NewsMakers: Trey Radel
He won U.S. House District 19 field.
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FORT MYERS — Trey Radel's rise from Southwest Florida broadcaster to a Republican nomination for Congress began with a leap into unknown territory.
The 36-year-old former TV reporter and anchor-turned entrepreneur-turned conservative radio talk show host had never run for office before and faced a crowded field that included well-connected Republicans based in Lee County.
Radel sought out U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV, whose open seat Radel would seek, and got this advice: "Trey, if you believe in what you can do and how you can serve, you should consider it. And I did," Radel said.
To the surprise of many, he won, beating his nearest rival by 8 percentage points, despite a controversy over ownership of website domains and an attack ad that portrayed him as not serious enough for the job. He attracted high-profile Republican endorsements and got a boost from an attention-getting return to the airwaves by his wife, popular former TV news anchor Amy Wegmann, in a campaign ad that put her in the role of husband defender.
For Radel, who is expected to beat Democrat Jim Roach and nonparty candidate Brandon Smith in the Republican-heavy House District 19 race in November, his latest role caps a seemingly charmed professional life.
"Luck is when preparation and opportunity meet," Radel said in an interview with the Daily News after his primary victory Tuesday. "I have been so blessed in Southwest Florida to work hard and try to prepare for the next step in my life whatever that might be."
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Radel grew up in Cincinnati, the son of a funeral home director. He said his love of country pushed him to consider military service as a teenager, but he chose instead to go to Loyola University in Chicago to study communications. He minored in Italian and spent a year studying abroad in Italy.
"Unlike many of the students I went to school with there, instead of going to Spain to go have beers on the beaches, I traveled," Radel said.
By travel, he means backpacking around Israel, Tunisia and Egypt, staying at hostels and hitching rides. He said the experience helped shape his view of world events.
A suggestion from his father gave him his first lucky break in journalism. Before the days of email, Radel wrote a formal letter to then-CNN anchor Bill Hemmer asking for career advice. He dropped it in the mail and waited.
Days later, the phone rang in Radel's apartment. The caller ID said CNN Headquarters Atlanta. Radel picked up; Hemmer, now the anchor of a morning news show on Fox News, was on the line.
"He said, "Cut the 'sir' and 'mister' crap. Come down to Atlanta, I have an internship lined up for you," Radel said.
After a few months in Atlanta in 1997, he was back in Chicago. Still in school, he worked part-time at a CBS affiliate there and tended bar at a Latin nightclub called Nacional 27, a reference to the 27 countries of Latin America, he said.
After graduating in 2000, Radel had saved up enough money to buy a one-way ticket to Mexico. He threw on his backpack again and, living off about $5 a day, traveled to Quintana Roo, into Central America and then into the Mexican provinces of Chiapas and Oaxaca.
Along the way, he met a University of Houston professor who was starting up a web-based nonprofit news organization. Radel soon found himself in Houston. He went to work running the assignment desk for a CBS affiliate, but the nonprofit news organization never got off the ground, Radel said.
Less than two years later, he landed the job at WINK-TV that would introduce the region's likely future congressman to Southwest Florida.
Rather than taking the traditional career path, moving on to different cities and larger TV markets, Radel decided he was going to stay put — but not necessarily stay on television.
The first time he quit WINK, in 2005, he bought the Naples Journal and sought to rebrand it and expand its circulation. He sold it a year later to E.W. Scripps Co., which also owns the Daily News. He calls the time after the sale a "great time in life." He was "happily unemployed" and celebrated with a backpacking trip to Colombia and Cambodia, Radel said.
In 2007, he returned to Southwest Florida and to WINK, where he anchored nightly newscasts until he quit again, in 2009, to start up a public relations firm devoted to advancing conservative causes. At the same time, the company that owns WINK had an opening on one of its radio stations for a conservative talk show host. They suggested Radel give it a try.
Radel remembers sitting at the microphone on his first day, clutching a list of topics to talk about during the next four hours on the air. He said all that he had to say in 10 minutes, Radel recalled.
Many hours of talk later, though, Radel had established himself as a conservative voice in Southwest Florida in a way he hadn't been able to do before. The jump from there to politics felt like a calling, Radel said.
"I believe that in extraordinary times of crisis, ordinary men and women have to stand up and take action, and I hope that I can do just that," Radel said.
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When the votes were counted Tuesday night, Radel garnered 30 percent of the vote.
His closest challenger, Chauncey Goss, had 21.5 percent of the vote. Radel won Lee County over Goss, with 32 percent and 22 percent of the vote, respectively. In Collier, though, Radel was defeated by fellow newcomer Byron Donalds, who got 29 percent of the vote to Radel's 25 percent.
They faced well-established Republicans in Goss, of Sanibel, the son of former CIA director Porter Goss, who held Mack's seat before him; Gary Aubuchon, of Cape Coral, who served six years in the state Legislature including a stint as chairman of the powerful Rules and Calendar Committee; and Paige Kreegel, of Punta Gorda, who is serving his fourth state House term.
Goss said his polling showed Radel was at the top of the heap through much of the campaign and was able to hold his support together while the other candidates split the rest of the vote.
"Trey has a dedicated base," Goss said.
Goss received endorsements from former Gov. Jeb Bush and GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan; Radel was endorsed by Mack and by his same-named father, a former U.S. senator and congressman who once held what is now the District 19 seat.
Collier GOP Chairman Frank Schwerin said the outcome of the race proves that endorsements don't matter.
Former FOX-4 news anchor Amy Wegmann has come to no agreement with the station about her future there, said her husband, congressional candidate Trey Radel.
Wegmann took a leave of absence from the station while Radel ran for the District 19 congressional seat that includes coastal Lee and Collier counties.
Radel, who won the Republican nomination for the post during last week’s primary, said the station and Wegmann have agreed to continue talks after the outcome of the general election. He faces Democrat Jim Roach and nonparty candidate Brandon Smith on Nov. 6.
"If they played a role then Chauncey would have been elected," Schwerin said, calling Ryan the "current rock star in the party."The biggest endorsement of the race might have come from Wegmann, Radel's wife, when she took to the airwaves in a late-campaign ad to defend Radel.
Opponents aired an ad that portrayed him as a laughing goof and invoked scandals over his company's buying and selling of sexy Latino website names and over what his opponents called his campaign's dirty trick of buying website names his opponents likely would have used for their own campaigns.
Radel said his company, Trey Enterprises LLC, sold thousands of website names weekly, the Latino websites in question never contained any content and that he was unaware of all the domain names the company sold. As for the opponents' websites, Radel eventually gave them back.
Aubuchon said the attack ad dealt with a serious issue but came across as a "smear ad without merit."
"And then Amy Wegmann came on and said, 'This ad is not true,' in a very sincere fashion," Aubuchon said. "That to me was the fundamental shift."
On primary night, Wegmann carried the couple's 8-month-old son, Jude, on stage to introduce Radel to a crowd of supporters at the Trianon Hotel in Bonita Springs.
Radel's voice wavered as he began to thank his family, and he called into the crowd, looking for Wegmann to rejoin him on stage. Calling her his rock, he said she tore up her legs running through bushes on the campaign trail and sweated her makeup off.
"I don't wear makeup," Wegmann toyed as the crowd burst into laughter-filled applause.
The Nov. 6 general election is all that stands between Radel and another celebratory night, his transformation from private citizen to public official complete.
"It is a very serious responsibility that I do not take lightly," Radel said.