DEERFIELD BEACH — Allen West ended a military career and launched a political one in the most unusual of ways. He threatened to kill a man.
It happened on Aug. 20, 2003, a hot, dusty night in Iraq. Demanding information about a possible ambush on U.S. troops, Army Lt. Col. West backed up the threat by firing his 9mm Beretta near a detainee's head.
Months later, West stood at a military hearing, wiping away tears. "If it's about the lives of my men and their safety," he said, "I'd go through hell with a gasoline can."
At his campaign headquarters in a strip mall in Deerfield Beach, West said the ordeal was the foundation for his decision to run for Congress. Thousands of people across the United States rallied behind him at the time, setting off a debate about war conduct that continues today.
"He should have gotten a medal," said Tim O'Neill, who showed up to hear West speak at a candidate forum in Pompano Beach last week. "I admire what he did in the military, but I like his politics even more."
West, 49, is challenging two-term incumbent U.S. Rep. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton, and has turned his national notoriety — and an endorsement from Sarah Palin — into a fundraising juggernaut, collecting more than $4 million.
Polls show a neck-and-neck race, but by even getting this far, West underscores the headwinds working against Democrats in the midterm elections. Knocking off Klein would be major as Klein himself was a giant killer in 2006 by defeating 26-year Republican House veteran Clay Shaw.
Convention holds that a moderate Republican would run strongest against Klein, 53, whose Democrats have the smallest of advantages in voter registration. "What are the principles of a moderate?" West scoffed.
He tears into the health care law, the stimulus and says voters were "tricked" into electing Barack Obama. He mocks "co-exist" bumper stickers. Klein, he says, is a "pathetic liberal."
In one of the many videos of him on YouTube, est shouts into a megaphone at a July 4th rally wearing sunglasses, an American-flag bandana and a tight yellow shirt bearing a coiled snake — the adopted symbol of the tea party.
"If we sit complacent and if we don't pay attention to what's going on right now, we will find ourselves once again becoming slaves to a tyrannical government. You cannot stand down. You cannot stop being vigilant. And just as this T-shirt says ... we must tell this government, 'Don't tread on me.' "
Wild cheers. "I'm just honored to be here today with all of my fellow right-wing extremists," he said, playing the showman. "And I'm proud to say that I served in Iraq and Afghanistan and I ain't no damn terrorist!"
Klein said West's views are out of step with the 22nd congressional district, a span of mostly-white and fairly affluent voters that runs from north Palm Beach County to Fort Lauderdale in Broward County, and added that, "He's extremely dangerous.
"These are serious times and people want serious people," Klein said. But Klein can no longer dismiss his opponent as an extremist with no hope of winning. Even as primary polls were closing, Klein began running a TV ad highlighting financial problems West has encountered. Democrats have paid a videographer to follow West around, including to two forums that Klein has skipped.
"He's terrified," West said.
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West, among the largest crop of black Republicans to run for Congress since Reconstruction, grew up in the same Atlanta neighborhood as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. West's parents were Democrats, his father a World War II veteran. He played high school football, ran track, and was co-president of the student body. After graduating from the University of Tennessee, he was commissioned as an officer in the Army. By age 27, he said, he took command of a company with more than 130 men.
Today, he still has the muscular frame of a soldier and keeps his graying hair in a flat-top. Round, wire-rim glasses, somewhat dated, soften the otherwise no-B.S. expression he wears. His suit jacket always sports military pins, the calendar of events on his website uses military time.
He's a fast talker and easily slips into two modes. The philosopher West rattles on about the founding fathers, a respect for the rule of law and individual rights and freedoms.
The provocative West chooses dramatic words and imagery. In a rousing speech in October (2.2 million YouTube views) he summoned a crowd to "get your musket, fix your bayonet and charge into the ranks" and take back the country.
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More than 20 years in the Army shaped West into the conservative he is today, he said. He climbed through the ranks due to merit, which may explain his disdain for affirmative action. Democrats' social welfare policies have enslaved the "mind and the will" of blacks. He says his experiences abroad show our national security plan is not adequately addressing an "Islamic terrorist enemy."
One of his seven guiding principles is "traditional cultural values," which he describes as "our borders, our language, our culture."
"I support marriage between a man and a woman," he said. "That does not mean I hate anybody. But I think that's how you further society."
West and his wife, Angela, a financial planner, have two teenage girls. They moved to Broward County in 2004 and he got a job as a high school history teacher and track coach in Deerfield Beach. On weekends, he pursued life as a SCUBA bum and rode his Honda cruising motorcycle.
Soon, military life called again, this time as a contractor in Afghanistan. While there, he said, people in Florida began to recruit him as a candidate. West took on Klein in 2008 but lacked fundraising and was easily defeated. Two years later, the national mood is dramatically different.
Just about every policy pushed by Democrats has been met with an angry backlash by tea party activists. Unemployment is up, especially in Florida.
Enter West with his soaring rhetoric about the constitution and patriotism, the denouncements of Obama. He has a ready-made platform and base in the tea party that was nonexistent two years ago.
"I used to tell my black friends, 'Instead of looking at the (Obama) speeches ... get a transcript and read the words.' A couple of them took me up on that. And one guy called and said, 'What in the heck is this guy talking about?' "
As some people wonder the same about West, he presses on but is constantly reminded of that night in 2003 in Taji, north of Baghdad, that set this course in motion.
According to an account in the New York Times, West had gotten wind of a plot to ambush him and his men. An Iraqi police officer said to have knowledge was dragged in for interrogation. The man said he knew nothing.
West threatened to kill him and fired a warning shot in the air. Still nothing. Soldiers shoved the man's head into a sand-filled barrel used to clean weapons and West began to count down. Five, four, three, two, one. Bang. The shot went into the barrel, near the man's head.
When it was over, West went to his superior's bunk, woke him up and described what he had done. West was charged with assault and fined $5,000 but was allowed to retire with his rank. He acknowledged he was wrong but said he was only looking out for his men, some of whom attended the hearing in support.
Evidence of the plot was never discovered and the detainee later said he made something up to save his life.
No regrets, he insists today. "What happened teaches people that no matter what the situation, West will stand up and say, 'I made that decision and I'm responsible for it.' It also says that if you send me to D.C., I'm going to do the things that look out for you, not for me."
Alex Leary can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @learyspt.