A fire-breathing liberal

In the process of making his way to Congress, Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) handed out potholders to prospective voters, blow-dried campaign fliers that had been soaked in urine and accidentally ran over a dog with his father’s station wagon.

These and other offbeat tales are highlights of Wexler’s new book, Fire-Breathing Liberal: How I Learned to Survive (and Thrive) in the Contact Sport of Congress, which officially hits bookshelves Tuesday.

Wexler’s promotional blitz for his first book begins this week, too, with a signing Wednesday at Trover Shop (221 Pennsylvania Ave. SE) at 12:30 p.m., followed by a July 9 presentation and book-signing at Borders (1801 K St. NW) at 6:30 p.m.

He also plans to appear on the myriad cable news and talk shows to spread the word, including Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,” where he had a memorable appearance in 2006.

The book provides a look into the making of a legislator who has always had an eye for the spotlight. He’s gained attention — good and bad — by sponsoring legislation ordering the chemical castration of child-rapists while in the Florida Senate and loudly defending former President Bill Clinton during his impeachment hearings once he reached Washington. The six-term incumbent is one of only five members supporting the impeachment of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

Wexler had a humbling start in politics.

The campaign manager for his run for fifth-grade class treasurer didn’t vote for him. As an adult, he botched his policy platform in his first campaign, wrongly thinking he would have the opportunity to improve the Palm Beach County, Fla., school system as county commissioner. (He learned from a reporter from the Boca Raton News that those responsibilities belong to the school board.) He lost.

In an interview with The Hill late last week, Wexler said he hopes to show in his book that the road to Congress is not glamorous. Once there, the federal lawmaking body can be mysterious and frustrating for a lawmaker, but for Wexler it also always has been exhilarating.

“My book is an attempt to bring the public behind the scenes in Congress and to give them a candid, honest picture of what goes on in Congress and what goes on in Washington,” he said.

To that end, Wexler, who co-wrote the book with David Fischer, opens his story by rehashing his vote to allow Bush to go to war in Iraq — a move he calls “the worst vote of my career.”

In 2005, Wexler earned some redemption when he joined just two other Democrats in voting for a resolution condemning the war, despite opposition from Democratic leaders, who feared the measure would make their party look soft on national defense.

“I rarely have difficulty deciding how to vote on an issue,” Wexler writes, detailing the internal back-and-forth he had before the vote. “But this was a unique situation.”

The lawmaker said he “tried to push the envelope in being frank and honest” in the book but acknowledged that such transparency comes with liabilities.

“There are times in the book that I’m very frank about my own mistakes and my own shortcomings, and that can be risky in politics, because certainly your opponents can take advantage of that kind of candor,” he said. (Wexler has a potentially serious primary challenger in Ben Graber, who has raised $30,000 beyond the $230,000 of his own money he contributed to his campaign.)

The book, however, isn’t Wexler’s first foray into mass media. In 2004, he invited TV cameras to follow his office for a Sundance Channel reality TV series called “The Hill.”

Wexler said the television series helped push him to write his book so that he could continue his mission to expose “the mystery surrounding the Congress.”

Portions of the book are so humanizing they will surely endear the politician to even the most grizzled of readers.

Wexler reveals one of the keys to his first state Senate campaign: “Wexler for State Senate” potholders he handed out to voters. He recounts the day of campaigning for county commissioner when he and his father hit a dog in his father’s station wagon while driving to a campaign event. He writes of a campaign aide who started laughing so hard she had a bladder accident that occurred a little too close to a box of Election Day handouts, forcing the aspiring county commissioner to use a hair dryer to salvage the leaflets.

The book-writing process was exhausting, Wexler said, and he did much of it while on a plane or between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m., when the rest of his family was asleep. Looking back on that experience, and on the political adventures on which he writes, Wexler said he’s pleased with the outcome.

“My view is, you only live once,” he said. “Life is not a dress rehearsal, so put your heart and your passion and your emotion into what you believe, and go for it.”