The car bearing Allen West to the Capitol pulls over so the former House member can show identification to a security guard. The officer recognizes him instantly and pushes West's ID away. Then he reaches into the passenger-side window and pulls the Army veteran in for a bro-hug. "We gotta get you back here," the officer says.
"Oh, I'll be back," West replies, flashing his slightly gap-toothed smile. "Tell the fellas."
The truth is, Allen West never really left. During his single term in the House, which ended in January, he carved a path as distinctive as his trademark salt-and-pepper flattop -- not just for his bombastic rhetoric but also for being the first black Republican elected from Florida since Reconstruction. Some might slink away from Washington after losing their first reelection battle in one of the nation's best-funded campaigns, and in a district carried by Mitt Romney. Not West, the Tea Party outsider who decided he'd hold onto his Capitol Hill basement apartment. "Of course I did," he says, as if it were even a question.
And why would it be? He's still at the Capitol about three days a week to conduct interviews for a new Internet-based television show he hosts -- one of West's many ventures. He has a contract to appear frequently on Fox News. He funded a nonprofit (the Allen West Foundation, of course), finished a book manuscript (coming early next year), and raised impressive amounts of campaign cash (leading plenty of people to speculate about his plans for 2016). In the first six months of 2013, his Allen West Guardian Fund, a leadership PAC, pulled in $1.3 million, a figure on par with the upper echelon of his former House colleagues.
By losing his spot in Congress, West may have failed upward. "In some ways, my ability to impact the conversation has somewhat exponentially grown," he says. His docket is so full these days that a 75-minute meeting is carved into his calendar just to discuss all the far-flung elements of "the empire."
As he enters the Rayburn House Office Building on a hot July day, West breezes past the metal detector. ("They know me here," he explains.) He's on his way to interview House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va. He presses the "members only" button on the elevator, and even though another car arrives first, he opts for the exclusive one. "The only difference now is that I don't have to be constantly paying attention for the voting bell to ring," he says, noting he even goes home to his family in Florida on the weekends, just like he did as a member.
But while it all feels familiar, there is a big difference today. West is no longer just one of 435. Now he's the founder, president, and CEO of a rising political force: Allen West Inc.
The Last Samurai
The operation has expanded recently from West's basement apartment -- which he calls "the bat cave" -- to a suite on the eerily empty third floor of an office building only blocks from his old office. The walls are barren because many of them are going to be torn down to build a bigger filming studio. The place has the feel of a start-up. A half-dozen young women mill about. West's flat-screen TV, tuned to Fox News, sits atop a cardboard box. A Post-it Note stuck to his computer reminds him that his password is "allenwest." Talking points about Trayvon Martin and a packet of Clearasil wipes sit atop his desk. Oh, and there's a samurai sword.
"I'm pretty scared about you having a samurai sword. That's insane," says Michelle Fields, a rising conservative star and correspondent on his show. "Take it out! I want to see what it looks like."
A fan had arrived, unannounced, bearing the weapon just hours earlier. (The security guards downstairs didn't stop him.) "I'd never met him, but he said because I'm a stand-up guy willing to fight for my beliefs, I should have it. If a guy is going to give another guy a gift, this is cool. I don't want a guy coming in and giving me cologne or some kind of basket," West says. "I mean, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, dude."
West, like Sarah Palin, inspires the true believers. His caustic brand of Republicanism -- he has said Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels would be "very proud" of Democrats and that as many as 80 communists secretly lurk among the Democrats in Congress -- turned him into a conservative icon. By November 2012, his campaign team says, it had more than 100,000 active donors who had contributed nearly $19 million. "It's an unheard of sum," says Brock McCleary, who was the deputy political director for the House Republicans' campaign operations last year.
To put his haul in context, the only House members to raise more money than West last cycle were Speaker John Boehner and those running for president (Reps. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Ron Paul of Texas). West's reelection campaign outraised that of Rep. Eric Cantor, the No. 2 House Republican, by more than $11 million.
West did it by investing heavily in direct-mail and e-mail solicitations that capitalized on his image as a Tea Party rabble-rouser, a military veteran serving his nation, and, of course, a rare black Republican. His campaign spent more than $7.4 million on fundraising, much of it for direct-mail solicitations. West received so many contributions that he reported spending more than $200,000 in bank and credit-card fees just to process all the incoming money.
The secret of Allen West's success is that, despite appearances, he is more strategic than spontaneous. Every crazy comment he makes raises his profile and the amount of money in his coffers. Every joke is workshopped (at least in his own head) to best charm the press. Every attempt to shoot down a 2016 rumor is actually an effort to keep his name in the mix.
He has been able to drive his own coverage, even out of office. West was mentioned in 185,000 Twitter and Facebook posts in the first six months of 2013, according to Crimson Hexagon, a social-media analytics firm. That was almost the same volume as the first six months of 2012, when he was mentioned 220,000 times during a reelection campaign in which he accused Democrats of being communists (and drew national attention). He counts nearly 350,000 fans on Facebook (40 percent more than, say, the Sierra Club), more than 150,000 of whom have joined since his electoral defeat, his advisers say.
West's mail operation continues to hum. It ensures that he, unlike so many of his former colleagues who depend on the largesse of the lobbying class, isn't tethered to the whims of Washington elites. This large donor base gives West the freedom to speak his mind -- demands it, even. It also, crucially, provides him the time to build his empire and to amass the money that will serve as his mortar.