In the mid-1990s, Trey Radel was a football-loving west-side teenager, an Elder High grad sizing up the world. In 2012 he was a Florida Congressman, a Tea Party star who was Bigly Down With Boehner. One year later he was out of a job, brought low by a cocaine bust that forced him out of Congress. Radel has recently written Democrazy: A True Story of Weird Politics, Money, Madness, and Finger Food. It is part political autopsy—his and America’s—and part hip-hop–quoting ramble from Cincinnati to D.C. and beyond. His conversation is a word-spray that is equal parts radio host banter, big ideas, and preposterous salesmanship. He has, um, a lot to say.
Do you still have family here? Yes, my father lives in Cincinnati, and I’ve got relatives in Northern Kentucky. But a lot of the family has made its way to Florida.
Did you ever entertain thoughts of entering the family business, Radel Funeral Home and Crematory? Yeah, I did. But by the time I was 18, I had moved to Chicago. I went to Loyola and then worked in radio news and took off from there.
There’s a well-traveled 2013 Cincinnati Enquirer photo, a group shot of all the congresspeople from Cincinnati, all wearing their high school ties. When you look at that picture today, what do you feel? In looking back at any pictures of me in Congress, it’s with mixed emotions. There’s undoubtedly still a degree of sadness, and when I look at that picture in particular I realize not only did I let myself and my family down, but I’m an Elder High kid who let Cincinnati down in some ways. Tons of sadness and regret.
Can you get Cincinnati chili in Florida?
I have a Skyline I can drive to in less than five minutes from where I live! We’ve got so many so-called snowbirds from the area down here. You could never get Cincinnati chili onto the menu at the Congressional cafeteria, though. The Texas delegation is just too big, and they think chili has beans and big chunks of meat.
The chapter in your book about your downfall—was that hard to write? Yeah. In particular it was really tough to write about the immediate aftermath. Because I was reliving it as I was writing it. It was cathartic, though, too. I wanted to show that, whether men and women in Congress are Democrat or Republican, far left or far right, they genuinely come to Washington to do the right thing. I try to do that by highlighting my relationship with Debbie Wasserman Schultz. We got along really well. I believe overwhelmingly that Washington is full of good people, but the issue is the system: How do we get lawmakers to get out of the boundaries that the system puts them in and escape the political rhetoric they feel the need to put out? One thing that means is telling politicians to stop listening to the loudest people, the noisiest voices—they are not always the majority.
We asked for some ideas about reshaping our political priorities [see “What Would Trey Do?”], and you start with a call to enact criminal justice reform. Why is that so important? Criminal justice reform is an issue that is stereotypically a liberal cause and should not be. I think if you’re a social or fiscal conservative it should be your issue. We spend $80 billion a year to lock up nonviolent drug offenders.* I don’t mean someone who smokes marijuana and then drives on the freeway, I’m talking about an individual who made a choice that does not hurt other people. There are better ways to spend tax dollars. Now, the social conservative argument is: Why have our government locking up mothers, fathers, good productive members of society, taking them away from their kids and turning our backs on them?
You say “We can’t be Team America anymore.” But shouldn’t we be doing what we can to promote democracy around the world? No, no, no! You know who had a great philosophy of what America is about? Ronald Reagan promoted the idea of democracy through his sheer rock star appeal. I can call it capitalism, too—to me, capitalism has lifted more people out of poverty than any system on the face of the earth, and also helped create peace on earth. Capitalism can lead to a more peaceful planet. Unfortunately, some factions of war-hungry Democrats and Republicans think we should be promoting democracy around the world through bombs and drones, which I think is asinine.
Are you comfortable with the president adopting the old slogan “America First”? It has some dark historical baggage. I have no problem with the words America First. I have no problem saying I’m a patriot. Donald Trump is within his right to say, “Hey, let’s just take a time out. To assess that the people coming from these countries are who they say they are and that our country is safe.” I think that’s reasonable. But look: Today in society you’re either for or against things—there’s no gray area. If you are for Black Lives Matter, man, you hate cops. If you are for law enforcement you must hate black people. If you are for refugees you must be a big-hearted Democrat. Nonsense! Everybody has lost their goddamn mind.
You also call for immigration reform, which has become the third rail of your party—you even utter the verboten word: amnesty. I’m on the record and supportive of a version of the Dream Act. I want to find a way to make sure we can take kids and young adults who are as American as pie and see how to make them productive citizens of society—just taking people who have been in this country since they were children and know nothing but NFL and baseball and may only speak English, and find for them a path to citizenship. These are your high school quarterbacks and valedictorians. I think Republicans have made a really crappy case in talking about a path to legality. I believe the main reasons to bring people out of the shadows is to find out who is in the country. Because that ties directly to national security.
In your book you knowledgeably quote a lot of rappers and alt rockers. If you could play one song for Donald Trump, what would it be? It’s already the theme of everything he’s done and that’s “Fight the Power,” by Public Enemy.
Oh, come on—you don’t really believe Public Enemy has anything in common with Trump, do you? Listen: I got a lot of shit for saying that in hip-hop you sometimes find a conservative message. I got that slap because I’m a white Republican. But I do believe whether it is Public Enemy or Rage Against the Machine, some of it has an inherently conservative message of rejecting a heavy-handed government, whether it is through policy or law enforcement. I tell you what: I know a lot of Republicans who listen to hip-hop but will never admit it. And Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine may want to get in the ring with me and take a swing, but dammit, I respect those guys. I can respect that they stand up for what they believe and that they use their artistry to get it across. I’ll buy any one of their albums even though I disagree with them.
At one point in your book, you quote a lyric by Daniel Johnston, not the most well-known singer-songwriter. I have to ask, was that slipped in by your ghostwriter? I can’t believe a former Congressman knows who Daniel Johnston is. I want to clarify: I didn’t have a ghostwriter. I wrote 100 percent of this book. I was first introduced to [Johnston’s] music from the movie Kids; I loved the two songs by him on the soundtrack. The guy has an amazing life story. He is bipolar. And his words are chilling sometimes.
You asked me about how hard it was to write about my downfall—nothing I’ve felt is like his dark moments. And when you hear Daniel Johnston, a man with crazy issues but who makes this beautiful music…my God, that music helped me get through. Yes.
What Would Trey Do?
Trey Radel offered up some suggestions for how to “help heal America, culturally, socially, and politically.” Here are five of his big league ideas.
1. Enact Criminal Justice Reform
We need to end mandatory minimums and the War on Drugs. Our society should be focused on rehabilitation, not incarceration. This is about billions of wasted tax dollars to lock up nonviolent offenders, the terrible repercussions of post-prison time, and the over-criminalization that is tearing families apart. Republicans should be leading this charge, and doing it under the banner of both fiscal and social conservatism.
2. Rethink Foreign Policy We cannot be Team America, police of the world. I’m borrowing that phrase and movie title from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the filmmakers and creators of South Park. Damn though, in terms of foreign policy, they nailed so much in that movie—with freaking puppets that get drunk and make love. We need to direct our resources to our problems and issues here at home.
3. Immigration Reform
We must find a way to bring people out of the shadows. Yes, that means some form of amnesty. Donald Trump himself has stated that good families who have been here for decades should stay. They are an integral part of our society and economy.
However, the most powerful argument for, at minimum, allowing people to obtain permanent residency is based on one thing: national security. We need to know who is in our country and why. Overwhelmingly, we will find men, women, children, and entire families who simply want to live the American dream, but I think it’s naive to ignore the fact terrorists may be abusing our porous border or overstaying their visas.
4. Full Public Disclosure for Donations/Contributions to Political Causes
We could debate for hours about the influence of money in politics. As I highlight in Democrazy, I don’t think that lobbyists have as much influence over Congress as some would like to think. What I do fear though are so-called “outside groups” that solicit anonymous contributions and work to directly affect policy and campaigns. Whether it is with 501(c)4 groups or others, all monetary donations should be transparent. We need public disclosure on every dollar donated.
5. A Request to You, the Reader
This may sound crazy, but you should call your elected representative and tell them to stay in Washington. Don’t come home. Stay there and get stuff done. Start by inviting someone from the opposite party to your office or to hang out socially. Members of Congress are too focused on making empty appearances in the district, speaking directly to the base and giving empty speeches. Occasionally, some forget about what they’ve been elected to do: govern. Some have also forgotten that they serve more than a party; they serve America and all Americans.
*According to a 2014 report by The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution, the U.S. spent $80 billion on incarceration in 2010. Assuming that expenditure was evenly distributed among all inmates at both the state and federal levels, roughly $17 billon was spent on nonviolent drug offenders.