MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.
Coming up, you might remember Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the doctor who became the public face of the so-called right-to-die movement. We're going to meet a doctor who has taken up that cause since Dr. Kevorkian's death. We'll speak with him in just a few minutes.
But first, our weekly political chat. And we are welcoming back a newsmaker, Congressman Allen West. He's just in his first term representing Florida's 22nd District, but he's become one of the symbols of the Republican majority's uncompromising stance towards fiscal and other issues. He's one of only two black Republicans serving in Congress right now. And he's a member of the Tea Party Caucus.
Now, with Republican presidential candidates battling it out ahead of the Florida primary, we thought we'd turn to Congressman West for his perspective on issues that matter to voters in the Sunshine State. And we actually caught up with him in Charlotte, North Carolina. Congressman West, thank you so much for joining us once again.
REPRESENTATIVE ALLEN WEST: Always a pleasure to be with you, Michel, and happy New Year, since this is the first time we've chatted in 2012.
MARTIN: That's true. Happy new year to you, as well. So, let's start off by - I just want to clarify, you are not endorsing ahead of the January 31st Florida primary. Is that correct?
WEST: Yes, you're absolutely right. And I probably won't be endorsing in the entire race. I think that when I look at a lot of the issues that we need to be contending with up in Washington, D.C., that's what my focus should be, being a good congressional representative. And let's allow the people to make the decision.
MARTIN: So, you will support whoever wins the nomination, is that it?
WEST: The only person I would probably have some trepidations with would be Ron Paul and his foreign policy, national security stance. So, he and I would have to have a little talk. But, yeah, I would get behind whoever the nominee is. And I think it's a two-person race right now.
MARTIN: To that end, last night was the final debate before the Florida primary, and it did seem that the two people I think you're talking about are former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who were battling it out. And I'll just play a short clip of that debate for those who may have missed it. This is Wolf Blitzer, CNN's Wolf Blitzer, questioning Newt Gingrich, who has called Mitt Romney anti-immigrant. I'll just play that clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF REPUBLICAN DEBATE)
WOLF BLITZER: I just want to make sure I understood: Is he still the most anti-immigrant candidate?
NEWT GINGRICH: I think of the four of us, yes.
BLITZER: Go ahead, governor.
MITT ROMNEY: That's simply inexcusable. That's inexcusable. And actually Senator Marco Rubio came to my defense and said that ad was inexcusable and inflammatory and inappropriate. Mr. Speaker, I'm not anti-immigrant. My father was born in Mexico. My wife's father was born in Wales. They came to this country. The idea that I'm anti-immigrant is repulsive.
MARTIN: So, Congressman West, a couple of things I wanted to ask you. First, I'm curious about your perspective on the tone of the exchanges between the two to this point. You know, obviously they're in a close contest. You're known for speaking your mind yourself. I'm just - what do you think about it? Is it appropriate? Do you feel that the tenor of the debate is what it should be? What do you think?
WEST: Well, I have to tell you that, you know, I believe that, you know, you're part of the media. You guys like a little sensationalism. And you like to hear, you know, a little bit of back and forth because that's what gets people to tune into. But I think ever since Iowa, when the negativity was introduced, things have gotten, you know, quite a bit toxic.
And I wish the candidates would move away from that. And the theme that they should really focus on is, you know, making the case for their vision, for their ideas to be contrasted against that of President Obama so that the people can make the decision of who is the best person to go into that arena of ideas and be able to challenge the president as far as the future and the legacy of this republic.
So I think that, you know, people have gotten off-track in a lot of the back and forth, you know, anti-immigrant, Bain Capital, this, that, you know, six of one, half dozen of the other. We've got to get back to the basics. And I'll tell you, a lot of the people that I talked to down in our constituency, that's what they'd like to see the candidates get back towards is talking about ideas and making that contrast.
MARTIN: Well, I was going to ask you about that. I was going to ask you about the issues that your constituents are most concerned about. There was a lot of talk about immigration in the last debate, in part because there was an attempt to kind of suss out what differences may exist between the two on that question. But what are your constituents telling you are their priorities as they are making up their minds?
WEST: Yeah. Well, first of all, let me just clarify it's illegal immigration. It's not about being, you know, anti-immigrant. The big things that you have across Florida is of course the economy. Florida's unemployment rate is higher than the national unemployment rate, ours is about 9.9, almost 10 percent.
The foreclosures are still high. And down in South Florida, we're kind of like ground zero for the state, as well as for the nation. I think that when you look at our constituency down in South Florida, you have a large retirement community, and they are concerned about the future of Medicare and Social Security.
You know, I've been talking to them, and they know the truth. They know that these programs are heading towards bankruptcy. And we have to have some viable type of reforms because doing nothing is not a solution.
And I think that right now, when as many veterans that we have retired down in Florida, they're concerned about the military, the state of the military and the erosion or perception of erosion of veterans' benefits, especially their health benefits.
MARTIN: We're checking in with Congressman Allen West. He is a Republican. He represents Florida's 22nd District. He is a member of both the Black Caucus and the Tea Party Caucus. And we've been checking in with him since he was sworn in as a member of Congress, to check in on his perspective. We're talking with him now in advance of the Florida primary.
Let me talk about one issue, though. This week you were one of the sponsors of a forum in Congress to talk about the ideas of African-American conservatives. I wanted to talk about Newt Gingrich's comments about food stamps and claiming that President Obama is the, quote, "food stamp president."
Now, you've defended him previously this week, but I did want to ask you the same question that FOX News political analyst Juan Williams posed to Newt Gingrich during the South Carolina debate. I just want to ask: Even though you disagree with it, do you see why African-Americans, a lot of African-American leaders in particular and columnists and so on were offended by this comment, feel it was out of line?
WEST: Well, first of all, we've got to get away from being offended by the truth. We've seen a 41 percent increase in food stamp recipients across the United States of America since President Obama was sworn in in January 2009. That has nothing to do with black, white, Hispanic or whatever. It's a fact, and we need to, you know, deal with that.
I would say this: As we move forward, maybe individuals such as Governor Romney, Speaker Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, you know, when they want to deal with issues that are, you know, somewhat peculiar to the African-American community, maybe they should call up a J.C. Watts or an Allen West or a Tim Scott, which is one of the points that we brought up in the Conservative Black Forum, and get us involved in the dialogue and let us help them understand how you communicate these issues.
MARTIN: That does lead to my next question, I'm glad you brought that up. As we mentioned, you hosted...
WEST: You and I have got this ESP thing going on.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: OK. Well, I'm glad to hear it. Let everybody else in on our vibe, that when you were hosting the Conservative Black Forum, one of the things you were trying to do, and your co-host was Tim Scott of South Carolina, you were trying to encourage African-Americans to consider supporting the GOP. And of course African-Americans overwhelmingly vote Democratic, at least they have since, you know, since the New Deal era. I'd like to ask you why you think the Republican Party seems to have difficulty connecting with black voters.
WEST: Well, I think for one thing, they don't understand their historic connection to the black community, and you have a party that really almost kind of gave up. No one recruited me from the party to go run for Congress. And, you know, like I say, once again, I'm representing a district that's 92, 93 percent white American.
So when you look at the fact that 33 percent in the black community self-identify as conservatives, but like you said voting en masse, you know, 90-plus percent with the Democratic Party, then we have a messaging issue. And I think that, you know, now we need to open up that dialogue, and we need to start asking people, you know, truly, what are your values.
But I think incumbent upon the Republican Party is that they need to clarify what their values are, as well, and they're American values. When you start talking about effective and efficient government that's fiscally responsible, you start talking about individual rights and freedoms, the free market, you know, our traditional values and our strong national defense, we need to be able to take those five cornerstone principles and be able to apply them to the issues that are facing all of our communities.
You know, Michel, something has to happen. OK, we've got 15.8 percent unemployment in the black community. We've got to have a dialog.
And one of the things that I like about being on the Congressional Black Caucus and what I always tell people - when you invest your money, you diversify. You don't put it in one single account. We need to do the exact same thing in the black community to have a voice across the entire political spectrum. We need to, you know, invest our political capital the exact same way or else we become irrelevant.
MARTIN: Well, you know, to that end, you talked about sort of the diversity of ideas. In the last election cycle, the Tea Party obviously had a very big, you know, influence. Many people believe that - at least a third of the new members of Congress can attribute their presence in Congress to Tea Party support.
Now, the Occupy movement - even though many of the individuals have been cleared out of some of the places that they were occupying, seem to have captured the public imagination with their argument that, really, the big issue here is income inequality and things of that sort.
WEST: Yeah. But you...
MARTIN: I just want to ask you...
WEST: When you start talking about income inequality, who makes the decisions?
MARTIN: OK. But my question here is, in this upcoming election cycle, what do you see as the defining issue?
WEST: Without a doubt, it is how do we get our economic situation in the United States of America back on track? I think everything comes back to, once again, understanding how do we promote equality of opportunity, not equality of achievement? And as you promote equality of opportunity, you're promoting economic freedom, which means how do we reverse the cycle of having the capital of the American people, the hardworking American taxpayer and their families, you know, kidnapped into Washington, D.C. where it's being wasted?
But the most important thing - and this is where I couldn't agree with the Occupy Wall Street movement - we cannot have government going in and picking the winners and losers in the free marketplace.
MARTIN: OK. Before we let you go, if you don't mind my asking, there's a new film out. Just went into theaters last weekend. This is its second week in the theater. It's called "Red Tails."
WEST: Oh, yeah.
MARTIN: It tells the story of the Tuskegee Airmen and I was just wondering who were the first black aviators in the U.S. military and...
WEST: Fighter pilots.
MARTIN: Fighter pilots. Yes, sir. And I just was wondering what your thought is about the film. Do you plan to see it and...
WEST: The great thing that I appreciate - the fact that my godfather, William "Sticky" Jackson, was a Tuskegee Airman because my father was first born in Ozark, Alabama. The sacrifices and the commitment of those men made it possible for myself and many others. It's like that of the Montford Marines. So that I could have a 22-year career, a successful career, be a battalion commander, because they stood up. And so I am totally indebted to them for what they did.
MARTIN: We do want to mention - and should have mentioned - that you are a veteran, retiring at the rank of...
WEST: Lieutenant Colonel.
MARTIN: Lieutenant Colonel. Congressman Allen West is a Republican. He represents Florida's 22nd District, which includes parts of Boca Raton and Fort Lauderdale. As we mentioned, he's also a member of both the Tea Party and the Congressional Black Caucuses, a military veteran. And we caught up with him in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he has meetings today.
Congressman, thank you so much.
WEST: Thanks, Michel.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: Coming up, imagine studying an ancient 63 volume text with no index. That's exactly the difficulty generations of scholars and believers have faced with the Talmud, the central text of Jewish faith, tradition and thought - until now. We speak with the man who says he's done it. It's seven years in the making. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.