john-lewis-web.jpgSpecial to South Florida Times

It might seem odd that a Civil Rights hero came to town to appeal to the black community to put a Jewish Democrat in office, rather than a fellow African American.

But, to U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and U.S. Rep. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton, that is what the Civil Rights struggle was all about. Lewis, who flew in to personally endorse Klein’s re-election bid against a tough challenge by Republican Allen West, called Klein his “brother” while painting a picture of West as an African American who wants to turn back the clock.

Lewis spoke at the historic Payne Chapel AME Church in the heart of West Palm Beach’s black community on Oct.15.

It’s a strange irony, Lewis and Klein agree, but Klein said it was a big honor to have Lewis come on his behalf.

“He’s my personal hero. He’s an American living legend. He’s the person we [in Congress] look to when it comes to human rights,” said Klein. “What he says is living history.”

U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar, was instrumental in bringing the longtime Civil Rights leader to South Florida to rally for Klein in a hotly contested race for District 22 that encompasses parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties. The district is only five percent African American but Hastings vowed to do all he could to get Klein re-elected.

That included drawing support from the Congressional Black Caucus and  from Lewis, who he believed would get people’s attention.

During the rally, Lewis told of his experiences in the Civil Rights era and said he still owned land that his father purchased in 1944.  But he wasted no time speaking vehemently against West, a tea party-backed candidate­.

“We cannot think about – cannot dream about – going backwards. We must go forward,” Lewis told the racially mixed audience. “It might seem strange [supporting a non-black candidate] but Ron is my brother, he’s my friend, he’s my colleague and that’s what the struggle was all about: to create a truly multi-racial democracy and to come to the point where we could forget about race and see people as people, as human beings.”

The heated race between Klein and West has been contentious and a war of words that has left both sides infuriated. Josh Grodin, campaign manager for West, said Klein is trying to portray West as a “scary black man.” But it was Lewis, who used the term “scary” in reference to West.

“This man,” said Lewis, referring to West. “Scary. Frightening. We wouldn’t have a Civil Rights Act. I saw those signs that said, ‘White Man,’ ‘Colored Man,’ ‘White Woman,’ ‘Colored Woman’,” he said, referring to the days of segregation. “Now we have someone who happens to be African American saying that black people, people of color, African Americans, were better off before the Civil Rights Act. You have a man who represents our dark past. He wants to take us back but we’re not going back. Run, crawl, make it to that ballot box and vote for Ron.”

Grodin said West is offended by Lewis’ rhetoric. He denies that West ever made such a statement about the Civil Rights Act. He not only denies it was said but, Grodin said, Lewis is “lying” on West. “We’re calling a spade a spade. It’s a flat-out lie,” Grodin said in a telephone interview, when asked for comment. “Mr. West finds it highly offensive that he would be accused of such a blatant lie.”

Grodin said he is perplexed by West’s treatment by Lewis and the Congressional Black Caucus. “We find it very ironic that never before has the CBC campaigned against an African American just because they’re Republican,” he said.

Hastings said he enlisted the help of the CBC because he’s committed to boosting black turnout for Klein and is attempting to prevent West from cutting into Democratic votes in the district’s African American community. 

West said he does believe he can appeal to the African American community, despite his opponent calling him “dangerous and extreme.”

“My parents were Democrats,” West said during an interview at the meet-and-greet in West Palm Beach, where he dined with supporters, including U.S. House Minority Leader John Boehner. “I was brought up in the inner city of Atlanta, Georgia. But there were conservative values that they instilled in me, such as love of country, individual responsibility, and accountability.”

West’s message resonates with Kurt and Lashaun Daley of West Palm Beach, black Republicans who attended the meet-and-greet. They said characterizing West as “extreme and dangerous,” is typical of Democrats and they are tired of being stereotyped.

“I’m tired of people putting out in the media that Black people are the ones to bring the grades down in the schools, the ones who need assistance, and the ones who can’t afford to buy vegetables. That’s ridiculous. That’s not my reality,” said Lashaun Daley, whose husband Kurt supports their family while she is a homemaker who volunteers at their daughter’s school.  They say West’s principles and values are aligned with theirs.

Klein and West have faced each other in the past. In 2008, Klein soundly defeated West but this time things are different. “It’s a tight election,” Hastings conceded.

Both men have lots of cash and both have big name supporters stumping for them. On Oct. 11, President Barack Obama held a pricey fundraiser at the home of former Miami Heat star Alonzo Mourning to benefit Klein and other Democratic candidates. Earlier that day, West held the breakfast meet-and-greet at the Gun Club Café where he was joined by Boehner.

However, in a recent debate, both candidates criticized each other for their associations. Klein accused West of having connections to the Outlaws Motorcycle Club which has been deemed “criminal” by the FBI and the Department of Justice. West referred to Klein’s support from the Congressional Black Caucus, noting some members of the group are under ethics investigations. West did not accuse Lewis of any wrongdoing.

Photo: John Lewis