The light is dim and smoky inside the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8182 in Pompano Beach. Red, white, and blue slogans brighten the low walls and ceilings, urging patrons to "Thank a Vet" and to remember "Freedom Is Not Free."
At the far end of the small, bunker-size room, two men in white T-shirts take a break from shooting pool to amble up to the sticky wooden bar. It's a Tuesday, not quite 4 p.m. They order Jäger bombs. One of them lights a cigarette. His friend, whose pale-brown hair is shaved militarily close to his head, counts as the barkeep pours: "Three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, 11, Mississippi." Behind him, on dual TV screens, Eddie Murphy cackles with Dan Aykroyd in the '80s classic movie Trading Places. Boredom hangs in the stagnant air.
Eventually, the door swings open, and a flood of harsh sunlight enters the room. A politician in a fitted suit and stylish blue tie appears. He wears round, wire-framed glasses, and his hair is tinged with a distinguished sprinkling of gray.
U.S. Rep. Allen West has never been to this post before. He doesn't drink or smoke or frequent bars in the middle of the day. But he is a veteran of a foreign war and has chosen this spot for a one-on-one interview.
Two years ago, West, 50, was a little-known veteran from the Broward suburb of Plantation whose resumé included one failed congressional campaign and a 22-year Army career. He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel but in 2003 faced military criminal charges for shoving an Iraqi detainee's head into a barrel during an interrogation and firing a pistol into the barrel. Army investigators found probable cause to call the incident aggravated assault, but a hearing officer dismissed the case. West was punished with a fine of $5,000 and resigned from the military the next year with an honorable discharge and full benefits.
Last November, he was swept into office by the wave of Tea Party popularity that flooded Florida and the nation. An avalanche of individual supporters and major conservative donors, such as House Speaker John Boehner's Freedom Project PAC, helped raise $6.5 million for his campaign. He comfortably beat Democratic incumbent Ron Klein with 54 percent of the vote in a swing district that covers a large eastern swath of Broward and Palm Beach counties and includes Boca Raton, Deerfield Beach, and Palm Beach Gardens.
Now, just a few months into his freshman term in the U.S. Congress, West is a national Tea Party favorite — proudly far-right, beloved by followers, loathed by the left. The first Republican to join the Congressional Black Caucus in 14 years, he's been profiled by the New York Times and made appearances on Meet the Press and PBS NewsHour. Glenn Beck has endorsed him for president, and he's been mentioned as a possible vice presidential running mate for Donald Trump.
As Barack Obama's popularity has declined, West has become a perfect foil for the president. Where Obama is pragmatic and nuanced, West is dogmatic and unwavering. Whether waging war on Islam or defending tax cuts for the wealthy, he rarely speaks in shades of gray. New Times set out to discover the man behind the sound bites.
(Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview, visit blogs.browardpalmbeach.com/pulp.)
One of the things you've talked about a lot is misconceptions of you in the media. What do you think are the top three?
I don't know, the fact that people were saying that I was a member of an all-white motorcycle gang,1 that I dealt drugs, that I ran prostitutes.2 Debbie Wasserman Schultz designing a protest outside my campaign headquarters saying that I'm a misogynist, that I hate women.3 It's the type of demagogic rhetoric that comes from people that really can't articulate the issues, and all they do is try to attack your character, which I think is reprehensible.
Any other big misconceptions?
Like I said, all you have do is go back and look at previous articles from the Broward New Times. I think you've got a lot of those misconceptions.4
During your campaign, you said, "A nation goes to war against an ideology. We are against something that is a totalitarian, theocratic, political ideology, and it is called Islam." Could you explain? Are you talking about the religion of Islam?
I'm talking about an ideology; I'm not talking about a religion. I'm talking about an ideology that, if you study the evolution of it, is totalitarian in nature. I don't think that you as a young lady have the exact same type freedoms that you have here in the United States of America... So I think that's a very antithetical ideology to who we are and our freedoms and liberties...
This is one thing that's very interesting, how the people on the left always talk about separation of church and state. When you look at the theocracies all across the Middle East, where we look at constitutions that are based upon the Koran, I don't think you want to see that happening in the United States of America. So it is a theocratic political construct.
But you separate it from people who are Muslims?
I never talk about Muslims. I talk about an ideology.
In your mind, how are the two separate?
I think it is very separate because I'm talking about a thought process as opposed to an individual. I'm talking about something that people believe in as opposed to an individual making a decision. I've been in the Middle East for quite some time, and I worked very well with many Muslim individuals. But I think when you look at the Islamic terrorism that we are facing, there's an ideology that propagates that. [pause] So is this going to be the basis of the interview?
No. I just have one more question about the Islam issue. You believe ordinary Muslims are separate from the ideology of Islam, so why did you tell a representative from the Council on American-Islamic Relations —
Because the Council on American-Islamic Relations is an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation trial.5 They have some very nefarious associations in this country to include with the Muslim Brotherhood. And that is something that is well known. The FBI has cut off all associations with CAIR, so I am not going to kowtow with an organization that has some very questionable associations.6
And that's why you told the representative: "You attacked us"?
He attacked me in a way that — I don't think it's necessary to try to have a confrontation, or whatever you want to call it, at a town hall meeting.7
So you weren't talking about "You attacked us" on September 11?
I don't know what you're getting at.
When you said to him: "You attacked us," were you talking about September 11?
Well, I think that when you look all through the course of history, there is an ideology that has attacked Western civilization; there's an ideology that attacked the United States of America. There are continuous attacks. I just got a report of three soldiers who just lost their lives in Afghanistan because of the Islamic terrorists there, you know, a roadside bombing.
So when you said, "You attacked us," were you referring to September 11?
I was referring to that gentleman. He came up, and from what I understand, he tried to be confrontational with me. And I told him that we had to stand because we were attacked, and if he wanted to take it personally, that's up to him.
Let's talk about the Ryan budget [introduced by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin)], which you supported in the House. [This proposal was passed by the House and at presstime was awaiting a vote in the Senate, although House leaders were already backpedaling their support.] From what I understand from the Congressional Budget Office analysis of the Ryan plan, people who are now in their late 40s/early 50s — they've worked their whole lives; they've paid into Medicare — they're going to have to pay about $6,000 more under this voucher plan than they would now.
And there's also some studies saying that when you start to introduce competition, then you can bring those prices down, and I think that's one of the critical things that you have to have. We're talking about the patient being able to have people compete for their business. We're talking about going from a very inefficient, fee-for-service program to a defined contribution program.
But this gets rid of Medicare.
It does not get rid of Medicare. It reforms Medicare.
Ryan's proposal gives patients a voucher that would cover about 40 percent of their cost for a private health plan.8
It reforms Medicare, and you know exactly what I'm saying. But why are you challenging me on this when you know that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act really does cap Medicare as it is? And so that will force into a rationing of that program for our seniors right now.9
Despite those cuts to the Medicare program, the Ryan plan sustains the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy, versus Obama's plan —
I want you all to stop talking about tax cuts for the wealthy10... Small business owners operate as S corporations at personal income tax rates... So at a time when we're trying to get more Americans hired, you're basically saying you're going to raise taxes on small business owners, which is not going to enable them to grow their businesses. And these top brackets pay 40 percent of taxes in the United States of America, so when is it enough?
The Bush-era tax cuts, which you have supported and which would be continued under the Ryan plan — they are for wealthy Americans; they're not just for small businesses.
They're for people that produce. And $250,000 — I mean, I don't know why we have people arbitrarily deciding who is rich or who is poor. That's a very socialist perspective.
Do you make $250,000 a year?
I'm sure when you put me together with my wife.11 But then, I also have two daughters, one of them about to go into college. So I don't know if people take those things into consideration.
Can we talk about Libya for a minute?
Why are we in Libya?
You've said a couple of different things about Libya. At the end of February, you said, "We don't need to rush to judgment; U.S. troops don't need to be involved." Then you had a press release on March 22 that said, "The time to take military action should have been two weeks ago."
If you're gonna take military action, you should've taken it early on. I still don't agree with it; I wouldn't have done it. But it was after the fact.
So you wouldn't go there at all.
I would not have gone there at all. What I was saying is that now that we have committed the military forces, we should've done that at the onset, instead of waiting the two or some-odd weeks. But I was not for going into Libya whatsoever.
What's the mission? Who are the rebels? What's their leadership? Who fills the void afterward? I mean, there are so many questions that are unanswered... So it's just a Bay of Pigs venture waiting to happen.
So you don't think dethroning [Libyan leader Muammar] Qaddafi is enough of a mission?
I think containing Qaddafi could've been a better perspective. But deposing him? No. Why not depose [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad? Why not go in and do something in Iran 18 to 19 months prior?
Do you support going into Iran?
I support all options against Iran. And I think that there comes a time when talking runs out of being a viable option, 'cause in that part of the world, sometimes the only thing they understand is strength.
You've shown a strong interest in Israel and Israeli politics. My understanding is that you do not favor the two-state solution.
You mean creation of a Palestinian state? When has there ever been a Palestinian state?
Well, if you don't favor the two-state solution, do you know that the majority of Israelis do?
Well, I gotta tell you, I talk to a lot of Israelis; they're very concerned about this United Nations unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state, which may come this summer.
The majority of Israelis and Palestinians want peace.12
[laughs for the first time in interview] OK, OK, all right, you want peace? The peace that the Fogel family got when they were stabbed to death; to include a 3-month-old-child? 13 Peace means the dismantling of the Islamic terrorist groups that are operating all in and around the Israeli people. Now if all of a sudden you create this Palestinian state, which has really never been in existence and has never had any currency; if you don't get them to reject some of the violent vitriolic charters that they have, such as with Hamas, all you're doing is creating a terrorist state.
So American Jews favor it, the majority of Israelis favor it...
Well, I don't know who you're talking to.
I'm reading polls in Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper.
There are lies, and then there are damned lies, and then there are statistics.
Your interest in Israel — where does that come from? Does that just have to do with the fact that you have a lot of Jewish constituents?
No, no, that's part of my heart. That's part of believing in the Judeo-Christian heritage. That's part of growing up, going to church, and reading the great stories of the Bible, the Old Testament, and understanding that there is an inextricable relationship between the Holy Land, the land of Israel, and my Christian faith and also the United States of America.
And you don't worry that siding with the hardliners in Israel would anger Muslims throughout the world? You don't worry that that actually endangers the U.S.?
They already hate us... So you can continue to concede land or make concessions of peace, negotiate, but they still hate you for who you are and that you exist. And they continue to express that sentiment.
You were at a rally [recently] with Donald Trump.
[smiles] Donald Trump was at a rally with me.
If he asked you to be his VP candidate, what would you say?
That's up to God, that's up to the constituents, and that's up to my family. It's not about me.
So you're not ruling it out?
I never rule anything out.
But when Glenn Beck said you should run for president, you said no.
I'm not caught up in the cult of personality. I think the most important thing for me to be focused on is being the best possible congressional representative I can be, to prove myself as a capable legislator and also an American statesman.
So you're not looking at yourself as the next Republican candidate to run against Obama?
Trump has been questioning Obama's citizenship status. Do you support that?
I don't care where the president came from. I'm concerned about his policies and where they're taking this country.
What do you think of Sarah Palin?
I don't know, never met her.
This is something that came up at a town hall meeting a few weeks ago. You mentioned that you are offended by Planned Parenthood clinics in black neighborhoods.
I talked to some civic leaders up in Riviera Beach, and if you go and you look at some of the billboards up there, they really are concerned about the decimation that abortion has had on the black community. And I think that it has really taken a toll.
So you are offended by Planned Parenthood being in black neighborhoods because you believe they target black women?
Well, it is known to be the number one provider of abortions in the United States of America. So I think that's a big concern for me.
And the fact that they provide health care, Pap smears, birth control, testing...
Well, that's fine. They have a $1.1 billion budget. And what I'm talking about is being a good steward of the American taxpayer. Three hundred 52 million dollars, the 33 percent of that budget that comes from the American taxpayer,14 I think that that could be better used elsewhere.
You've made some comments about the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy in the military, but among your constituents, there are gays and lesbians. You represent Oakland Park, and it's right next to Wilton Manors. Do you feel any duty to stand up for those citizens as well?
I feel a duty to protect the United States of America. And having been in the military for 22 years, I think that anyone who wants to question my ability to assess the armed services would, unless they spent that amount of time, would probably not be a very prudent thing. The military's about one very basic mission. That is winning wars of the United States of America. My concern... is that when you take the United States military, which takes the individual and their behavior and conforms it to the military, that's how you make a cohesive unit. Now, if we're saying we're gonna take the military and conform it to individual behaviors, then I am very concerned about the direction that we're going.
But no one is saying that members of the armed forces are allowed to have relationships with each other. This is just a matter of allowing them to say, "Yes, I am gay" or "Yes, I am a lesbian."
But you know something? I served in the military, and I knew that there were gays and lesbians around me, and they really didn't care.
You've served with gays and lesbians, so why couldn't they just be open about it?
Because how it was, was absolutely fine.
Was it fine with them?
Well, you know what? The people that I knew, they did one simple thing: They volunteered to serve their military. And guess what? If that is the rule and it's a voluntary military, if you don't want to conform to that rule, is anyone twisting your arm to join the military? No.
1. NBC Nightly News reported last October on West's "dealings" with the Outlaws motorcycle gang, which became a subject of controversy during his campaign. Although reporter Lisa Myers never said West was a member of the gang, she cited an email in which West wrote to a supporter: "I was never more amazed at how members of the Outlaws guarded me during an interview."
2. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the campaign arm of Democrats in the House of Representatives, immediately picked up on the NBC story and published a blog saying West was "tied" to a criminal organization. The blog cited a 2009 Justice Department National "Gang Threat Assessment" report that alleges the Outlaws "produce, transport, and distribute methamphetamine and transport and distribute cocaine, marijuana, and, to a lesser extent, MDMA. Outlaws members engage in various criminal activities, including arson, assault, explosives operations, extortion, fraud, homicide, intimidation, kidnapping, money laundering, prostitution."
3. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Weston) headlined a protest outside West's campaign headquarters last October. At the time, West was a contributor to Miami Mike's Wheels on the Road, a South Florida motorcycle magazine. In a Wheels issue in which West's column appeared, another columnist urged readers to "get rid of Debbie Wasserman Shitz. That yenta annoys the crap out of me with just her whinning [sic] voice. Guys, can you just imagine banging her... and she's screaming at the top of her lungs?"
Wasserman Schultz told the Sun-Sentinel that she was asking West "to condemn the 'degrading, sexist, and misogynistic' images in Wheels on the Road."
4. New Times has been writing about West for at least two years. Before this interview began, West expressed his general unhappiness with the paper's coverage, mentioning bloggers Thomas Francis and Brandon K. Thorp by name. He didn't cite any specific articles.
5. In 2008, five leaders of the Texas-based Muslim charity the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development were convicted in the largest terrorism-funding case in the country. They were accused of funneling millions of dollars to Hamas, a Palestinian political and military organization that conducts suicide bombings and attacks against Israel and has been considered a terrorist group by the U.S. government since 1995. However, since 2007, Hamas has also been the democratically elected leadership of the Palestinian territories in Gaza.
The Holy Land case was extremely controversial; the defendants argued they were punished for providing humanitarian aid to welfare programs and Palestinian orphans.
In court documents, prosecutors listed the nonprofit Council on American-Islamic Relations as an unindicted co-conspirator in the case — along with more than 200 other groups and individuals. But CAIR was never charged with a crime. According to its website, the group's goal is to "challenge stereotypes of Islam and Muslims," and it prides itself on promoting civil liberties and tolerance.
CAIR condemns terrorist acts, "supports political solutions to problems over the use of violence," and has specifically denied being "a front group for Hamas."
6. CAIR has specifically denied being "part of a wider conspiracy overseen by the Muslim Brotherhood." The Brotherhood is a political organization founded in Egypt that advocates Islamic law in the Arab world.
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III told the New York Times "that the bureau had no 'formal relationship' with CAIR, but that the organization's officials and chapters regularly worked with FBI officials on investigations and related matters."
7. At a February town hall meeting in Pompano Beach, Nezar Hamze, executive director of the South Florida chapter of CAIR, stood in line to question West. Their conversation was captured on video.
"You recently told a Marine that the terrorists that attacked the United States, the people that are attacking America, are following Islam and they are following the instruction of the Koran," Hamze said. "So, very simple question: Can you show me one verse in this Koran where it says to attack America, attack Americans, or attack innocent people?"
"Well, of course it doesn't say attack America or attack Americans," West replied. "I mean, the book was written back sometime around the Eighth or Ninth Century, so America wasn't even around."
As Hamze tried to interject, West began rattling off a long list of alleged battles between Christians and Muslims dating back to the Seventh Century. Then, referencing 9/11, West said, "The people that flew those planes into buildings were shouting, 'Allahu Akbar' ['God is great']."
"I've been on the battlefield, my friend," West concluded. "Don't try to blow sunshine up my butt." The crowd of West supporters cheered.
Hamze asked if he could respond. "You've attacked Islam — " Hamze began.
West cut him off. "You attacked us," he said.
8. Currently, Medicare is a government-run program that pays doctors and hospitals directly for services, while patients also pay some premiums. Under Ryan's plan, patients would buy private insurance, and Medicare would subsidize some of the cost with a voucher paid directly to insurance companies.
An analysis by the Congressional Budget Office predicts that in ten years, when the Ryan plan would take effect, patients would have to cover a much larger portion of their health-care costs than they would if Medicare did not change. They would pay $6,000 more in premiums (for a total of about $12,500) and would be responsible for 61 percent of their total health-care cost, as opposed to paying just 27 percent of the cost if the Medicare program did not change.
9. West is referring to President Obama's health-care reform bill, passed by Congress last year. The law requires a national advisory board to identify $15.5 billion in Medicare savings, but the board "is prohibited from proposing anything that would ration care or reduce or modify benefits,"according to PolitiFact.com.
10. During the administration of President George W. Bush, Congress lowered tax rates for many Americans twice, in 2001 and 2003. The cuts were set to expire in 2010, but Congress extended them until 2012. President Obama has recently proposed ending the tax cuts that apply to individuals earning more than $200,000 a year and couples earning more than $250,000. Rep. Paul Ryan's budget proposal would continue those tax breaks.
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11. As a member of Congress, West earns $174,000 a year. He also collects a pension from the Army; in 2009, that amount was $50,000, according to his campaign financial disclosure documents. His wife, Angela, is a financial planner for Raymond James and earned $58,000 in 2009.
12. Public opinion is a moving target. But according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, a 2010 poll of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza found that 73 percent of respondents favored a peace agreement with Israel. A June 2009 poll, also published in Haaretz, found that 64 percent of Israeli Jews support a two-state solution. In March 2010, a joint poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research and the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem found that "the majority of Palestinians and Israelis prefer a two-state solution to the conflict," according to the Jerusalem Post.
13. Ruth and Udi Fogel, along with three of their children, were stabbed to death in their home in March in what the White House has labeled a terrorist attack by a Palestinian man. The Fogels were Israeli settlers living in the West Bank.
14. In 2009, Planned Parenthood had a $1.1 billion budget, of which $363 million came from federal grants. Abortions make up 3 percent of the organization's services. West voted for a proposal to end Planned Parenthood's federal funding in this year's budget, but that proposal was cut from the final congressional budget bill in April.