MICHEL MARTIN, Host:
The Black Caucus kicked off its annual legislative conference here in Washington yesterday. Today Congressman West is hosting an event focusing on African-Americans in the military. He's a retired lieutenant colonel. He was kind enough to join us from the studios on Capitol Hill to talk about this and other pressing issues. Congressman West, welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us once again.
ALLEN WEST: Thanks Michel, it's always a pleasure to be with you.
MARTIN: Now, as you know, we've been checking in with you, along with another member of the freshman class whose district is alongside yours, just to get your fresh take on some of the major issues before the Congress. And as we are speaking now, in the past couple of days there have been some strong words from your Republican congressional leadership and from the president, with very different ideas about how to get the deficit down...
MARTIN: ...and how to get the economy moving again. And, you know, the president said in his remarks that people who are hurting right now don't have 14 months to wait until an election to resolve this difference of opinion. So, I'd like to ask you, from where you sit, how confident are you that the two sides can come together on some agreement?
WEST: I have to tell you that when I hear the president talking about raising taxes at this time, I think that if we broaden the tax base and go to a flat tax, and maybe 15 percent, and only have two deductions - which is child tax credit and mortgage interest tax deduction - and then we have to look at flattening out our corporate business tax rate from 35 percent down to 21 percent and then eliminate all those loopholes and subsidies.
MARTIN: Okay, so how confident are you...
WEST: And I think...
MARTIN: ...that there is actually an agreement possible in this timeframe?
WEST: You know, I put forth HR 1663, which is the Small Business Encouragement Act, which talked about tax credits to small businesses that hire people off the unemployment rolls. So, there's commonality there.
MARTIN: Well, you did make a reference to tone. In fact, there's been discussion, both about the difference in substantive perspective, but there's also been a lot of back and forth on tone. And you've been on the giving and receiving end of criticism about the tone of conversations here in Washington.
WEST: Well, I'm never going to back down if someone pokes me in the chest.
WEST: I think that's what you have to understand.
MARTIN: All right, I hear you. But recently, I wanted to ask you about one particular issue. You said you were reconsidering your membership in the caucus because of comments made by your fellow member Andre Carson of Indiana. This was at an event in Miami - a CBC event in Miami - he said that he felt some members...
WEST: No, I remember it well.
MARTIN: Do you remember it? Members of the Tea Party...
WEST: Oh, absolutely.
MARTIN: ...would like to see you and me hanging from a tree. You felt that that was uncivil. And we talked to the chairman of the Black Caucus about this, Mr. Cleaver, about this yesterday in our conversation with him. And this is what he had to say about the difference of opinion on that.
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EMANUEL CLEAVER: What I explained to Mr. West was that he is not subject to the emails and phone calls that many other members receive from the people who identify themselves as members of The Tea Party. If he, for example, answered the phone in the Congressional Black Caucus office, he might have some different thoughts.
MARTIN: You're saying that your folks are subjected to slurs and other...
CLEAVER: Yes, that's right.
MARTIN: ...things that, perhaps, Mr. West is not?
CLEAVER: That's right.
MARTIN: Mr. West is also African-American. Is that...
MARTIN: ...is that but he's not - you're saying he's not?
CLEAVER: He's an African-American, but he's not going to receive those phone calls from an organization to which he belongs.
MARTIN: So, what's your take on this? Is that how you all achieve the meeting of the minds?
WEST: Well, first of all...
MARTIN: He wasn't questioning your blackness, by the way, I just want to make sure that that's clear.
WEST: Yeah, no - no, well, first of all...
MARTIN: He was saying he doesn't think you're getting those kinds of hostile phone calls.
WEST: And as I told the chairman, if he has people from quote-unquote the Tea Party and representing themselves as the Tea Party that call and use those type of, you know, racial tones, then let me know, because I will be more than happy to challenge the leadership in the Tea Party - which I have spoken at many different events - and tell them to knock it off.
MARTIN: But you've also been criticized for a lack of civility in some of your communications. You remember this exchange that you had with the Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, where she criticized you?
MARTIN: ...and then you told her in an email to shut the heck up. And you said, she's not a lady and so...
WEST: So, you all saw a snapshot, but I had turned the other cheek so many times I got a crick in my neck. And as I said, I'm going to stand up for myself and I'm not going to allow someone to continue to disrespect me.
MARTIN: Do you feel that those exchanges - you said that that's a snapshot. Does that kind of characterize the overall atmosphere on the Hill right now?
WEST: There's no place for this. And if you go back to what I had to endure in my campaign, in 2010, where people were accusing me of being a member of an all-white motorcycle gang and being a drug dealer, and also being involved in prostitution - there was no talk about the issues. It was all talk about character assassination. So let's come back to the issues. Let's come back to talking about how do we set the conditions here in Washington, DC for long-term sustainable economic and job growth.
MARTIN: We're talking with Congressman Allen West. He's a Republican who represents Florida's 22nd district. We're speaking with him as the Congressional Black Caucus, of which he is a member, convenes its annual legislative conference here in Washington, DC. And today, Mr. West, you're hosting an event at the Legislative Conference this week - that's actually today - about African-Americans in the military. You're featuring...
MARTIN: And people that - for those who don't recall, you are a retired lieutenant colonel. You're featuring some distinguished veterans. One of the things you're going to be talking about is why aren't more African-Americans making it into Special Forces and other elite combat teams?
MARTIN: Why is that? What have you come up with?
WEST: So we need to bring the attention to the entire black community. And when you think about when the first African-Americans put on that blue uniform back during the Civil War with the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, to where we are today, that's an incredible achievement that we have.
MARTIN: Along those lines, as we are talking, there's been another big event in the life of the US military this week. "Don't ask, don't tell," that's the 18-year-old policy that barred gays and lesbians who are openly gay from serving in the military, has been officially repealed. Any thoughts?
WEST: The military's totally different from the civilian society. And if we ever get to the point where we start saying that the military has to conform to individual behaviors, then we're going to lose the essence of what the military is.
MARTIN: Well, there are many people, of course, who draw the analogy to the full integration of African Americans into the military...
WEST: That's a bad analogy.
MARTIN: You don't buy that?
WEST: And so you can't, you know, start thinking that we have to make the military like the rest of the society, because it is not. And when I talk about the profit margin in the private sector, that's in dollars and cents. The profit margin in the military is in lives, and that's what we have to be focused on mostly.
MARTIN: If you check in a year from now or two years from now and find that force readiness has not been impaired, that the performance of the service members has not been impaired, will you say that you're wrong?
WEST: Well, I mean, I'll just say that it's working fine.
MARTIN: OK. And finally, before we let you go, today is the day of the third Republican debate, and it's actually taking place in your home state of Florida.
WEST: Yes, it is. In Orlando.
MARTIN: In Orlando. And I just wanted to ask how you think the race is shaping up so far and do you have a favorite yet? Is there someone who's caught your eye, at this point, that you want to tell us about?
WEST: Well, first of all, I think it's still too early. You still have some individuals that are pondering whether or not they'll jump in. I believe that, right now, it's kind of turning out to be a two-person race between Governors Romney and Perry. But I believe that, by the mid of November to the beginning of December, that's when you really start to see who is a frontrunner. And I'll make a better assessment then - but for me, it's still too early.
MARTIN: Congressman West, thank you so much for speaking with us once again.
WEST: Thank you, Michel. Great to be with you.
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