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Could the Sympathy Card Help Trey Radel Keep His Job?

Radel, center, leaves court last month after pleading guilty to cocaine possession. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Radel, center, leaves court last month after pleading guilty to cocaine possession. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Weeks after news of his cocaine bust broke, Rep. Trey Radel continues to cling to his seat in Congress in what could ultimately become a testament to the changing mores on Capitol Hill.

The Florida Republican, who checked himself into rehab last month, has faced his fair share of calls to resign — notably from home-state Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, and state GOP Chairman Lenny Curry.

Some of his congressional colleagues from Florida also wonder why he is sticking around.

“I don’t know the depth of his problem or his situation that well. If it were me, I would probably realize there’s a lot more to life than being a member of Congress and getting my life in order is the priority,” said Florida Republican Rep. Dennis A. Ross. “But I don’t think that anybody can put themselves in his shoes.”

“When you have a member of Congress who might go to rehab because they’re an alcoholic, that’s one thing,” said GOP Rep. Tom Rooney, whose district neighbors Radel’s. “I think that’s admirable. Coming from a family that has alcoholism in it, I’ve seen my share of people that I love go through addiction and rehabilitation. But when you do it as a result of a crime, how is that different?”

Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., appear content to let the voters decide whether Radel’s punishment will extend beyond probation and a $250 fine. Neither is calling for his resignation or for any significant punishment, such as removal from committee assignments, nor have they issued general statements of condemnation.

According to sources familiar with the matter, it’s in part because they know the old saying that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones: There are probably similar skeletons in both parties’ closets.

One GOP strategist also mentioned that President Barack Obama’s own history with cocaine, which he admitted to using in his 1995 memoir “Dreams From My Father,” undermines any serious attack from Democrats.

Indeed, some Florida Democrats are showing a bit of sympathy for the cocaine-using congressman — even as the state party calls on him to quit.

“I really have enjoyed building a relationship with Trey and wish him my heartfelt best and hope that he is able to surmount this very personal challenge,” said Democratic National Committee Chairwoman and Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz in a brief interview with CQ Roll Call.

Florida Democratic Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, who before his career in Congress was one of a handful of judges impeached by the House and removed from office by the Senate for a charge of bribery, added, “Far be it for me, one who has substantial amount of negative celebrity over the course of my life, to pick on anybody.”

Hastings said he thought Radel was doing “the right thing for himself, his family and his constituents.”

”I wish him well and I support Trey’s family and his constituents’ decisions,” Hastings said.

Florida Democrats have an incentive to keep Radel in office: He might be the only Republican potentially susceptible to a Democratic challenger in a district where 61 percent of voters chose Mitt Romney over Obama in the 2012 presidential election.

Republicans, meanwhile, have drawn parallels to former Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, D-R.I., in 2006, following his middle-of-the-night car crash into a Capitol barricade.

Boehner, then the House majority leader, at the time wished Kennedy well as he sought treatment, and leadership aides have likened Radel’s predicament to that of Kennedy’s, arguing that his cocaine use should be perceived as an illness, rather than a moral failing requiring him to get the boot.

Of course, veteran members of Congress may remember a time in the late 1980s when revelations of marijuana use could prompt a Supreme Court nominee to withdraw from consideration. In 1992, then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton said he had “experimented with marijuana a time or two,” while trying to assuage Americans’ anxieties by stressing, “I didn’t inhale.”

In the two decades since, that drug has become legal in two states as public opinion has shifted dramatically. In 2007, then-presidential candidate Obama said he used to smoke pot frequently and that he had, in fact, inhaled.

“That was the point,” he said to much laughter and amusement. His comments were never used against him in serious political attacks from his detractors and he went on to handily win the presidency — twice.

There are still areas, though, where member misconduct cannot be forgiven, specifically acts of sexual misconduct.

Democrats and Republicans both demanded that then-Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., resign from office when in 2011 he was caught sending lewd photographs to women over Twitter.

Earlier in 2011, New York Republican Christopher Lee vacated his seat mere hours after news broke that he was posting shirtless photos of himself as part of personal ads on Craigslist. Lee announced his resignation before any of his colleagues had a chance to publicly condemn his actions, suggesting that he was well-aware of what repercussions awaited him had he chosen to drag his feet.

In 2010, Rep. Eric Massa, D-N.Y., resigned amid harassment allegations by a male staffer and Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., resigned after an affair with a staffer with whom he had filmed an abstinence education video.

But Radel himself is setting a precedent: He is the first sitting member of Congress to be arrested for cocaine possession, and how his political career will fare as a result of the arrest could be revealing about the changing times.

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