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-sized 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-frame 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 résumé 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.)
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