Tea party Congressman Allen West of Florida asserted at a town hall meeting that about 80 of his colleagues are Communists, a statement which has drawn quick condemnation from congressional progressives and from the Communist Party USA itself.
"I believe there's about 78 to 81 members of the Democratic Party that are members of the Communist Party," West said at meeting in Jensen Beach, Fla. His bizarre statement was a response to a bizarre question from a tea partyer who asked, "What percentage of the American legislature do you think are card carrying Marxists?"
West spokesperson Angela Marvin told the press later that "the Congressman was referring to the 76 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus" and that "the Communist Party has publicly referred to the Progressive Caucus as its allies."
"The Progressive Caucus speaks for itself," Marvin said. "These individuals certainly aren't proponents of free markets or individual economic freedom."
Another West spokesperson said something completely different. Blaming the media, the staffer said, "One stupid reporter with a local publication misquoted the entire thing, and they all jumped on one press account without verifying."
And then came the conspiracy that all tea partyers love to talk about, tying it to President Obama.
"It's all typical West Wing marching orders for their friends in the press," the campaign staffer told the far-right publication Daily Caller.
Libero Della Piana, a vice chair of the Communist Party USA, called West's statements "ridiculous" and a "cheap shot."
"There are no members of Congress in the Communist Party. We support public parks and I assume Congressman West does too, that doesn't mean he's a Communist."
Co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Raul Grijalva of Arizona and Keith Ellison of Minnesota blasted what they called "the outrageous Allen West claims."
"Allen West is denigrating millions of Americans who voted to elect Congressional Progressive Caucus members, and he is ignoring the oath they took to protect and defend the U.S. Constitution - just like he did. Calling fellow members of Congress 'communists' is reminiscent of the days when Joe McCarthy divided Americans with name-calling and modern-day witch hunts that don't advance policies to benefit people's lives," they said.
"We hope the people of Florida's 22nd Congressional District will note that he repeatedly polarizes the American people instead of focusing on their interests. When people like Rep. West have no ideals or principles, they rely on personal attacks.
"The Congressional Progressive Caucus is proud," they said, "to stand up for economic equality and human rights for all Americans. Congress is having, and will continue to have, an ongoing debate about job creation, home foreclosures and issues that concern working families. But we will not engage in base and childish conversations that lower the high level of discourse Americans rightly respect from their representatives."
Speaking for the CPUSA, Della Piana said, West was employing the "age-old tactic" of tapping into anti-communism in order to smear congressional Democrats and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, specifically.
"It harkens back to Joe McCarthy and the Red Scare," he said.
"But those tactics are less and less effective. Millions of Americans are fed up anyway with the so-called free market, " Della Piana said, "because it benefits the 1 % at the expense of the 99%. Socialism and communism are not so scary today to working people faced with foreclosures, layoffs and poverty. The Rasmussen polls in recent years show a significant number of people prefer socialism to capitalism."
What about West's charge that there are "card carrying" communists in Congress?
"There are obviously no 'card carrying' communists in Congress and I suspect Allen West knows this," said Della Piana.
"He was speaking to his base and echoing a message from the far-right blogosphere. That message is that anyone who is not a conservative is on a slippery slope that ends up in communism.
"He was implying Congressional Democrats have a hidden agenda. He fed the very dangerous trend in the Republican Party, which replaces fact with a story that anything but extreme conservatism is unethical and unpatriotic."
Della Piana told Politico, "We are supposed to live in a political democracy. I didn't know that being a Communist in Congress was off-limits or out of bounds. There aren't any now, and if there were in the future does that mean that the voters don't have a say? Can't choose a Communist to be in Congress?"
Photo: Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., listens as Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah speaks, and gestures, during a tea party town hall meeting at the National Press Club in Washington, Feb. 8, 2011. Cliff Owen/AP