Of President Trump’s many opponents in Congress, none looks or sounds remotely like Representative Frederica Wilson, the Miami Democrat known for her bedazzled, sequined-blinged hats, her vibrant matching outfits and her reputation in Florida for never backing down from a fight.
But Wilson has never had an foe like Trump or a fight this personal, which began with the president’s condolence call to the widow of a young soldier the congresswoman helped steer away from Miami’s mean streets — only to see him die in a mysterious ambush in sub-Saharan Niger.
Despite tough criticism and insults from the president and his allies — a top African-American Trump surrogate, former Milwaukee County Sheriff David A. Clarke, characterized Wilson as “a buffoon” while White House Chief of Staff John Kelly teed off on her from a White House lectern — the 74-year-old Democrat hasn’t flinched, firing back with caustic responses honed by years of full-contact Miami politics.
The president is a “jerk” and a “liar” who “doesn’t know how to be a president,” Wilson said. She then mocked him for raising her profile.
“You mean to tell me that I have become so important that the White House is following me and my words?” Wilson laughed. “This is amazing. That’s amazing. That is absolutely phenomenal. I’ll have to tell my kids that I’m a rock star now.”
Yet the technicolor clothes and flashy demeanor belies the grim legacy that made her an icon in the African-American community in Florida and, now, the nation: her advocacy for young black men, particularly those who end up dead. Since her time in the Florida legislature, Wilson’s political identity has been forged by fights – often with a white, male-dominated establishment — to figure out what happened to them and why.
More than 11 years before Sgt. La David Johnson was killed with three other soldiers in Niger, a 14-year-old named Martin Lee Anderson died after he was beaten by guards at a boot camp in Panama City, a Deep South city in northern Florida.
The sheriff’s office ran the boot camp and was slow to investigate. So was the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Wilson, however, joining with other a bipartisan team of legislators, helped forced an independent investigation and an exhumation of the child’s body for a second autopsy. While the boot camp guards and a nurse were acquitted of charges, the state legislature ultimately changed boot camp laws and compensated the family for the teen’s death.
For the Anderson’s family attorney, Benjamin Crump, the public relations tactics that snagged statewide headlines — from a second autopsy to organized marches featuring Al Sharpton — became a template for drawing national attention to another death of another 14-year-old seven years later, Trayvon Martin, who was shot by a neighborhood watchman named George Zimmerman.
Wilson stood by the side of the parents of Trayvon, who hailed from her district based in the heavily African-American city of Miami Gardens in the shadow of the stadium where the Miami Dolphins and Miami Hurricanes play.
“Black men are targets. The system has the scope aimed directly at our backs and Frederica Wilson has devoted a life to exposing that,” said Crump, who has allied with her in yet another case involving the shooting death of motorist Corey Jones by a Palm Beach Gardens police officer.
“From our first case with her, with Martin Lee Anderson, she was vocal. She would begin every press conference by saying, ‘it’s murder.’ She would not be quiet. She demanded the truth,” Crump said. “And it’s similar to La David Johnson’s case. She will not be quiet … Trump is messing with the wrong woman.”
Unlike all of the other high-profile cases Wilson has been involved with, Johnson’s death after an Oct. 4 ambush in Niger had a deeply personal dimension.
Johnson had enrolled in Wilson’s nonprofit, 5000 Role Models of Excellence, a program for at-risk African-American kids. His father had been a student when Wilson was a principal at a local school decades before. Johnson’s mother is a constituent, as well as a bus driver with the school district where Wilson has deep roots.
When the congresswoman and the family tried to find out what happened, Wilson said, the Pentagon gave no answers. She joined with her fellow Florida Congressman Alcee Hastings, a Democrat and fellow member of the Congressional Black Caucus, and penned a letter seeking answers. Still nothing. Wilson said she wanted to know not just why Johnson and his fellow soldiers were so at risk, but why Johnson appeared to have been left behind when the others were evacuated shortly after the attack.
“Why was he separated?” Wilson asked. “Was he kidnapped? Was he lost? Was he already expired? What happened to him? Why, 48 hours later, did we still not know where he was?”
Johnson’s family, meanwhile, had not heard from the president with a condolence call, either. When reporters finally asked about the attack in Niger, Trump, who had not acknowledged the deaths publicly, responded by inaccurately criticizing President Obama and suggesting his predecessor never called Gold Star families of the fallen.
“Throughout all this time, Trump had been tweeting and carrying on about NFL football players taking a knee and not one damn time did he say a word about Niger,” Hastings said. “But if he thinks someone like Frederica Wilson is going to let this go, he doesn’t know Frederica Wilson.”
On Thursday, it was Kelly’s turn with Wilson after the retired Marine Corps general denounced Wilson as a grand-stander who politicized what should have been a personal private call. It was an example of “empty barrels making the most noise,” he said, and falsely claimed that she gave a speech at the dedication of an FBI building in 2015 in Miami where she bragged about securing money for the facility due to her connections with President Obama. Video of her speech showed she made no such statement.
Wilson promptly attacked Kelly, a Gold Star dad himself, as someone willing to “say anything to save his job.”
Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican, said she thought the entire episode was a big misunderstanding. A persistent Trump critic, Ros-Lehtinen faulted the president because he “waited so long, so many golf days, for him to express words of condolences about these brave heroes’ deaths in an operation that is mired in controversy and secrecy.”
A fierce liberal in a Republican-controlled Congress to which she was elected in 2010, Wilson is known more for her advocacy than her legislative accomplishments. The few Republicans in her heavily Democratic, African-American district — which backed Hillary Clinton over Trump by 83-15 percent — periodically grouse she’s ineffective. And after her dustup with Trump this week, conservatives nationwide began examining her votes and called her anti-veteran for voting against numerous bills concerning active and former military personnel.
Ros-Lehtinen said Wilson won’t let go of issues important to her. In one instance, Wilson persuaded many of her fellow House colleagues to periodically wear red articles of clothing and post “#bringbackourgirls” tweets aimed at the terrorist group Boko Haram after it kidnapped 300 girls in Nigeria.
“I have five red jackets thanks to her,” Ros-Lehtinen laughed.
Like Hastings, she said Wilson has “stick-to-it-iveness.” And unlike others Trump has clashed with, Wilson probably won’t go away quietly.
“She will go toe to toe with President Trump and who knows who will stop tweeting and talking first,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “I wouldn’t bet against her.”