Former Rep. Trey Radel says  ‘cliques’ have Congress at standstill
© Cherilyn Nocera

Congress is just like high school, filled with feuding social groups butting heads, according to one former House Republican.

“Washington kind of is very cliquish these days,” former Rep. Trey Radel (Fla.) says. “We’re witnessing right now cliques and sub-cliques — like there are jocks, or goths, or emos in the Republican Party. Or same in the Democratic Party, how everyone’s fighting against each other.”

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“Because of that, I think you get the standstill that Congress is in right now, where Republicans can’t pass a bill,” Radel says, referring to the ObamaCare repeal bill that House leadership pulled from the floor last week.

Democracy, says Radel, is “ugly,” “difficult” and “sometimes crazy,” which helped inspire the title of his new book: “Democrazy: A True Story of Weird Politics, Money, Madness, and Finger Food.”

Radel, known for his social media savvy, was considered one of the GOP’s rising stars. But his first term in Congress came to an abrupt end in 2013 after he was convicted of buying cocaine. The drug bust led to his resignation.

Suddenly Radel — who once took improv classes at Chicago’s famed Second City and “dreamed” of being on “Saturday Night Live” — was instead being mocked during its “Weekend Update” segment. “I was the butt of jokes on every national network in the United States,” Radel says.

“I started to just write as a process to process everything that happened to me a year after everything went down.”

When asked if it was difficult to put the details of what he calls the “truly dark time” in his life on paper, Radel replied in his signature blunt style.

“It was pretty shitty,” he tells ITK. “While it was very difficult to relive some of the things that I went through and the pain that I caused my family, in some ways it was cathartic just kind of getting it down on paper and sharing my story.”

Radel, 40, says as he looks back now, “You cannot dwell in the past and you can’t freak out about the future. If there’s anything I learned in the last couple of years, it’s to live in the present.”

He pauses for a moment before saying, “My God, I sound like a terrible ’80s inspiration poster!”

Radel deploys his sense of humor while chronicling the inner workings of Congress in his book out this week — including his surprise when arriving in Washington for a fundraising dinner that featured a feast of finger foods on skewers. He quickly learned that the bite-sized delicacies were exempt from regulations forbidding lawmakers from accepting gifts from lobbyists.

“Is a fifty-dollar steak going to be just enough protein to push a congressman over the edge to vote a certain way? Silly. Petty. Illogical,” Radel writes in the memoir.

Years before President Trump began a Twitter-driven White House campaign, Radel made waves with his mastery of social media. He once unleashed a series of tweets with his review of a Jay-Z album, for which he was dubbed the House’s “hip-hop conservative.”

“What a lot of politicians don’t get — who put up these idiotic pictures of their latest ribbon cutting or shaking hands with some other dude in a suit — what they don’t realize is social media is a way to show that you’re a real person,” says Radel. “That’s what I try to do, just share my love of music, and movies, and sports, instead of showing a picture of standing at a ribbon-cutting ceremony with a pair of gargantuous scissors in my hands.”

But the married ex-House member, who now runs a media training and consulting firm, says he won’t attempt to resurrect his political career. “I really wanted to get into politics to make a difference. But I really, really effed that up. I blew my chance, and there’s no going back. I’m never going to run for anything again.”

“I clearly illustrate how I was making bad choices even though I saw red flags left and right,” says Radel. “When you get to Congress, you have a choice: You can be someone who kind of takes part in some of the meetings and fundraising outside of being a congressman, you can be someone who just goes back to the district every single weekend, you can also be someone who fundraises like a madman. I fell in the in-between category.”

“I got caught up in a lifestyle in as soon as I got off of work, I would go out,” says Radel. It ultimately led to “a lifestyle that no member of Congress, or father, or husband should have been doing.”

Radel, who took an unlikely journey from “living off $10 a day in Cambodia” to television reporter to Florida congressman, says beyond telling his story and exposing Washington’s often-wacky ways, there was another reason he penned the book.

A dad to a 5-year-old son, Radel says he wanted to show politicians are not “all evil” and “that members of Congress are generally good people who are trying to make our country better. It’s just a matter of how we get there.”