West, Wasserman Schultz use each other as foils

KELLI KENNEDY - Associated Press
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., speaks as Reps. Gwen Moore, D-Wis., and Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., look on at a news conference about an email that Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., sent to Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., which criticized her about remarks she made on the House floor on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday, July 20, 2011.(AP Photo/Harry Hamburg)

MIAMI (AP) — Meet Washington's new odd couple: Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, fiery chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, and Tea Party hero and political newcomer Rep. Allen West.

Their long-simmering feud turned them into the poster children for inside-the-Beltway partisanship almost overnight this week after West fired off an angry, widely circulated email to Wasserman Schultz for criticizing his stance on Medicare during a spending debate.

West called her "vile, unprofessional and despicable" and told her to "shut the heck up."

Rather than shy away from the controversy, the lawmakers who represent neighboring South Florida districts are using it to energize their political bases.

"She's a rising star in the Democratic Party and he's a rising star in the Republican Party," said Joyce Kaufman, a South Florida radio talk show host who was originally tapped to be West's chief of staff, though she later resigned. "If you're gonna have a fight at least have it with somebody else who's getting attention."

Wasserman Schultz is the equivalent of the popular cheerleader in Washington, a breast cancer survivor with friends on both sides of the aisle. It wasn't long after the squabble before five Democratic congresswomen called for West to apologize.

West, a former Army officer and freshman GOP lawmaker, has made a name for himself with inflammatory remarks and combative rhetoric. During the campaign, he talked of taking his opponent, Democratic incumbent Ron Klein, out "behind the woodshed" and giving him a "whooping." His recently tweeted "Anyone with an Obama 2012 bumper sticker, I recognize them as a threat to the gene pool." He actually lives in Wasserman Schultz's heavily Democratic district, just across the line from his own, which is legal.

West seems less the Washington insider. He was initially snubbed by the Congressional Black Caucus, although the overwhelmingly liberal group later said he could request a membership. He has an ardent following of both churchgoers and biker clubs. The latter followed him during the campaign, offering protection.

In Iraq while still in the Army, he fired a gun near a detainee's head, threatening to kill him and allow soldiers to beat him in hopes of scaring the prisoner into revealing details of a purported plot against West and his men. The man was later found to be innocent. West admitted wrongdoing in a military court, was fined and relieved of his command. But supporters view his actions as those of a true patriot.

His speeches quickly became YouTube favorites and he toppled Klein by 9 percentage points in an evenly divided district that voted for John Kerry in 2004 and President Barack Obama in 2008. He faces a tough 2012 re-election race.

Now both are using the email flap to garner support. West spokeswoman Angela Sachitano said Wednesday night he had not apologized to the congresswoman, noting, "we are waiting on her apology."

West labeled Wasserman Schultz a liberal attack dog and asked for donations in a fundraising email heralding the fight. She appeared on television outlets pushing the Democratic agenda, saying she was just debating policy and got a "tirade out of the clear blue sky."

"It's probably good for their re-election base. The partisans on both sides want their representatives to stick to their principals and not compromise and want them to be more aggressive and more assertive," said Aubrey Jewett, a University of Central Florida political science professor.

In her remarks on the House floor, Wasserman Schultz said: "The gentleman from Florida, who represents thousands of Medicare beneficiaries, as do I, is supportive of this plan that would increase costs for Medicare beneficiaries. Unbelievable from a member from south Florida."

To some, West's response seemed harsh, but Klein says it's typical.

"He sort of goes off the handle. It's not shocking to me because I saw it during the campaign. He gives speeches that were designed to be inflammatory. There were a lot of things during the campaign that were over the top, big words, big rhetoric which I think is part of what drives his national Fox popularity. The people that want to hear that love it," Klein said.

Insiders say the rift began in 2010 when Wasserman Schultz rallied outside West's campaign headquarters to protest a biker magazine that ran opinion columns written by West. "Wheels on the Road" also contains photos of scantily clad women and sexually explicit columns.

"He thinks it's OK to objectify and denigrate women. He thinks it's OK to take away our reproductive freedom. He thinks it's OK to associate with people who refer to women as oral relief stations," Wasserman Schultz said during the rally.

Kaufman said West took note and he's "tired of being poked in the chest" by her. After his email, a handful of blogs labeled him a misogynist, too.

West, who has been married for 22 years and has two daughters, told conservative radio talk show host Mark Levin on Wednesday that such remarks about him perpetuates the petty lies he hates about politics.

"I'm a threat because I'm the guy that got off their 21st century plantation and they cannot afford to have a strong voice such as mine out there reverberating and resonating across this country," he said. "And even more so, they're not used to anyone that says, 'I'm going to fight back against you.'"