By Molly K. Hooper - 02/13/11 10:00 PM EST
A conservative lawmaker has made friends with liberal colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), but others are skeptical of him.
Some in the caucus have embraced freshman Rep. Allen West (Fla.), who is the first Republican to join the CBC since 1996.
Still, some are “leery” of West, according to a CBC member who requested anonymity.
West raised some eyebrows in a CBC meeting soon after the assassination attempt of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).
After members expressed concern for their safety, West, a two-decade plus Army veteran, said members should consider carrying a concealed weapon.
In an interview with The Hill this week, West said, “They were talking about getting detailed security and I said, ‘Well you just look in your state as far as getting a concealed weapons licensing,’ which is something that I have. I think personal protection starts with yourself, but you just coordinate with local law enforcement to make sure you have collateral security at your events.”
CBC member Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) said West’s suggestion didn’t go over well, adding it was “frowned” on by other lawmakers.
Legislators in the CBC seem sensitive to reports highlighting controversial remarks attributed to West, including one recent statement that appeared to single out fellow CBC member Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) for his Muslim beliefs.
West argued that his initial comment that Ellison’s beliefs “represent the antithesis of the principles upon which this country was established” were misconstrued. He said the comments were “not about his Islamic faith, but about his continued support of [the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)].”
CAIR is a controversial group whose critics have alleged that it has ties to Hamas.
West said the media’s coverage of him has not affected his relationships with members of the CBC.
“It doesn’t affect my relationship whatsoever. I define who I am – not someone with a pen and a pad. That’s the most important thing. If folks want to continue to write the kind of foolishness and chicanery that they seem to be up to, let them do that,” West said.
He said he has enjoyed being a part of the CBC, which consists of 43 members.
His decision to join CBC attracted headlines, which he has done often over the last several months.
West hired, and then quickly replaced, a chief of staff who has a history of inflammatory remarks. He said President Obama should put himself in harm’s way when he visits U.S. troops in war zones. And the 50-year-old lawmaker earlier this month appeared with disgraced former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.).
Conservative activists have praised West for his frank style and his commitment to cut government spending. West is the keynote speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference this weekend.
CBC Chairman Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) said West has been “no different than any other member.”
“He’s not alien to Democrats. He is a former military leader who probably speaks in a different tone than a majority of the CBC members on issues of the war and those old social issues that divide Democrats and Republicans,” Cleaver said.
Freshman Rep. Tim Scott (S.C.), a black Republican, has not opted to join the CBC.
Asked about whether he has tried to recruit Scott, West said, “He’s a grown man. He can make his own decisions.”
Cleaver, meanwhile, said he has not reached out to Scott, adding he has not yet met him.
West joined the CBC to offer a different perspective and said his party label has not hindered his ability to fit in.
The Tea Party-backed Floridian described having “good conversations with everybody” in the CBC, in particular Reps. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.).
West noted he grew up in Lewis’s district and said he has a “common bond” with Rangel.
“You find out that Charlie Rangel served in Korea … You can talk about things like that – what the Army was like in Korea and what the Army was like in my 22 years,” West said.
Lewis, told The Hill that his colleagues “see [West] as another member.”
Lewis said CBC members do not feel awkward in West’s presence – even though several members, including Lewis, campaigned against West during the 2010 election.
“CBC is very diverse.…[West] will fit in. He’ll be ok,” Lewis added.
Clay described West as “quiet” during CBC meetings.
“He’s really getting his footing here…He’s never served in public office. So, this is kind of all overwhelming him now,” Clay said.
West indicated he is proud of the CBC, noting it has “a political influence across the entire spectrum. I mean, how often do you have a member of the CBC who’s the keynote speaker of CPAC?”