Do you remember Trey Radel? Sure you do. It’s just that the last time you heard his name he being talked about was being arrested for buying cocaine from an undercover FBI agent. Did I mention he was a sitting U.S. Congressman?
The mainstream media took glee in reporting that Rep. Trey Radel was a tea party Republican that had once voted to drug-test welfare recipients. After resigning in disgrace, the safe bet was that he would fade into obscurity never to be heard of again. Except that’s not how the story ends.
Trey Radel is back and out with his autobiographical account titled Democrazy, A True Story of Weird Politics, Money, Madness & Finger Food – the latter being a reference to the silly ban that was instituted shortly after Democrats took back the U.S. House of Representatives that was meant to reduce corruption in the people’s House by limiting food portions at events sponsored by lobbyists. Spoiler alert: it has not – which is why it’s a running joke on Capitol Hill.
The book works because it is unapologetically unfiltered, honest and revealing. In the scores of political autobiographies that typically gloss over controversy and embarrassing episodes, Democrazy stands out. As soon you open the book, you are transported back into Trey Radel’s darkest hours as he is fighting his way into the local D.C. courtroom about to face charges for buying cocaine. The judge goes easy on him. Sure, it may have helped that he had a team of high-powered attorneys on his side, but recall he was busted for buying and not dealing cocaine.
The real drama is the shame, guilt and complete loss of purpose after falling from the pretty perch that is being a sitting U.S. Congressman. “As sick and narcissistic as it sounds, I was thinking about my image – literally, my image on video – as we walked into the packed courtroom,” writes Radel in the opening pages of Democrazy.
This honesty is refreshing and we could use more of it from our public elected officials that often pretend to not care about their image and reputation when talking to the public after being caught for doing something stupid.
At one point Radel describes how he thought he might be able to hide the arrest from his wife, staff and even the general public because he was booked by his birth name (Henry). Silly, yes, but when you are trying to protect your cushy job, desperation kicks in.
Sure, not all of it is great. There’s the constant fundraising that occupies more time than politicians let on. Family life takes a back seat. Lobbyists and special interest groups call many of the shots. And even though some people in the district may know who you are, you’re a nobody in D.C. as a freshman Member of Congress.
And for all the promises made on the campaign trail about enacting legislation, it’s hard to actually make an impact. Radel spends a chapter talking about his biggest legislative accomplishment: fighting to strip a $50 million appropriation request in the farm bill for sheep shearing.
But the job does come with perks. A decent salary, a large stipend to travel back and forth to your district every week and a small army of staff and personal assistants ready to respond to your every request. Members of Congress are lying to you if they tell you that this means nothing to them. It does. And when it’s gone, it’s tough to readjust to normalcy.
What’s particularly sad about Trey Radel’s fall from grace is that he really was a different breed of Republican. Yes he was relatively young when he was elected to serve in 2011 in a special election to replace Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fl.) in the St. Petersburg district, but it was also his approach to politics. Having learned Spanish while living in Mexico, Radel was accepting invitations from Univision and Telemundo to talk politics and take the Republican Party’s message to Hispanics living in U.S.
He was a savvy social media user engaging with millenials about hip hop and pop culture while talking up the merits of limited government and the free enterprise system. We could use more of this in the Republican Party. Sure, this last election was kind to Republicans. But demographic trend lines suggest that Republicans and conservatives will have their work cut out in the future. Republicans will need people like Trey Radel that want to spend less time preaching to the choir and more time speaking to the skeptics.
In the end, Radel succumbed to the self-righteousness and arrogance that claim public elected officials every year. For most, these demons are manifested in corruption, embezzlement and sexual exploits. For Radel it was cocaine. That’s the only real difference.
Don’t expect a big reveal of how to unite a fractured country or fix our dysfunctional government in Democrazy. But that’s not the point of the book. Radel’s story is entertaining, funny, sad and even redemptive.
“Democracy is ugly, it is tough, and sometimes it’s a little crazy…. Congress is a lot like you and me. It is a reflection of our society, all the good, bad, and questionable. When we look at Washington, we’re looking in a mirror,” writes Radel – and he is absolutely right.
Original CBC review by Israel Ortega.
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