Remember Trey Radel? The Florida congressman had never held office when he swept his state’s southwest district in 2012 and joined the so-called young guns of the House—Republicans like Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor, and Kevin McCarthy. But DC’s bustle proved too much for the 37-year-old former TV journalist—he was still in his first term when he was busted for buying cocaine from an undercover officer outside Circa in Dupont Circle. He resigned shortly thereafter. It was all so very Florida.
But very Washington, too. Thus three years later, Radel is back with Democrazy: A True Story of Weird Politics, Money, Madness, & Finger Food, in which he details boozy dinners with McCarthy, splendorous fundraisers backslapping with John Boehner, and his wife’s introduction to the Congressional Club—the organization for House and Senate spouses supplied a leaflet on avoiding suicide. It was all glitzy and fun until it wasn’t. On his flight out of Washington following his arrest, Radel writes, “I prayed the plane would crash. . . . I’d die a martyr because as long as I’m alive I’m the jackass tea party Republican who bought blow and got busted.” Since then, Radel has undergone rehab and reestablished himself as a conservative radio host in Fort Myers. We chatted with him about his post-scandal life.
Why was it important for you to write this book?
Revisiting that night was tough. You go through the regrets again, the constant questioning. But it was also cathartic. One thing that really sucked was the constant label of, you know, look at this Republican who is a typical white guy who just doesn’t care about others—when the truth is I’m multilingual, have lived all over the place, and was able to work with liberal Democrats.
One thing you communicate is how easy it is, as a freshman congressman, to get swept up in the charms of, say, nights at the Capital Grille and the Capitol Hill Club and this belief that you’re invincible.
There are undoubtedly areas of seduction in Washington. For me, meeting John Boehner was like a basketball fan meeting Michael Jordan. I had for years been behind a radio microphone in my little market of Fort Myers reporting on Boehner, and next thing I know I’m having drinks with the guy and talking policy.
So in terms of getting swept up in things, yeah. There’s no doubt I made some pretty piss-poor choices. But the constant theme throughout the book is that if I started to get swept up in anything, it was myself—that’s one of the most dangerous seductions of Washington, DC.
Even with what you refer to as “the blow-up,” do you ever miss DC?
I do, I do. On a very serious note, I miss a lot of what I did. I miss, as naive as it sounds, simply being in a meeting with a constituent who wanted to talk about, say, childhood cancer. I took those issues and conversations very seriously. I miss attempting to do the little I could to help our country. Because I really, really loved what I did. I loved it.
On a more fun note, I do miss the restaurants. Regardless of some of the policy things I disagree on with José Andrés, I do love his restaurants. And just the vibrant culture of the place—DC really is the nerdiest sexy city in the world.
I will say I’m happy to leave behind the schedule. It was grueling, nothing short of insane. The travel, the demand for your time. One of my biggest faults was not being able to strike any sort of a balance. And something I hope I never, ever have to do again is ask people for money.
What’s the biggest misconception about the way Washington works?
Where do I start? That every Republican member is carrying their NRA-donated concealed weapon, that every Democrat wants to destroy America. Those are jokes, but on a serious note, one of the misconceptions is the influence of lobbyists. The whole concept that somehow a lobbyist buying you an overpriced steak at the Palm is going to change a vote is just silly.
Do you have plans to get involved in politics again?
I stay in touch with some Republicans and Democrats I served with, but I’m never running for office again. I’ve kicked around the idea of doing some political consulting, but I don’t know what else I’d do in politics other than kind of observe and just have fun with it. In my book, I poke a lot of fun at myself and the whole process. I hope people will walk away from it and say, “Hey, I was entertained, I laughed my ass off, and it was really cool to learn how the sausage gets made in Washington.”
What advice do you have for others going through A fall from grace?
Come to terms with what you did. You have to move on. You have to. If you live in the past, it’ll kill you.
This article appears in the April 2017 issue of Washingtonian.