to being only House challenger given a speaking slot two years later. Seen as an underdog against Klein in a district that narrowly voted for both Barack Obama in 2008 and John Kerry in 2004, he made the most of his opportunity to introduce himself to the crowd, talking of his upbringing in rural Georgia and ending by urging the audience to "join me in a new dream ... to take our country back." In a changed political environment, West had none of the problems he had two years before in raising money or garnering media attention. He not only consistently outraised Klein each quarter, but he smashed fundraising benchmarks in the process, raising over $6.5 million in 2010.
Klein and national Democrats tried to claw against the tide, pointing to West's off-point statements and his ties to a controversial motorcycle gang. Still, on Election Day, the 2008 results were almost flipped - West won 54 percent to Klein's 46 percent.
In an interview with National Journal the day he took office last month, West was more muted than usual, even somewhat in awe of his first day. When asked about being a tea party-aligned member in the new caucus, West professed loyalty to his party, saying he ran on the "Republican ticket" last fall, but that he did "believe in the grassroots values that the tea party exposes."
With a receptive and eager audience for half an hour, West is likely to serve up the same blunt, charged rhetoric that's taken him so far so fast. But if the prime CPAC speaking slot gives the rookie lawmaker a chance to elevate his profile further within the conservative movement, it will also give his critics potential fodder for attack ads in 2012 reelection bid that's already ranked as one of the most competitive in the country. West is at the top of Democrats' target list.
"It's clear that . . . he's more interested in being a conservative political celebrity than doing anything to bring jobs to his district. "West is simply interested in espousing extreme political philosophy," Florida Democratic Party spokesman Eric Jotkoff said of West's CPAC role. "The people of his district are looking for a common sense leader, not an extreme ideologue, but that's all Allen West is."
For the moment, however, the choice of the uncompromising congressman represents a compromise -- he's a pick that should satisfy both the old and new guard represented at CPAC this weekend by spotlighting a congressman who gives the GOP some claim to diversity, who is a young, rising star, and a full-throated conservative.
After his own speech to CPAC on Thursday, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told National Journal that West is a good pick for closing speaker.
"He's a great guy, he's very smart. He learned a lot in the Army, and he's learned a lot more since then. He has a tremendous future, and I think it's a great choice for CPAC," Gingrich said.