FORT MYERS, Fla. – From the outset, U.S. Rep. Trey Radel – a brash and digitally savvy darling of the political right – was determined to make a name for himself. And so he has.
Just 10 months after being sworn in as a member of Congress, the rookie Republican – who supported drug testing for food stamp recipients and championed cuts in sheep-farm subsidies, of all things – pleaded guilty to cocaine possession, took a leave of absence from politics and checked into a Naples rehabilitation center. It was his purchase of 3.5 grams of cocaine from an undercover officer in Washington’s Dupont Circle neighborhood last month that caused it all to unravel.
In a flash, an ambitious lawmaker known to few outside southwest Florida became America’s “Cocaine Congressman,” the first sitting member of Congress to be charged with a drug offense in more than three decades.
“I hope, like family, southwest Florida can forgive me for this. I’ve let them down,” Radel, 37, said in an emotional late-night press conference Wednesday that marked an embarrassing retreat from public view. “But I do believe in faith, forgiveness and redemption.”
The unseemly distinction of a drug arrest has derailed a promising political career and divided this quiet stretch of golf courses and retirement communities with the force of a hurricane. The largest daily newspapers and a growing number of Republican leaders in the district, which includes the Gulf Coast communities of Fort Myers and Naples, are demanding his resignation. Potential challengers are openly weighing primary bids. And late-night talk show hosts are once again focused on Florida.
“I can’t wait for the School House Rock on how a bill becomes a straw,” cracked Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show.”
Whether Radel remains a politician or a punch line is an open question. His office hasn’t answered questions from The Associated Press since his Wednesday news conference.
On Thursday in downtown Fort Myers, his name elicited rolling eyes and hearty chuckles. Asked about Radel, several voters responded with one word: “Cocaine.”
“If he were a coke-head kid working at McDonald’s, he’d be out of a job,” said Richard Bruehl, a retired general contractor.
Others were more supportive.
“We thought he was a really great guy to represent us,” said Carol Hess, a retired business owner. “We just hope he gets the rehab he needs and comes back and continues for us.”
The lawmaker comes from a family that ran a funeral parlor on Cincinnati’s heavily Catholic and conservative west side, where he helped run ceremonies and drove the hearse. This week he spoke about his mother’s struggles with alcoholism and later her sudden death at his wedding; she choked on a piece of food.
After high school, he seemed to crave life in the public eye. He moved to Chicago to attend Loyola University, where he studied broadcast journalism and minored in Italian. He worked his way through college by bartending and briefly took classes at The Second City, the improvisational comedy outfit that trained John Belushi and Steve Carell.
He studied abroad and backpacked through Europe. After graduation, he traversed southern Mexico and parts of Central America, and became fluent in Spanish. Later, he would tell the Washington newspaper Roll Call that his favorite vacation spot outside Florida was Cartagena, Colombia, an expensive coastal city in a country known for cocaine trafficking.
“I had a lust for life, to see the world, learn the different cultures,” he told The News-Press of Fort Myers last year.
When he returned to the U.S., he took a series of jobs in television news before settling in southwest Florida, where he spent years as a reporter and later anchor for CBS affiliate WINK. He left the station to start a media-relations firm and began hosting an early-morning conservative talk-radio show.
Radel says he has struggled with drug and alcohol abuse “off and on for years.” Mike Adams, Radel’s first producer on the “Daybreak” morning show, said the two would often talk about cocaine and Radel’s backpacking trips through Colombia.
“I would mention, ‘How was the stuff?’” said Adams, who acknowledged his own struggles with addiction. “And he would say, ‘Oh my God, it was phenomenal. Nothing like you get here.’”
By then, Radel was fully ensconced in the tea party movement, emceeing rallies and befriending Republican politicians, including the district’s congressman, Connie Mack IV. When Mack called him to say he would be leaving the House and running for U.S. Senate, Radel launched his first political campaign.
He was embroiled in a bruising, six-way GOP primary, openly targeting opponents on the Internet and facing criticism for his firm’s ownership of explicitly named websites. But he was backed by the local tea party movement and Republican luminaries, including Mack and Sen. Marco Rubio, and clinched the GOP nomination. He cruised to victory in November.
Rubio’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Mack issued a statement Wednesday: “I certainly hope Trey gets the help he needs. Time and his own actions will determine whether the people are willing to give him a second chance.”
In the House, Radel aligned himself with the tea party caucus, supporting conservative measures, including one to allow states to drug-test recipients of food stamps.
One signature piece of legislation was an amendment to slash federal funds for the National Sheep Industry Improvement Center, which gives grants to sheep researchers, shearers in training and sheep-rancher associations. The amendment won enthusiastic support, but the legislation to which it was attached died.
His embrace of social media made him a standout in Congress. His Twitter feed is filled with short video clips, jokes and running commentary on everything from “Obamacare” to SkyMall, the inflight shopping catalog. A self-described “Hip Hop Conservative,” he reviewed a Jay-Z album via Twitter and wrote a column for Buzzfeed about the power of rap. (He dubbed Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” a conservative anthem “because I believe when government expands it becomes a political tool meant to oppress.”)
“This is where Republicans need to step up to the plate,” he told the Naples Daily News. “We need to get with the times, and be able to share a message cutting across generational, ethnic and cultural lines.”
Radel was backed by district, county and state GOP officials. He built a reputation as an accessible congressman, devoted to town halls and public events.
Then, on Oct. 29, Radel attempted to buy $250 worth of cocaine from an undercover police officer in a Washington, D.C., neighborhood.
According to court documents, federal agents confronted the congressman and he invited them to his apartment, where he turned over a vial of the drug. A DEA official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release details of the case in his own name said Radel was identified to authorities as a cocaine buyer by his suspected dealer. Court documents said the lawmaker had purchased the drug on several previous occasions.
For the next three weeks, Radel didn’t skip a beat. He held a re-election fundraiser at a Naples country club, continued to cast votes and bashed “Obamacare” on Twitter. He did not tell House leaders about the bust until Tuesday, when reporters broke the news about the case.
On Wednesday, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor drug charge and was sentenced to a year’s probation.
Back home, Republicans clogged phone lines of the morning show Radel used to host. Many called for his resignation, including Mike Scott, the popular Lee County sheriff. Others argued for a second chance. All were disappointed.
“We thought we had an up-and-coming star in the party,” said Terry Miller, chairman of the Lee County GOP.
Some of Radel’s former challengers are considering primary bids, including Chauncey Goss, son of former CIA director and Rep. Porter Goss, and Paige Kreegel, a doctor and former four-term state representative.
“This type of event was not unexpected, but I don’t think anybody predicted he’d burn himself up in 10 months,” Kreegel said. “It’s embarrassing and somewhat insulting for a self-professed alcoholic and drug addict to pretend that he can effectively represent southwest Florida in the U.S. Congress.”
For his part, Radel, standing before a bank of TV cameras in a cramped room in his district office Wednesday, apologized and said in a shaky voice that it was only a matter of time before his problems caught up with him.
“I knew that this day would come,” he said.
Bob Rathgeber, Associated Press researcher Jennifer Farrar, and Associated Press writers Eric Tucker and Jessica Gresko contributed to this report.
Follow Michael J. Mishak on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mjmishak