2013-01-30 / Top News

CATCHING UP WITH CONGRESSMAN TREY RADEL

BY EVAN WILLIAMS

IT 36-year-old Fort Myers resident Trey Radel: His first full year of fatherhood, for one, and his first bid for public office, which was also successful. In a swift ascent into political life on a national scale, the former TV news anchor and conservative talk show host-cum-entrepreneur found himself in Washington, D.C., being sworn in as U.S. House Representative for District 19, which includes coastal Collier and Lee counties.

Only a few weeks later, the newly minted Republican Representative is back home in Fort Myers for his selfstyled Southwest Florida Listening Tour — and encouraging Democrats and “people from all walks” to come ask him questions at town hall style meetings. He’ll be back to do this again in February, he said, and at other times during his term will meet with the public on video conference calls. (Go to www.radel.house.gov for more information).


Congressman Trey Radel approaches Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. 
COURTESY PHOTO Congressman Trey Radel approaches Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. COURTESY PHOTO “Just this morning I went to an event with the Harry Chapin Food Bank and really just ladled soup for a good part of this morning,” Mr. Radel said last Saturday afternoon during an interview at Whole Foods in Naples. “I’ve worked with that charity for years, in both Lee and Collier County. So it was good, for the first time as a representative, to go help out the cause.”

The café at Whole Foods was clamoring, buzzing with families and shoppers in weekend mode, when Mr. Radel sat down to answer some questions. He was waiting there by himself and surprisingly, no one seemed to recognize his familiar face or voice, or else they were too polite to be intrusive. At one point, someone came over to borrow a chair from the table and Mr. Radel jumped up and carried it over before returning to field a question on immigration.

In a 50-minute conversation, he shared his views on Washington, President Obama’s executive orders on gun control, his Catholic faith, giving power back to the states, and his hatred of the words “constituent” and “politician.” Numerous times he emphasized his willingness to work across party lines, and often returned to his frustration with mammoth, convoluted pieces of legislation in Washington in general (the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in particular), which he says create uncertainty that’s hurting local businesses.

Jim Shaw, a Naples-based Realtor who supported Mr. Radel during his campaign after seeing that he presented himself well as a local news anchor, tends to agree with him that more certainty would get the cash flowing through banks and back into businesses here.

“I was hoping to get back to a balanced budget and I’m hoping that’s what he’ll do in his term in Congress,” said Mr. Shaw. “My feeling is if we can get back to that type of situation, small business and large business would have more feeling of safety, surety of what’s going to happen next year, versus all the uncertainty that’s been going on for so long with a Congress that’s done nothing and we run up to the fiscal cliff. We just can’t do any serious planning in the near term and the long term. And that’s really how business operates versus government. When small and large businesses can get back to that that means they can hire. Once people feel like they’re set in their career for some extended period of time I think they’ll be willing to buy real estate again.”

Private life

In Cincinnati, Ohio, where he grew up, Mr. Radel worked at the funeral home that his family founded in the late 1800s and still owns. At 18, he left Ohio to attend Loyola University, a Catholic school in Chicago.

Highlights of his college years include an internship at CNN and backpacking trips in the Middle East and northern Africa. He returned to Chicago to graduate in 1999 with a bachelor’s in communications and a minor in Italian. (He is also fluent in Spanish).

Pursuing his career as a reporter, he worked at a CBS affiliate in Houston before being hired as a reporter by WINK-TV in Fort Myers. Leaving that job, he purchased a small newspaper, the Naples Journal, before expanding and selling it to E.W. Scripps Co., which owns Naples Daily News and other papers.

From 2007 to 2009, he was an anchorman for evening broadcasts at WINK. Mr. Radel ended up marrying one of his competitors from FOX news during that time, former anchorwoman Amy Wegmann Radel. (They met when Ms. Wegman worked at WINK as a production assistant.) They have a 1-year-old son, Jude.

Mr. Radel left the anchor position to found a public relations firm.

When a conservative radio talk show host opening at WINK radio opened up, he jumped at the chance to be a political voice; a few years later, he was posing for a photograph with the freshman class of the 113th Congress on the steps of the capitol building.

Jim McLaughlin, a television anchor and reporter who has been in the news business in Southwest Florida for 35 years, said he enjoyed working with Mr. Radel at WINK. At the same time, he delineated the roles that reporters and politicians play, even as respected former colleagues.

“Everybody knows what the rules of the game are,” Mr. McLaughlin said. “We know we have to ask the difficult questions and the politicians know we have to ask the difficult questions. He knows he has his line and his approach to things and we’re going to cover it, I’m going to cover it, the media in general is, as best we can.”

He added, “I think he took a big gamble. I admire anybody who runs for public office, especially an office that high that carries that much responsibility. He’s in a new world now and it’s a difficult one and he’ll have to prove himself.”

FW: This first time being elected to Congress, at 36, I know you had mentioned on an interview with WINK-TV right after you were elected that it felt “surreal.” You go to Congress around a really high-powered group of people, what’s it been like this first three weeks for you there?

Radel: It’s been intense. There are huge challenges ahead of us. But I love my job. And that’s important: I enjoy doing what needs to be done to represent and serve this area as best I can. And, I mean, I’ve always been a believer that if you don’t like your job, if you’re frustrated with it and it gets you down — don’t do it. I love it. I love this. I love what I’m doing. And I hope to — I don’t hope to, I will — carry on the passion, love of job, and love of country for the next two years.

FW: How are you adjusting to the culture in Washington? Is it overwhelming or do you feel star struck?

Radel: Not at all, no, no. I think unfortunately sometimes freshmen get to Congress and they’re so in awe that they have their name on a plaque or they’re on television. I don’t care about that. I don’t want any of that. If I still wanted that, I would still have my own television and radio show. I’m in Washington to find solutions and get something done. And that’s what’s most important. And, you know, it’s been great to — I’ve met with everyone from (Florida House Democrat) Debbie Wasserman Shultz to…

FW: (Speaker of the U.S. House, Republican) John Boehner (who swore him in).

Radel: Speaker Boehner. And I just had Secretary (of State Hillary) Clinton testify in front of my committee (on Foreign Affairs).

FW: What did you think about her testimony (about who was accountable for the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi that left four Americans dead)? And what will be your focus on the Foreign Affairs Committee?

Radel: I think that Secretary Clinton has served our country well and done as good of a job as she could have given the circumstances in the world and staff underneath her that failed. And unfortunately failed miserably. Moving forward, what we need to make sure of is that the state department takes responsibility by implementing ways to make sure that we do not lose American lives again. But there also needs to be accountability in the way that they spend their money and hold staff accountable.

There were people identified in that report that didn’t do their job. And they’re only on paid leave. In the real world, you’re held accountable for your actions and the actions in this case ended up with four Americans dead.

FW: My editor told me that when you used to have your radio show you used to go in sometimes in flip flops, unshaven… What’s it like now, that contrast between being able to be a really relaxed person, and while popular and well known, not on a national level: Is that a hard change?

Radel: OK, so whether I own my own business or worked as a journalist, I always would shave and wear a suit. But, uh, when I have some family time, I’m a shorts and flip flops kind of guy. But you know, I have not been overwhelmed by this at all.

FW: By the transition?

Radel: Yeah, by the transition or the fact that my life is to some degree on a national stage if you will. I don’t think about that; I’m not worried about that; I don’t care about that. What I care about is doing what I can to represent and serve our neighbors here and do a great job in Washington.

FW: The housing market in Southwest Florida seems to be slowly coming back.

Radel: We hope.

FW: And jobs are improving a little bit.

Radel: For the past few years we were kind of dragging at the bottom. What I hope is we see an upward trend.

FW: Is there anything that you plan to do in Washington that will help that upward trend?

Radel: Let me start that answer with — as much as Republicans want to repeal Obamacare and Dodd-Frank, it is not going to happen very soon. That’s an unfortunate reality. Now, to answer your question. When it comes to either of those two pieces of legislation, the best thing that we can do as Democrats and Republicans is make sure that there is certainty and stability when it comes to the economy. So when it comes to people wanting to buy homes or sell their home, a Dodd-Frank is a disaster for banks who are trying to lend money — most of all because the legislation still today lacks that certainty that banks in particular need to lend money to customers. So that’s an important thing that I hope to accomplish that I think Democrats and Republicans can work on in the big picture. We have the cards that we’ve been dealt, and it’s a bad hand for everybody. But what we need to do is come together and again give certainty and stability to our business owners. And most of all, work hard for our tax-paying Americans.

FW: You have mentioned before that improving or simplifying the tax code is a priority. What’s the first step?

Radel: First of all, I’ve already signed on to legislation to implement what’s called the Fair Tax. I will do what I can to support and potentially one day implement that. But I understand that might not be the easiest thing to do right now. What I would like to see is a closing up of loopholes, the caps on deductions matched with cuts in spending. It’s a winwin. It helps simplify the tax code and brings in revenue; and with a stable revenue and responsible cuts in spending, I think it will add to the certainty that we need in our economy.

FW: In the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy there have been a lot of different discussions about mental health and guns, a lot of different areas. Is there one area that you would focus on that’s most crucial to stopping something like that from happening again? And added to that, do you think President Obama’s executive orders (bypassing Congress on some gun control measures) and some of the gun legislation he’s proposing now —

Radel: Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Democrat) recently proposed (gun legislation). So here’s where we’re at. We’ll look at Feinstein’s proposal and we’ll also talk about President Obama’s executive orders. All of it is important.

Sen. Feinstein’s proposal is not based in reality. She wants to ban quote unquote “assault” rifles. I use the word quote because any kind of a gun or a knife or a fist is an assault weapon. The reality is that objects, knives and handguns far outnumber assault rifles when it comes to homicides in this country. So what does she want to ban when we look at those numbers based in fact? And what really bothers me as a journalist is that you will hear a question from the senator that says, “well why do you need that type of gun?”

Well, let’s take a look at the First Amendment. Why do we need journalists blogging about how much they dislike George W. Bush or President Barack Obama? Why do we need investigative reports that expose fraud or lack of accountably in government? What I’m getting at is that you cannot pick and choose what you get to enforce in the First Amendment or the Second Amendment based on your emotion or what you like or dislike. Does that make sense?

FW: Yeah.

Radel: And that really upsets me. I’m going to fire off the hip here for a second because I really am passionate about this. Through the past decades we’ve seen calls going back to the 1950s to ban Elvis Presley because the people didn’t like the way that he shook his hips. Present day: We hear calls to ban Spanish language television or rap music. You might not always like what you hear but I believe in freedom of speech and I believe also in having the ability to protect your family in any way that you want. So again to me it’s crystal clear: this is the First and Second Amendment that I want to illustrate to both side of the aisle we need to be staunch supporters of. So that was the Feinstein issue.

Now President Obama, while I have been very frustrated with the types of executive orders coming from both President Bush and President Obama...

FW: You just don’t like executive orders.

Radel: No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Let’s be clear here. Executive orders can and do serve a purpose. In some ways they help make government more accountable and more efficient. And really that’s what they’re supposed to do. They’re just supposed to make sure departments are maximizing your tax dollars and doing their job. But I believe that in the past some of them have overstepped their boundaries.

In the most recent orders from President Obama there are questions about whether or not he is creating a de facto gun registry. There are questions as to how our privacy will be protected when it comes to what is called HIPPA law (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) … it’s a way to better protect your privacy. And so what I want to see and what I’ve wanted to see under both President Bush and President Obama is more discussion and debate about what we’re doing and why — whether it comes to examples such as the use of drones abroad to executive orders on guns here in the United States.

You had asked about the mental health issue. So actually I think as much as I dislike President Obama’s use of executive orders, I think he’s got some great ideas that I am willing to work with him on. And that is to do as much as we can to make sure that guns do not get into the hands of the mentally ill. But this is why we need debate and discussion on it because both Democrats and Republicans are concerned about: how will we share information about our own health with the federal government, if at all? These are valid concerns that again, with President Obama I see where he’s going, but I just wish he would allow Congress to do our job.

FW: In the first few weeks, who have you gotten to know on both sides of the aisle, and who do you want to get to know?

Radel: I have reached across the aisle to meet with everyone from Debbie Wasserman Shultz to Patrick Murphy, who is a fellow freshman in my class and a Democrat from the east coast. And I reached across the aisle to speak with Democrats to right off the bat show that I’m not there to yell at anyone, call people names. I’m there to find solutions and get something done… I’m really passionate about this. Accomplishing something starts with personal relationships. When I owned my business, the best way to grow your business is to have a good personal and working relationship with someone, whether it’s an employee or a paying customer. And it’s that kind of open, friendly, and even businesslike attitude that I want to take to Washington.

FW: Did you find when you got to Washington that the atmosphere between Republicans and Democrats is as contentious and toxic as the public seems to perceive it?

Radel: No. I think the media exacerbates it and makes it look far worse than it is. And I hope that that initial impression is what will stick with me (he laughs) for the next several months, I hope. But I’m positive — you know, this freshman class has a huge number of people who are under 40 years old. And to me, I think it’s great that Congress is getting some new blood and new ideas from people who are not entrenched in the system.

FW: On immigration, would you say you’d align yourself with Florida’s Republican Sen. Marco Rubio in terms of supporting...

Radel: Yes.

FW: …A route, a path to citizenship for all (11 million or more) illegal immigrants.

Radel: Sen. Rubio is a friend and a mentor… I like most parts of what he said so far. I want to see it on paper though. I want to see in depth how he plans to accomplish his end goal. One area that I am concerned about is the word “citizenship.” Because right now we have so many immigrants from around the world who are here to offer their intellectual capital and even capital in the sense of money, to invest in our country, create jobs — and they’ve been waiting in line a long time, a long bureaucratic process. And so I’m very hesitant about that.

FW: This seems like one of the areas where you’d be willing to work with President Obama. It seems there’s a lot of common ground there.

Radel: Yeah, let’s start though with the Democrats in the Senate, all right? Because you know, look, President Obama, I don’t know if I’ll even ever get a chance to shake his hand. I have no idea. But in areas that we can work together I think there are plenty of areas.

Right now we have almost 70 percent of our budget that is never even discussed among lawmakers. It is on autopilot. And that includes Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The Democrats in my freshman class have been very receptive and open to saying we need to make changes in the way we spend money. And there are areas that we can work together to make government more responsible to the people.

And to tell you the truth even in Obamacare, when it comes to the repeal of Obamacare — again, it’s not a reality right now — but Democrats are doing it for us. Democrats have already appealed various parts of Obamacare... One thing you should know: one of the largest private employers in all of Southwest Florida is literally blocks from here, they’re called Arthrex. They make medical devices. There are Democrats right now in the Senate working to repeal the part of Obamacare that taxes medical devices. I’ve co-signed to that legislation.

FW: One of the first headlines after you were sworn in was that you had agreed with another Republican House member that because of President Obama’s executive orders (regarding gun control), that his impeachment should be “on the table.”

Radel: Let me be very clear here. The 30-second sound clip that was used came from a 45-minute interview and misrepresented what I was saying in a highly negative way and I’m still mad about it. I do not want to and will not call for the impeachment of President Obama. Here’s what I was saying: We need to force discussion and debate among the people we elected to do just that. And those are the men and women of the House and the Senate. And whether President Bush overstepped his boundaries with executive orders or Obama did, we need to make sure we have all options on the table to have healthy debate and discussion. That’s why we were elected.

FW: Recently, Republicans agreed to move the debt ceiling deadline back a few months instead of insisting on spending cuts. Are Republicans taking a softer strategy on fiscal policy?

Radel: No, it’s quite the opposite. I am excited and proud because for the first time Republican leadership has thought through what we want to do and how we want to do it. And so now, we’re on offense. And what Republicans are going to demand from Senate Democrats is to do something that they have not done in four years, which is pass a budget. If they don’t pass a budget, they don’t get paid. If they don’t pass a budget, the Democrats will also see cuts to some of their sacred cows as well.

FW: This is sort of changing the topic.

Radel: Sure, anything, man.

FW: I heard you were an improv actor in Chicago (at Second City, a famous comedy club). I saw that on Wikipedia. (Congressman Radel objects to Wikipedia’s accuracy and the label “improv actor”).

Radel: When I was in Chicago, I worked several jobs, went to school, and had a lot of fun. My jobs included everything from bartending to serving gyros at a grease pit. And outside of my studies in school I took classes at what’s called Second City in Chicago, which I don’t know if you ever heard of. It’s where “Saturday Night Live” drafts out of. Chris Farley came from there. So I took classes there and I only performed on the second stage. But that was it. Lorne Michaels never called me (he laughs).

FW: Is it odd being on the other side, like having someone from WINK-TV, where you used to work, interview you? Your experience as a reporter, as a journalist, is it an advantage, a disadvantage, or it just is what it is?

Radel: It is what it is. It doesn’t change anything. But yeah, I’ve been very blessed in terms of jobs and everything. I was a reporter. I left to roll the dice and built up that newspaper and sold that; went back to TV news, anchored two newscasts for three years; and then most recently I left to start up a public relations company and it just so happened that the radio show opened up. So for the past few years, I ran my company during the day and did the radio show in the morning.

FW: Did you want to be a politician when you were a kid or has your idea of what a politician is changed as you got older and actually did become a politician?

Radel: I hate the word “politician.”

FW: Yeah, it does have a negative connotation.

Radel: A negative connotation, right? (he laughs). That’s for the record: I hate the word politician. I just want to represent and serve people who are just like me. And at the end of the day, I truly believe that both Democrats and Republicans want the same things for our society: opportunity, freedom and an accountable government. And I’ll do everything I can to fight for that. ¦

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