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A disgraced ex-congressman tells us what it’s like to go down in a Washington scandal

“I was a madman, and I paid the price.”

Henry 'Trey' Radel exits DC Superior court after pleading guilty to misdemeanor charges of possession of cocaine on November 20, 2013.
The Washington Post / Contributor

Trey Radel claims to be the first US member of Congress to ever be busted for cocaine possession. That sounds plausible, though it’s impossible to fact-check. What’s certain is that Radel, elected in 2012, was a media-savvy rising star in the Republican Party with a strong libertarian bent until he bought cocaine from an undercover police officer in October 2013. After seeking treatment and attempting to hang on to his seat, he resigned under heavy pressure the following January.

Radel, who just published the memoir Democrazy: A True Story of Weird Politics, Money, Madness, and Finger Food, makes for an interesting case study in America’s scandal-industrial complex, which renders personal problems not only political liabilities but also finger-wagging morality plays. For one, he is and was a libertarian, and a critic of the drug war that brought him down. To his great consternation, he also became known as the coke-snorting Congress member who voted to allow the drug testing of food stamp recipients.

At turns consistent and hypocritical, Radel’s brief stint in the limelight, and his candid look back, exemplifies Americans’ persistent belief that politicians’ private failures disqualify them from public service. Or at least they did until last November.

It remains to be seen whether politicians like Radel will continue to be vilified in the years to come. Perhaps the election of President Donald Trump has made personal failures, whether relatively harmless or really horrible, irrelevant. This week, I spoke with Radel about his bust, the drug war, and American politics in general.

Daniel Denvir

In October 2013, you were busted by federal agents after buying cocaine from an undercover officer. What did that feel like? Obviously it didn’t feel good.

Trey Radel

I not only knew mentally that my world was imploding but I physically got ill. I physically felt like I was going to collapse. And that was the beginning of a very dark, terrible moment in life.

Daniel Denvir

Your cocaine use stemmed from trouble with alcohol, which I think stemmed from personal and professional troubles. What was the situation you were in, and how did you get there?

Trey Radel

I don't know if I would put the context that alcohol stemmed from troubles. I just got caught up in a lifestyle and was making idiotic decisions. I've always been a very Type A personality. I've always wanted to do everything at 1,000 miles an hour. And I would only stop when I went to bed.

Whether that was being young in my 20s and backpacking around the world, or in my 30s trying to be an entrepreneur, to campaigning and then getting into Congress, I have always had a voracious appetite for life, and that’s sometimes been a liability. I believe a lot of it stems from growing up in the funeral industry, as weird or as creepy as it sounds. Because I saw dead bodies at a very young age, I believe that self-consciously it impressed upon me that life can go at any second and you better enjoy it while you have it.

Unfortunately, I’ve sometimes taken that too far, and when I was in Washington, I was out a lot. Through the book I sarcastically use, "Oh, I was out networking." And that's really just me poking fun at myself, because yeah, I was out networking and working and having fun. But I crossed lines. It just became an excuse to go out and drink.

Daniel Denvir

So was it that Congress and being a Congress member and being in DC was too much fun? Or was the job burning you out? Or both?

Trey Radel

It was everything. It was everything, too much, all the time. I was playing hard and working harder. I was doing everything at 1,000 miles an hour every day. I loved my job. I really, really loved service. I loved the interaction with people. I especially loved trying to find ways to work with Democrats and reach across the aisle. But for a short time I was a madman, and I paid the price.

Daniel Denvir

Speaking of working with Democrats, or not working with them: You were considered a Tea Party congressman—

Trey Radel

Yeah, but one of the things I really try to clarify in the book is how I never, ever, ever used the words Tea Party ever in my campaign, and I never labeled myself a Tea Partier — ever. One of the things I thought was unfair that media did, in general, was that any member of the Republican Party sworn into Congress after 2010 was automatically labeled a Tea Party member. I never wanted to label myself that.

I never wanted to box myself in, because I believe there are some areas where I have some very strong disagreements with the Republican Party, especially foreign policy and some domestic policy.

Daniel Denvir

Do you agree, though, that your freshman class was part of a hard turn to the right that the Republican Party was taking? And this is a party that was going right since Reagan.

Trey Radel

So 2010 was really the so-called Tea Party wave. I campaigned in '12, was sworn in '13. And I believe there are some members in the Republican Party that would rather say no to everything than compromise. And I believe that is being reflected now that we see the American Health Care Act bill fail.

While I can be principled and ideological in certain areas, there has to be a point where Republicans and Democrats, or the far right and the far left, need to find areas to compromise. I don't think compromise should be a dirty, filthy word. And I think some grassroots organizations on the left and the right do believe there should be no compromise at all in Washington. And that's bullshit.

Every day in our lives — whether it’s with our spouse, our girlfriend, our boyfriend, our children, our employer — we compromise every single day in everything we do in life. But somehow a few people believe in Washington that should not be tolerated.

Daniel Denvir

Republicans the year you were in Congress did not get a reputation for being fans of compromise. You helped shut down Congress in an effort to block Obamacare. Looking back, do you think the Republican approach at that time was a good one?

Trey Radel

In my book, I highlight how the meetings became the Mel Brooks movie Blazing Saddles. Everybody gets together and shouts at each other, and then we all raise our handguns that were donated to us by the NRA and we leave the room. I poke and prod and have a lot of fun at the expense of myself, and at that entire process of shutting down the government.

My big-picture take, personally, is that we sit here and fight about all sorts of social issues in this country when the reality is that mandatory spending, I believe, is going to hit 70 to 80 percent of our budget. And only then will we begin to feel the true cost of our deficit and our debt, and that cost is going to come. And unless we address our mandatory spending today, the people who are going to pay the biggest price are senior citizens and poor people.

Daniel Denvir

Your drug bust put the press and politicians in scandal mode. The House Ethics Committee, you write, requested the name of every illicit drug you had ever used and the date you had used to it. It seems to me that these perennial public shaming exercises are more a performance aimed at proving the shamers' own moral probity than having anything to do with you buying coke.

Trey Radel

You should go into public relations or crisis management with the way you just put that. Yeah. Let me get raw here. I believe the Republican Party wanted me gone. And the easiest way to achieve that was just absolutely piling all of these requests through the Ethics Committee. And it worked.

Let me be very clear: My dumb ass should have resigned immediately. However, what I try to go through in the book is what a dark time that was for me, and how much pain I was living with and how much pain I had caused my family. I was desperate, and I was grabbing for any way to make it right, and to try to get through the situation.

In doing that, I didn't resign. And I should have right away. To go back to the question of ethics — maybe it was a good thing that they did all that, because it woke me up to say to myself, man, it's time to go. Enough is enough. Get out.

Daniel Denvir

Just to give you a sense of where I'm coming from, I wrote a defense of Anthony Weiner, at least during the initial round of—

Trey Radel

When we address Anthony Weiner, we mean now and in retrospect with the different phases of the contact with the minor. But right now you're talking about when it first happened, like, did he take the picture of himself — dick pic. Okay, I got it.

Daniel Denvir

To me it seems to be a lot more about moral grandstanding and a schadenfreude in seeing someone else struggle with something private in a harsh public spotlight.

Trey Radel

There's politics and politics. Once I resigned, or very close to that time of my resignation, there was a point where I completely tuned out of the news. I had no idea who really went after me or who used me in a grandstanding situation. I never heard that anyone really did, that anyone really, truly attacked me.

I know that I got hit; I became a meme for the vote I took in a farm bill, which I'm happy to discuss. I go into great detail about how disappointing it was to get labeled the guy that voted to drug test food stampers, which, again, I did not do directly.

But before I get to that, I'll tell you that there are names I’ll never say that were very supportive and called me and reached out to me for days and weeks after my blowup. And that's both Democratic and Republican leadership, people who were very good to me. But there's politics and politics. And one thing you realize quickly when you campaign is that there’s just certain things you have to live with, and that means getting hit hard in public.

Daniel Denvir

Unsurprisingly, I do have some questions about the food stamp vote.

Trey Radel

Absolutely. I’m happy to talk about it. It sucked. Fucking sucked. It personally hurts because I have sympathy or empathy for people who have gone through a rough time struggling with any kind of addiction — alcohol, drugs, food, whatever it may be — or people struggling and having to rely on the government for help. I have sympathy and empathy.

And what I voted was for a 1,000-page-plus farm bill. One of the provisions in the farm bill was to allow states to have more direct control over how they administered their welfare. And I, as a strong believer in more power in the states — I believe that whether it's Colorado that wants to legalize marijuana or the state of Washington or the state of Florida that now has voted to legalize medical marijuana — I believe states should make those types of choices, and that's something that I still believe in today.

I never, ever took a direct vote that said, “Let's drug-test food stamp recipients,” and quite frankly, while I would vote again to allow states to make their own decisions, the reality is that drug-testing food stamp recipients is a colossal failure. Any person that says they are either a fiscal conservative or [a] social conservative and says that we should drug-test food stamp recipients, they’re not looking at the facts or the figures. They’re listening to idiot politicians in Washington.

Daniel Denvir

After your bust, you stated, "I struggle with the disease of alcoholism, and this led to an extremely irresponsible choice. As the father of a young son and a husband to a loving wife, I need to get help so I can be a better man for both of them."

But your book suggests that while you had a drinking problem, you weren't an alcoholic. Today you have the occasional beer. It seems to me, reading the book, like you grasp at alcoholism as the explanation mostly likely to create sympathy for an illicit drug user.

Trey Radel

So in the book, I talk about how I had the gift and the curse of time. And that was time for me to figure out not only who the hell I was but what the hell I was. Was I an alcoholic? Was I someone who struggled? What was I? When I said that, I was in the darkest period of my life. And I had no idea who I was. I was in a very dark, dark place.

And while I was reaching at anything, the reality was I stopped drinking for a year, I went to AA meetings, I sought what could help me spiritually and physically. It was just me in a very dark time. And I entertained thoughts of oh my gosh, what about my family members who had their struggles. To my mom fucking dying on my wedding reception floor. I was in a very dark place. For a full year, I stopped drinking and sought help. And so my life is very different now. I do enjoy a beer here and there. But I live a very different lifestyle.

Daniel Denvir

I don’t mean to suggest that you declared that you suffered from alcoholism out of cynical intentions. But it seems that people are more likely to be sympathetic if you explain your struggles as “alcoholism,” that you suffer from a disease, rather than you telling a more complicated truth: “I’ve been working too hard, Congress is frustrating, I haven't been exercising, I started drinking too much, and at some point I decided that cocaine might be fun.”

Trey Radel

Both in the moment and over the years have thought about, what could I have done? Could I have stuck around? Could I have gotten over this scandal and been reelected? The reality was I was in a dark place in life before, during, and after my bust and my blowup. And all I can say is, now, while I could go over a million different scenarios of how I could have stuck around, I'm in a great place today, and I'm happy about it.

Daniel Denvir

Shifting gears: Reportedly, the feds were able to bust you because your dealer told on you after being arrested. I don't know the exact circumstances, but it would seem like your dealer sold you out to cop a deal. Do you think this was a wise or justified use of government's awesome policing powers?

Trey Radel

First of all, yes. Law enforcement has to abide by the laws we have on the books, and I was the idiot lawmaker breaking the laws. So that's number one. I want to be very clear about that because I don't want to be the guy that's like, “Well, they shouldn't have busted me.” I'm not saying that at all.

But what I do think we need in this country is to wake up and ask ourselves — we have spent not billions but trillions of dollars on the war on drugs, and the question is, has it worked? The clear answer simply by facts and statistics is: No, it has not. We need to treat the war on drugs not by incarceration but by rehabilitation.

The most extreme example that I give in the book: Do you want the FBI focused on someone in their own home making bad choices that would only hurt themselves, meaning drugs, or do you want them focused on some kind of fanatic about to walk out of their home with an AK-47 and a bomb strapped to their chest?

And I think the answer is so clear that we need to prioritize what the hell we are focused on in this country. Because the drug war has not only been a colossal failure in terms of the money spent and the goals that we have never achieved. But I believe the war on drugs is also one of the reasons that we have such animosity between law enforcement and various communities around the United States today.

Daniel Denvir

To push that a step further: Should cocaine be legal?

Trey Radel

I don't know. The first thing I think we need is decriminalization. And it needs to be treated as a social problem if this is affecting other people, impacting other people negatively; then we can deal with it from there.

While I can talk about my own experience, in terms of legalization, I don't know how you can get there in society right now. However, if I'm given any sort of small platform at all, whether it's through my book or doing an interview like we are right now, I really hope as a fiscal conservative Republican that I can begin to at least exert some influence. Or have people on the right wake up and see what a problem this is. Because the left’s there with me.

I believe I share the opinions of a lot of people, whatever labels you want to use: the left, liberals, progressives, whatever. This is an area where I have a lot of agreement — and in fact, when I was in Congress, [I] worked with Democrats. I cited the Justice Safety Valve Act, where I was one of very few Republicans to work with Democrats on the war on drugs. It's my hope that as a Republican I can get our own party to start taking a look at these types of issues, which make sense if you are fiscal conservative or a social conservative.

Daniel Denvir

Decriminalization would definitely be a step forward. But you're someone who believes the prison population in this country is way too large. And it's the incarceration of drug dealers more than users that contributes to that. Decriminalization of use wouldn't have any impact. How do you attack the illicit market?

Trey Radel

What I was getting at is: You've got to take steps with society, right? Whenever you have cultural shifts, there have to be steps taken. With alcohol for example, it was made illegal for a short time. And we saw what an absolute disaster that was because we had a black market and we had violence. The same thing is happening with drugs today: We have a black market, and we have violence that has wreaked havoc decade to decade, from South America then north into Mexico.

There is an argument, and one that I would support for some sort of path to legalization, to help people medically and to not just decriminalize to make it legal. But these are cultural shifts that we need, and that's why I think it is very positive when we see people from the left and the right, who have either been in political positions or have political influence, [who] help make this argument and help wake people up to it.

Daniel Denvir

When you were in Congress, there was this nascent left-right coalition in support of criminal justice reform, but that all seems pretty dead. And Attorney General Jeff Sessions is in charge of the Justice Department, and he's a pretty hardcore old-school drug warrior. Why are so many of your conservative colleagues so hostile to reducing this country's gargantuan prison population?

Trey Radel

I don't know. What I don't get is how both fiscal and so-called social conservatives don't see what's happening. If you are a social conservative, what we are doing is ripping families apart. What we are doing is taking someone who would be an otherwise good, productive member of society — a father, a mother, a husband or wife — and we are destroying the family nucleus when they get locked up. Most especially for a crime that has only hurt themselves.

Let's then take that to the fiscal conservative side of things. We throw away $80 billion a year in this country locking up a huge number of nonviolent offenders.

[Author’s note: That’s not quite right. US government entities did spend an estimated $80 billion on corrections in 2010. But in reality, it is estimated that nearly half of people held in state and federal prisons have been convicted of offenses classified as violent. For local jails, however, the portion of people held, in many cases pretrial, for violent crimes is less than a third. Ending drug prohibition would no doubt deal a heavy blow to mass incarceration. But the fact remains that the US has such a gargantuan prison population because it punishes people with extreme severity for all sorts of offenses.]

Here's the biggest problem, though. When you take someone and arrest them and throw them in jail or prison for whatever amount of time, you’ve essentially imprisoned them for life. Because when they get out, they will no longer be a productive taxpaying citizen of society, because they have a record. Because they've been to prison.

Or worse, we put people in who are inherently good nonviolent offenders and they come out hardened violent criminals. If you are a fiscal conservative or social conservative, this evidence and these tangible examples are right in front of our face, and it is time for the Republican Party to wake up.

Daniel Denvir is a fellow at Harvard Law's Fair Punishment Project and the host of The Dig, a podcast from Jacobin magazine.