In the conservative-leaning 19th District along Florida’s southwest coast, brash radio host Trey Radel rode his influence with the district’s sizeable tea party population to a GOP primary win. That made him the overwhelming favorite to beat Democrat Jim Roach for the seat given up by Republican Rep. Connie Mack, who ran for the Senate.
Radel was born and raised in Cincinnati. As a teenager, he began working for a funeral-home company that has been part of his family since the late 19th century. “I started by what is called ‘catching flowers,’ ” he said in an interview. “I would go in and literally accept the flowers coming in and set them up for the funeral or the wake.” He later helped run ceremonies and drove the hearse. Radel was a tight end for his high school’s football team and played in a rock band throughout college.
His undergraduate years at Loyola University Chicago were filled with odd jobs, internships, and travel. Radel majored in communications with a focus on broadcast journalism and minored in Italian. He studied abroad for one year in Italy and backpacked through Western Europe. When he got back, he secured a semester-long internship with CNN in Atlanta.
After graduating, Radel backpacked through southern Mexico and parts of Central America and became fluent in Spanish. He returned to the United States in 2000 and moved to Houston, where he worked on the assignment desk of the local CBS television affiliate and also for a startup digital news organization. When the startup failed, Radel shifted his focus to a career in television. He sent out a resume tape and was hired as a reporter at WINK, the CBS affiliate in southwest Florida.
Radel quit the station after five years to purchase and rebrand the Naples Journal. He shortly sold the newspaper to E.W. Scripps and took a few months to travel to Colombia and parts of Southeast Asia. He returned to Florida and was hired back at WINK, this time as a news anchor. His 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. newscasts competed with a show anchored by his then-girlfriend and now-wife, Amy Wegmann. Radel quit WINK for a second time in 2009 to launch his own media-relations firm and become more involved in politics. Around the same time, he became the host of a radio talk show with a conservative bent.
Radel announced his congressional bid in January 2012 and soon became the most controversial GOP candidate for the 19th District seat. He received criticism early on for creating websites with the names of his opponents. Although Radel defended the effort as a strategic use of modern technology, his campaign later tried to donate the sites back to the respective opponents. One month later, he faced accusations that his media firm owned rights to numerous explicitly named websites. Radel said that no content was ever placed on the sites.
But out of the gate, Radel also raised more money than his competitors and had the most cash on hand. He was supported by the local tea party movement and received endorsements from Mack and his father, former Sen. Connie Mack, as well as Sen. Marco Rubio. Radel won the GOP nomination with 30 percent of the vote. His closest challenger was Chauncey Goss, son of former CIA director and U.S. House member Porter Goss. In the fall, Radel had little trouble beating Roach, a Vietnam veteran and retired engineer.