ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Most freshmen members of Congress are lucky if they can raise a few million dollars for their reelection campaign. But Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), who won his first race for Congress in 2010, has raised more than $14 million, a record-setting haul that surpasses the $13.5 million raised two years ago by Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.).
The fact that West and Bachmann can raise so much money is due in part to their frequent appearances on television, especially on partisan cable news talk shows. West is an almost constant presence on the Fox News Channel — he’s even flown to Washington from Florida during the congressional recess to discuss his views on foreign policy, military matters and the GOP talking points of the moment.
But West also has personal experience with two issues not as often discussed in Washington these days: Education reform and veterans issues. So in addition to questions about his $14 million campaign war chest and the nasty tone of his reelection campaign, 2chambers asked him how he might restructure the high school history classes he once taught and about the disturbing uptick in military veteran suicides.
Our conversation — edited for clarity and length — appears below:
2chambers: The tone of your race has turned to what did you do in 2003. What do you make of that?
West: I think I’ll get reelected based on what I achieved as a freshmen member of Congress. I can’t determine the tone based on what my opponent is doing. But when you don’t have anything to discuss, and my opponent wants to attack my military record, I don’t think that will play very well down here in South Florida, where you have a lot of veterans.
2chambers: But look at the ads and your debates, it’s as if this is becoming a macho contest of who was manlier than the other back in 2003.
West: I am not into the manlier or man thing. I served 22 years in the military, I’ve been in three different combat zones, I don’t have to prove anything to anybody.
2chambers: Do you regret anything with that 2003 incident in Iraq? [West, a former Army lieutenant colonel, was honorably discharged in 2004 after he fired a gun near the head of an Iraqi prisoner in August 2003 during an interrogation.]
West: There’s nothing that I regret. When you walk into my office in Washington, you see my honorable discharge and you see my certificate for service from President George W. Bush, so I think that ends that discussion.
2chambers: After you were discharged, you became a high school teacher. What was the biggest lesson or takeaway from your years as a high school teacher? [West worked as an honors American history and government teacher.]
West: That we really have to reform our system of education. We’re basically teaching kids how to take a test, we’ve got to get kids back to critical thinking schools.
They’re in the classroom so that kids have those skills. Not every kid is thinking about going into college, but every kid should be able to have talents and skills they can use. When you understand that education is a local issue, we’ve got to empower those school boards to make local decisions, we can’t have education principles and standards that are being run out of Washington, d.C.
2chambers: What would you have done if you could have tossed out the curriculum and started over?
West: I would have made it more practical. You may have a teacher who’s teaching a government class, but when you talk about the practical application, you need to get local, county and state and federal officials and help that teacher and say this is actually happening, this is what brings the book to life. Like when you talk about geometry – get plumbers to come in and talk about metrics, get the landscape designers to show how they use it as a skill. That’s what I’m talking about: Taking education to another level. Start offering apprenticeships and internships over the summer and have it based on making good grades in that class.
2chambers: Why do you want to be in Congress?
West: It’s about two different ideologies going forward. It’s the opportunity society against the dependency society. It’s the constitutional republic against a socialist egalitarian nanny state. Is it going to be are we empowering the entrepreneurial sense of the American people or are we going to be enslaved to a federal government? When I think about my father who fought in World War II, and my brother did in Vietnam and my nephew has had two tours of duty in Afghanistan, now are times when the American people are looking for convictive, principled leaders who will stand and fight for the next generation of Americans.
2chambers: You’re now running in the 18th District, you moved north to do so as your current district became more favorable to Democrats. What are you doing to introduce yourself to the new voters?
West: I’m getting out with the people, being face to face with them, the northern part of Palm Beach, they were aware of me. It’s just making them even more aware of me.
2chambers: You’ve raised more than $14 million this cycle, correct?
West: We’ve done pretty good over the cycle.
2chambers: From whom are you raising money?
West: Most important thing is that 95 or 96 percent of the money is from individuals and the average is still less than $90. Our message gets down to the American people and people here in my district and they support it and that’s why they’ll continue to do well.
2chambers: Do you hear a lot from — and receive donations from — Fox News viewers?
West: Indeed I do. I just responded to an e-mail from a 13-year-old in Nebraska. He said he appreciates that I’m standing up for his future and considers me a role model. Just as I was in St. Lucie, Florida and they tell me they’re proud
What I think they like is that they have a lawmaker who is standing up on principle and he’s standing up for me and they can look to me and say that’s our guy.
2chambers: What are you going to do with that $14 million you’ve raised — especially if you lose?
West: I’m going to win. The most important thing is that we’re not going to end up with any kind of debt, we want to be good stewards with the money for our campaign, then we’ll look at some local charities that we can give some financial assistance to.
2chambers: You don’t plan to spread around the money to your House Republican colleagues?
West: Well, we have a leadership PAC, the Guardian PAC…We’ve handed out some checks to the incoming GOP nominees who’ve won their primaries.
2chambers: This has been the most unpopular and unproductive Congress in modern history. How do you justify that record to voters?
West: We’ve passed budgets in the House of Representatives, we’ve done appropriations bills, it’s the Senate that hasn’t done those things. We have 36 or 37 things that we’ve done in the House that have to do with taxes, energy policy, jobs policy, and they’re sitting on Harry Reid’s desk. So when you talk about who’s not doing work in Washington, I think you have to call up Harry Reid. So I’m very proud of what we’ve done in the last two years.
2chambers: But you know that Democrats would turn around and say that the Senate has sent the House several bills that were ignored.
West: Proof’s in the pudding. By the Constitution, the only thing you’re mandated to do is pass a budget. I wish more people in the media would talk about that.
2chambers: I’m curious whether you think your federal government is doing enough to help other veterans?
West: When you look at the amount of young men and women that are coming out of these combat zones, we have to do a little bit better to make sure they can have a good, productive life. That’s not just the VA, we have to look at some of our Service organizations, VFW, American Legion, we have to make sure they’re coming into the 21st Century as well.
2chambers: Are you saying the service organizations are too old for today’s veterans to join?
West: We need to just kind of update the atmosphere and update it a little to make it more welcoming to the boys and girls coming back from these combat zones.
2chambers: Why are so many recent veterans committing suicide when they come?
West: There’s a multiplicity of reasons. You’ve seen an increase in the reserve component. You need to make sure there’s a seamless transition for when they come back. You need to have a better economy, you look at the jobless issues they’re facing when they come home.
Most importantly, when you start taking on five or six tours of duty, it not only puts stresses on the service member, but also on their family. That’s why we shouldn’t be cutting our military by 200,00 or 300,000.
When you asked earlier about why I want to be in Congress right now, think about how many people we have in the House and the Senate that are retired military and recent veterans? I think you’re going to find that number is quite, quite low. So it’s a great time to have that many people who’ve served in uniform on Capitol Hill.
2chambers: But what’s your definition of a “seamless transition” for veterans?
West: When you look at the transition assistance program, we need to make sure it’s a better program. When these guys come back, especially in the National Guard, as you transition out of military service back into civilian life, we need to make sure there’s a good handoff from the [Department of Defense] to the VA. That’s why I was so happy that for the first time ever, we had a joint hearing between the Armed Services Committee and the House Veterans Committees and [VA Secretary Eric] Shinseki and [Defense Secretary Leon] Panetta were both there talking about how we can have a seamless transition from the uniformed service member to the veteran.
2chambers: Considering your growing national profile, do you envision more of a leadership role if you’re reelected?
West: That is up to God and whoever. No one would have ever thought that you’d be talking to me five years ago when I was sitting in Kandahar, Afghanistan. I don’t try to plan out my life – what I like to think is you don’t have to have a title to be a leader.