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As Rep. Trey Radel rehabs, staffers bail & home-county GOP mulls asking him to resign


U.S. Rep. Trey Radel is in rehab for his substance abuse problem, but his political trouble is only mounting in his district.

Two Radel staffers are leaving him, the specter of top-tier challengers are mounting and the Lee County Republican Executive Committee plans to hold an emergency meeting tonight to decide whether to get involved.

"I've heard of every scenario: A) ask him to step down, B) ask him not to seek reelection next year or C) say nothing with him staying put," Lee County GOP Chairman Terry Miller said of the meeting.

"This is a blank agenda and an open discussion," Miller said. "I don't know what's going to happen."

Donors, insiders and potential candidates have been abuzz about Fort Myers Republican's future ever since word leaked last week that he was busted Oct. 29 in Washington DC for buying misdemeanor amounts of cocaine from an undercover agent.

Radel was put on probation Wednesday morning and hosted a brief press conference with local press later that night where he admitted he had a problem -- though he never specifically mentioned cocaine -- and said he'd check into "intensive" therapy.

Radel's congressional district, CD-19, is heavily Republican and his biggest potential challenger would likely come from a member of his own party.

Advocates for two big Republican figures in the district --  state Senate Republican leader Lizbeth Benacquisto and former U.S. Rep. Connie Mack -- are pushing their candidacy. And two of Radel's five primary opponents from 2012 -- consultant Chauncey Goss and former state Rep. Paige Kreegel -- say they're not ruling out a bid.

But they're not ready to run, either.

As a political newcomer who won in a crowded GOP primary in 2012, Radel was likely to face a challenger anyway, Miller said, but the recent troubles have only intensified the speculation.

"Trey is a friend and we all wish him the help he so desperately needs," Miller said.

As Lee County Republicans prepared to meet, Politico reported that two Radel staffers -- spokeswoman Amanda Nunez and digital director Caitlin Rush -- were leaving for a Washington public relations firm, Endeavor Strategic Communications.

Miller said Nunez had submitted her resignation on the Friday before the news about Radel broke, which the office acknowledged as well.

Radel's district newspapers, The Naples Daily News and The Fort Myers News Press, have called for his resignation. Earlier in the year, the News Press made Radel their "2013 Person to Watch."

"Recently we in Congress found out that our approval rating hovers below root canals and cockroaches," Radel said in a statement as an aide accepted his award, "and I take this as a challenge to work with my colleagues, both Democrats and Republicans, to restore the faith of the American public."

But now faith in Radel is deeply shaken, even among supporters.

Days after his arrest, Radel held a posh country-club "Gourmet with Trey" Naples fundraiser  -- and he didn't tell some or all of the donors about the drug bust, a Republican source said.

Former state Rep. Tom Grady, R-Naples, said he didn't attend the fundraiser but could understand why some constituents and supporters are upset.

Like Miller, Grady also expected Radel to face stiff Republican competition now and he expressed regret that Radel's good record is being drown out amid the negative publicity.

"Trey has voted the right way," Grady said. "He has been everywhere and he has immersed himself in the community in a way no one has in a long time. And that shouldn't be forgotten."

But Grady wasn't ready to comment on whether Radel should continue to serve -- especially as he's in rehab, during which time he's donating his salary to charity.

"It's a fair question," Grady said. "It's an open question."