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In Bid for Governor’s Mansion, Allen West Will Have to Win Over the Texas GOP

Congressman Allen B. West

The Army requires its soldiers to take up running, and despite needing a pacemaker, the 60-year-old retired lieutenant colonel has retained the habit. In the mornings, Allen West gets up by 5:30 and pounds the pavement for 4 miles, sometimes longer. The Republican politician says it’s during these times that he can ask for wisdom and discernment from God. And it was during one of these jogs in the quiet, predawn hours that he decided to pull the trigger: He would run for Texas governor.

This spring, West welcomed the birth of his first grandson, Jaxton Bernard. It was a pivotal moment for the former Florida congressman, who weeks later would resign as chair of the Republican Party of Texas after serving for less than a year.

Having grandchildren changes one’s perspective, and he asked himself how he could make the world better for his new grandson, he told the Observer, as he sat at a table in the conference room of his publisher’s Dallas office.

“So that’s why grandpa had to decide, ‘I’ve got to get off the sidelines,’” he continued, “‘and I’ve got to get back in to protect liberty and freedom here in Texas.’”

In a seven-minute, slickly produced video, West announced his candidacy for Texas governor on July 4.

During his brief time as Texas’ GOP chair, the conservative firebrand rallied his party’s right-most flank, launching acerbic missives at his political enemies. Last November, like many Republican leaders nationwide, West appeared to reject the news that Joe Biden had fairly won the presidency, instead insinuating the Democrat cheated to get there. The month before, after supporters of then-President Donald Trump attempted to drive a Biden campaign bus off the road, West accused a journalist covering the event of “fake news and propaganda.”

But West is also a divisive political figure in the GOP. In June, The Texas Tribune described his final days as chair as “ending with an explosion of the kind of intraparty drama he has become known for throughout his tenure.” West had called his party’s Vice Chair Cat Parks “delusional and apparently deranged,” as well as “a cancer.” Parks survived a battle with cancer.

The Observer had also previously interviewed West by phone, during which he seemed to bristle at questions he didn’t like. But during the sit-down at his publisher’s office one morning in July, West appeared open and content.

“I serve God, country and I serve Texas.” – Allen West

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Choosing to run for governor wasn’t exactly easy, West said that day. His wife, whom West calls a brilliant woman that’s “way out of [his] league,” initially wasn’t keen on the idea. But for months throughout the coronavirus pandemic, West said, he watched as Gov. Greg Abbott ruled Texas by “mandate, edict, order and decree.” Texans had stomached enough government overreach, and so had he.
Abbott had already received an endorsement from former President Donald Trump, which many view as the key to success in any Republican’s race. Yet in his sport coat and classic round eyeglasses on that summer day when he met the Observer, West didn’t appear too concerned.

“That has no relevance to me whatsoever because I don’t serve President Trump — and I know him personally,” he said in a calm, metered tone. “I serve God, country and I serve Texas. And so, his endorsement of Greg Abbott means nothing to me.

“It is all about the people of Texas,” he continued, “and they will make the decision.”

**

It was Nov. 20, 2012, and West was ready to admit defeat. Seated in front of a camera in a suit jacket and striped tie, the one-term Florida congressman wished FOX host Brian Kilmeade a happy Thanksgiving before digging into what went wrong. Political newcomer Patrick Murphy, a 29-year-old Democrat and construction company executive, had won the congressional race by around 0.58 percentage points — roughly 2,000 ballots in all. Despite noting certain supposed “voting irregularities” in St. Lucie and Palm Beach counties, West was ready to move on.

The loss sent shockwaves throughout certain Republican circles in Florida, especially given that at one point, polling found him to be in the lead. Politico reported at the time that soul-searching ensued among conservatives close to West’s campaign, but they ultimately decided that his fustian, often biting rhetoric had sealed his defeat.

West’s congressional district was too moderate for his hard-right style. That, coupled with his propensity to hurl insults at his political foes, may have repelled his district’s swath of elderly voters.

West once said up to 81 congressional Democrats were card-carrying communists. He claimed that the country’s Democratic Party would make Joseph Goebbels, the German Nazi propagandist, “very proud.” He accused then-President Barack Obama of being a “low-level socialist agitator,” deeming his supporters a “threat to the gene pool.” And he said a liberal congressional colleague was “not a lady” and called her “vile, despicable and cowardly.”

West’s tendency to fling verbal attacks hurt him in the end, with one of his close allies telling Politico: “Sometimes people don’t want controversy. They just want a congressman.” That proclivity offered opponent Murphy an opportunity to pitch himself as a nonpartisan intent on getting work done in Congress. Murphy also benefited from the surprise endorsement of a Republican sheriff who’d attempted to oust West in the primary.

So, in 2014, West and family headed to the Lone Star State, where some of his wife’s family lives and where he became the CEO of a conservative policy center.

West had already used up whatever welcome he’d had in Florida, said Charles Zelden, a professor of history and legal studies at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale. Many predicted he’d again enter the political ring one day. Moving to Texas seemed like the natural next step for West, given that conservatives here would likely be more receptive to his own leanings.

“The agenda he’s selling is something they’re used to listening to and agreeing with,” Zelden told the South Florida Sun Sentinel at the time. “If you want to be successful as a salesman, you go to where people are buying what you’re selling.”

Some Texas Republicans were in the market for West’s brand of politics.

In July 2020, West’s star status helped him clinch a win as chair of the Republican Party of Texas, said Jason Vaughn, a conservative activist and former policy director for the Texas Young Republicans. West was elected during the state GOP’s 2020 convention, which Vaughn describes as “one of the worst-run conventions that anybody could ever attend.” Technical difficulties plagued the event, which was forced online amid the coronavirus pandemic. Many were unable to vote because of an overly complex process, he said.

As chairman, West seemed more focused on antagonizing fellow Republicans than he was on getting the work done, Vaughn said. In October 2020, West spearheaded a protest outside the governor’s mansion to decry the state’s coronavirus policies. The following month, he called Beaumont state Rep. Dade Phelan a “political traitor” ahead of the House speaker race, which Phelan later won. West had accused Phelan of pandering to liberals to get there.

While West was attacking his own in front of the camera, he wasn’t accomplishing much behind the scenes, Vaughn argued. West’s predecessor showed up to the state Capitol almost daily, but as far as Vaughn knows, the retired lieutenant colonel only registered to testify once, and even then, he didn’t actually stick around to do so.

West didn’t lead by example, he added; unlike other Republican leaders, he was never out block-walking or phone-banking.

“Some people are just more interested in being angry than they are effective,” Vaughn said.

“The storm has passed.” – Jason Vaughn

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In 2011, Rep. Allen West speaks on the - payroll tax vote with fellow House - Republican freshmen. - CHIP SOMODEVILLA/GETTY IMAGES

In 2011, Rep. Allen West speaks on thepayroll tax vote with fellow HouseRepublican freshmen.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Even though many called the 87th regular legislative session the most conservative in Texas history, West accused lawmakers of not doing enough. He was upset that they’d neglected certain bills that would have protected Confederate monuments at the same time they’d failed to ban gender-affirming care for transgender youths.

Speaking to the Observer in May, Republican state Rep. Justin Holland had harsh words for the then-RPT chair.

“The Republican Party of Texas has been hijacked by a carpetbagger from Florida,” Holland said, “and so Allen West does not represent all of the Republicans in Texas.”

Vaughn doesn’t see him winning his gubernatorial bid.

For someone with a military background, West has a personality that lacks organization, Vaughn said. Still, he acknowledged that West is a smart man who has plenty to offer — if only he would prioritize the party over his own ambition.

To say West did more damage than good to the Republican Party of Texas would imply that he did any good at all, Vaughn said. When he resigned, he left the state’s GOP with no vision or plans for the future. West also left the party with fewer experienced staff, he said.

“I just don’t want him to leave Texas in the same mess he left the Republican Party in,” Vaughn said, adding that it’s a much brighter day with the party’s current chair. “[West’s] only legacy was leaving,” he continued, “and it was the best part of his legacy.”

Vaughn later added: “The storm has passed.”

**

West was born in 1961 at a Black-only hospital in Atlanta. Every day on his walk home from school, he’d pass by the final resting place of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., which left an indelible mark. He grew up in a military family: His father was a corporal in the U.S. Army in World War II, and his older brother served as a Marine in Vietnam. West signed up for Junior ROTC in high school before joining the Army ROTC at the University of Tennessee. As a junior in college, he was already a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army.

When he retired from the military after more than 20 years, West and his wife, Angela, settled in Florida for a decade. The way West tells it, his congressional career there began thanks to a challenge.

It was after the 2008 election, which Republicans had “lost severely,” and West was returning home from Afghanistan. He’d run into a local political activist who told him that even though he was no longer actively serving, his oath still continued: “That was the biggest gut-check that I ever had,” he said.

Decades ago, West said, more than 70% of those who served in the U.S. House and Senate had served in uniform. They’d taken an oath to defend the Constitution and were prepared to lay down their lives for it.

Today, though, the number has dwindled to between 16% and 18%, he said. (According to Military Times, the current crop of congressional politicians includes the lowest number of military veterans since at least World War II. Yet decades ago, there was also a universal male draft and relatively few female politicians, which may help to explain the prior higher percentage.)

“I think that that’s why you see a lot of difference in what is going on up there in Washington, D.C., [and] other places. Because those of us who serve in the military, we took an oath and it meant something to us,” he said. “So that’s why I ended up running for Congress there in Florida, because we really don’t care for politicians in the military.”

West’s time in the armed forces has earned him points among some hardline conservatives. Shortly after West announced his candidacy for governor, Fredericksburg state Rep. Kyle Biedermann sang West’s praises: He had “proven himself on the desert battlefields afar and on the political battlefields at home.”

Abbott had let down Texans, Biedermann told an auditorium of conservative constituents in July. Under the governor’s leadership, Republican priorities like border security, school choice and property taxes had been ignored. Lawmakers also hadn’t banned so-called “gender-modification” surgery for trans minors.

“You are the ones that go to the convention, vote on the priorities, and you’re the ones that let your officials know what you want to have done,” Biedermann told his audience. “The problem is, there’s a lot of people up there in the Legislature that are not listening to you. And that needs to change, and that’s why we need a change in leadership at the top.”

Meanwhile, West has cozied up to secessionists, such as those in the Texas Nationalist Movement (TNM). Earlier this year, after Biedermann filed legislation that would allow Texans to vote on whether to leave the Union, West endorsed a referendum.

For years, TNM President Daniel Miller has been pushing for “Texit”, which he defines as the process by which Texas attains independence, more commonly known as secession. Now, he said, all three of Abbott’s major primary challengers — West, real estate developer Don Huffines and comedian Chad Prather — have spoken in support of a vote.

And although TNM hasn’t yet endorsed anyone for governor, Miller said it’s a big deal that Texit has entered the political mainstream.

“To have this sort of discourse occur in the midst of a governor’s race — and not as some afterthought or sidebar, but literally as a political topic that people are going to make their voting decision based on — is obviously huge,” he said. “And I got to say, after 25 years of pursuing this, I’m beginning to maybe get a feeling of validation.”

**

The policeman wouldn’t cooperate. It was Aug. 20, 2003, and the Iraqi official was under interrogation by West, who was backed by his soldiers from the 220th Field Artillery Battalion. So, at a military base north of Baghdad, West watched while four soldiers beat the man on his body and head, according to CNN.

The Americans believed the Iraqi policeman had information on a plot: West would be assassinated with an ambush on a military convoy. So, West threatened to kill the detainee. He took him outside and fired his pistol near the man’s head.

As a consequence, West was nearly court-martialed but was instead fined $5,000; he retired shortly thereafter. Testifying before a military courtroom, West admitted the method he used wasn’t right but that he’d “wanted to take care of [his] soldiers.” When asked if he’d have done things differently, he appeared to double down.

“If it’s about the lives of my soldiers at stake, I’d go through hell with a gasoline can,” he said at the time, according to CNN.

Since then, some have derided West as a “war criminal” who’s virulently Islamophobic. During West’s congressional campaign, he decried “Islam” as the enemy, saying it wasn’t a religion but rather a “totalitarian theocratic political ideology.” Then in 2016, the editor-in-chief of West’s website apologized after a meme on the politician’s Facebook page talked of “exterminating” Muslims. (The image was removed and the editor claimed West had no knowledge it had been posted.)

West has also helped lead the crusade against the academic framework critical race theory, which conservative legislators statewide say is being taught in Texas public schools. (It’s not.) In its reporting on the furor over a proposed diversity plan in Carroll ISD, NBC News detailed how West helped to fan the flames.

Speaking at a church near Southlake last year, West directed the crowd to question newcomers from out of state. They should offer a pecan pie before asking: “Now why are you here?” If they didn’t hold the same conservative values, he said, they should “go back to where [they] came from.” It was time to “run these progressive socialists the hell out of Texas,” West continued before receiving a standing ovation. He also told NBC he was proud that Southlake residents had staved off “threats from Black Lives Matter.”

Many Texas parents don’t want their children indoctrinated in critical race theory, West later told the Observer. It’s an important moment for the country, a time when some are intentionally trying to rip the people apart. But America already offers equality of opportunity, he said, which shouldn’t be confused with the equality of outcomes.

Some of the most important political figures in early Texas were Black Republicans like Reconstruction-era state Sens. Matthew Gaines and George T. Ruby, he added, but now, the country is facing a “new Marxism” centered on racial division. Democrats are purveyors of the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” West continued, questioning the premise of systemic racism.

“The playing field is level,” he said. “When a kid can be born in a Blacks-only hospital and be 60 years, be running for the governor of Texas after being a lieutenant colonel in the United States Army, being a member of Congress, the playing field is level.”

In a June statement as RPT chair, West said Black people who are part of the Democratic Party are “perpetual victim[s]” suffering from Stockholm syndrome.

“If you are Black and a member of the Party of the Jackass,” he wrote, “well, they are exploiting you for being a dumbass.”

**

 

“Come and take [them],” reads a tattoo on - Allen West’s forearm. - SIMONE CARTER

“Come and take [them],” reads a tattoo onAllen West’s forearm.
Simone Carter

Abbott will be tough to beat, said Dr. Emily Sydnor, an assistant political science professor at Southwestern University in Georgetown. By this summer, he’d already amassed $55 million in his campaign treasury, according to The Texas Tribune; his cash-on-hand total was greater than “any other statewide candidate in Texas history.”

Money makes a big difference in a candidate’s chances, Sydnor said, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that a challenge is impossible. Yet Abbott likely has West and the rest beat on an ideological level, too.

Bids by primary challengers drove Abbott further to the right, which was evidenced by his legislative priorities this year, including a new abortion ban and voting restrictions, Sydnor said. While his opponents also support such policies, Abbott can take credit for them because he was in charge when they passed.

The anti-Abbott support will be split up among West and the other primary challengers, she added. To some extent, each one’s chances hinge on how long the others stay in the race, since they’re competing for the same voters.

“It makes it unclear just numerically how one of them could pick up all of the votes needed to overpower Abbott,” Sydnor said.

As an African American, West was often put in the spotlight as an example of what Republicans considered to be the future of Black conservatism, said Dr. Chris Macaulay, an assistant political science professor at West Texas A&M University.

West has a tendency to say controversial things, Macaulay said. He may also be a supporter of the QAnon conspiracy theory, which holds that the world is ruled by Satan-worshipping elites who oversee a child sex-trafficking ring. The once-fringe movement has been gaining in popularity in recent months.

According to QAnon lore, “the storm” is used to denote the day when Trump declares martial law, and thousands of evildoers are arrested and executed. Last year, with West as head, the Republican Party of Texas adopted the slogan, “We are the storm.” (West has adamantly denied it’s related to the false conspiracy theory. He instead claims it was inspired by one of his favorite quotes, which comes from an unknown source: “The devil whispers into the warrior’s ear, ‘You cannot withstand the coming storm.’ The warrior whispers back, ‘I am the storm.’”)

Earlier this year, West spoke during Dallas’ QAnon convention, urging attendees to participate in local politics.

Still, it’s hard to know for sure whether West really believes in QAnon or if he’s just being politically opportunist, Macaulay said. He represents the “Trump branch” of the party that’s more nationalistic and xenophobic, plus “a lot more skeptical of democracy and questionably authoritarian.”

At another point, he said, “He’s almost to me like a proto-Trump because he’s good at getting that attention, but unlike Trump, he’s not very good at keeping it and transforming it into success.”

Despite Trump’s sustained popularity, Macaulay doesn’t see the retired lieutenant colonel making it to the governor’s mansion. If anything, West’s presence in the primary may turn Texas’ government even more conservative. It could also push Abbott so far right that he loses in the general election.

Plus, the numbers aren’t swinging in West’s favor, Macaulay noted. According to polling released recently by the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation and Rice University’s Baker Institute, Abbott still commands a considerable lead, attracting 64% of likely GOP primary voter support compared with West’s 13%.

“I don’t know why West did this,” Macaulay said. “I really feel like staying as Republican Party chair would have given him a lot more power and influence, but he decided to go for it.”

**

With West as governor, Texans would get a commander who loves classic rock music. When he was in college, he worked at a record store to earn a little cash.

They’d also gain a leader with a tattoo of an ancient Greek phrase on his right forearm.

Standing in his publisher’s office, West recounted the 480 B.C. Battle of Thermopylae, during which Persia told Spartan King Leonidas I to direct his soldiers to drop their weapons. Leonidas replied: “molon labe,” which translated into English means “come and take [them].” Those words, already popular among Tea Party movement adherents, have recently picked up additional support from some conservatives and were emblazoned on banners and flags displayed at the Jan. 6 insurrection, according to The Daily Beast.

As West pointed out, Texas has also claimed “come and take it” as its own catchphrase. It, along with an image of a cannon, adorns a flag harkening back to the Texas Revolution.

“Molon labe.” – Allen West’s arm

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Present-day Texans are facing myriad challenges, West said, one of the biggest being the border. It’s a multi-headed beast that touches on everything from health care to education, the economy to crime, including human trafficking. It’s important to look at immigration as a system, he added; just throwing up a wall won’t cut it. As governor, he’d designate cartels as terrorist and criminal organizations and, if it hadn’t yet been done, fully mobilize the National Guard to “interdict those infiltration routes.” (In March, Abbott rolled out Operation Lone Star, integrating the Texas National Guard with the Department of Public Safety to target smugglers and Mexican drug cartels.)

Property taxes are also crushing Texans, who can never really own their home, West said. Rather, homeowners are essentially renting from the government because of the current tax system.

In addition, West wants Texas to continue producing and exporting oil and gas so that it isn’t dependent on the very foreign countries where he used to be shot at. “In an energy-rich state like Texas, we should not have been looking like North Korea where we were completely in the dark,” he said of February’s winter storm.

Many have condemned West’s leadership style, but West said that’s their problem. His way, he insists, is based upon principle and his oath to the Constitution. If people don’t agree with the rule of law, that’s on them.

To West, Abbott’s COVID-19 response has been all wrong. And as governor, he said he’d never direct businesses to shut down or force people to stay in their homes.

Still, West insists he isn’t running against Abbott. Rather, he’s running for Texas.

“The bottom line is: Who do you want to go and do the battle for you?” West said. “My life has been defined [by] … service and sacrifice and commitment to a single thing: Our rule of law, individual liberties and freedoms, our American way of life. And that’s what I’m focused on.”

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