From “Fire Breathing Liberal” to Erdogan’s man in Washington: The transformation of Robert Wexler

Robert Wexler was my Congressman for 13 years (even though I moved around the state, I never left his district for more than a few months during campaign season so kept my registration in CD-19). In those 13 years, he generally voted well but didn’t climb the Congressional leadership the way someone who was in safe seat might otherwise. Wexler was a frequent critic of George W. Bush even when the President, illegitimate as he was thanks to the stolen Florida election in 2000 was wooing Democrats with his “aw shucks” personality and by giving members of congress simple and playful nicknames. Wexler had stood tall during the 2000 election recount even when other Democrats were scared off or worse yet wanting to strike a rhetorical tone that appealed to the media elites that were favoring Bush.

Having experienced the recount myself in a fairly prominent role, the willingness of some Democrats to simply move on was shameful to many of us. Though one benefit of Vice President Gore being cheated out of the election was that when Jim Jeffords left the GOP in May 2001, the Democrats gained control of the Senate. But the net impact of the Bush Presidency – a stolen one, was over 5,000 dead Americans, thousands more wounded in unnecessary and far flung wars and a culture of conformity using “national security” as a pretense.  It was an encroachment on civil liberties unprecedented in post World War I American history. It was a paranoia so great that the old House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) or Joe McCarthy could have operated with great autonomy and media fanfare bordering on support in this era. It was a time when even Democratic operatives and politicians began buying what the White House was selling – except for a few including Wexler.

Countering radical Islamic terrorism was and is critical for the United States. But grabbing petroleum by toppling secular states and replacing them with Islamists isn’t in the United States interest – yet so many went along with it. Wexler himself made a single error while in office – backing the 2002 Iraq War resolution largely due to local pressure.

Wexler’s votes were generally party line (or even to the left of party line) though his support of the Iraq War resolution in 2002 and the local pressure his surrogates put on anti-war elements (myself included) was a blot on his record. But it was this that gave a more troubling impression of Congressman Wexler – despite for all intents and purposes living in Washington D.C. during his congressional tenure, he and his surrogates would constantly interfere in local politics back in Palm Beach and Broward Counties. Whether it was County Commission campaigns, State Senate or State House races, even some judicial races, Wexler’s endorsement or non-endorsement of a Democratic candidate was often weaponized. Wexler was the most popular politician locally and being on the wrong side of him could be costly – for both candidates and political activists. His surrogates would often use his support to influence local politics in an aggressive manner and one which rankled more than a few Democratic activists.

On the Iraq War resolution, a handful of Republicans including one of the smartest members of Congress – Iowa GOPer Jim Leach voted “no” in the House and in the Senate a core of liberals including Republican Lincoln Chafee (who was based on his voting record a Republican but at the time too stubborn to switch parties probably for local considerations – in Rhode Island many don’t realize until recently party affiliation had as much to do with religion and family history as any other factor) also opposed the resolution. But Wexler due largely to local pressure, particularly from Jewish-American leaders voted yes. It was a vote he quickly regretted as he became an even more viscous critic of President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary Rumsfeld, et al within six months of the war’s commencement.

Caving to local pressure on Iraq might have had to do with insecurity – Wexler had been well-networked with the Jewish-American leaders that controlled South Palm Beach and North Broward condos in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. He won his seat in a Democratic primary against two other sitting state legislators both of whom had been in Tallahassee longer than him due in large measure to that network. Wexler had been a riser in his six years in the State Senate – fighting the fight on liberal causes like opposing school prayer, restrictions on reproductive rights and school vouchers – but also oddly pushing a measure to authorize chemical castration for sexual offenders. That measure went nowhere but won Wexler a bit of notoriety at the time.

After being elected to the US House in 1996, Wexler compiled a predictably liberal voting record and become a staunch backer of President Bill Clinton during the impeachment process. In 2002, Wexler was drawn north representing the condos around West Palm Beach for the first time – these areas tended to have even more liberal leadership than the condos in south Palm Beach and north Broward counties, and Wexler’s voting record was appreciated even more in those areas. In 2007, he became one of the first members of Congress to back the Presidential candidacy of an Illinois Senator that was running against the party establishment – especially in Wexler’s district. The backing of Senator Obama was a gutsy move by Wexler and caused him plenty of local heartache – the “condo commandos” whom Wexler was networked with were largely with Hillary Clinton and had just come through for the Congressman in backing his handpicked candidates for State Senate in contentious 2006 party primaries – Ted Deutch and Jeremy Ring.

Wexler’s support of Obama caused him local trouble for the first time in a while.  Clinton-backing operatives began discussing Wexler’s “soft” record on Israel for the first time openly and other rumors began to swirl about possible “scandals” involving the Congressman. Whatever the motivations for Wexler, he prevailed and the net result was a friend in the White House but some hurt feelings locally.

It’s worth noting Wexler always had a connection to some local Republicans, particularly Mary Ballard McCarty (the sister of Brian Ballard), a longtime Palm Beach Commissioner and onetime chair of the local Republican Party. Wexler never formally endorsed a Democratic opponent to McCarty despite requests to do so by candidates and party leaders.  McCarty eventually resigned from office in disgrace and served jail time.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s emergence as a hero among even secular Jewish-Americans posed political problems for Wexler. A champion of a two-state solution and a peaceful coexistence with Palestinians and neighboring Arab states, Wexler suddenly was on the defensive in polarized era where Likudniks were dominating local conversations. Netenyahu became Prime Minister of Israel two months after Obama assumed the Presidency and about six months before Wexler left Congress to join the Danny Abraham Center for Mideast Peace. The timing is not coincidental.

Obama’s Administration had hoped to use his immense global popularity to strike a deal on peace in the Middle East. But Netenayahu’s election like his previous elevation to the top office in Israel against the open wishes of President Clinton ground to a halt the peace process. Wexler’s nuanced views on Middle East peace may have no longer been popular among some leaders in his district but were useful to President Obama. Wexler departed Congress to take over the Danny Abraham Center for Middle East Peace in 2009. The organization has been often criticized by more hard-core Jewish-American leaders for being “pro-Palestinian,” but the goal has at least publicly been to make a compromise acceptable to all stakeholders.  In alliance with J Street and other more moderate Jewish-American groups, Wexler’s center has carved a “third way” in the debate over Middle Eastern peace. Wexler steered the center into a firm alliance with Obama’s Middle Eastern views and provided a useful outlet for the Administration to push its plans for peace.

Wexler’s replacement in Congress, Ted Deutch has been more in line with the Likudnik opinion and opposed President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry’s historic Iran deal. Wexler, who had been long-forgotten in south Florida with a whole generation of younger political activists knowing little if anything about him opted to weigh into the debate. Wexler penned an editorial in the South Florida Sun Sentinel backing the deal . 

The Iran deal seemed to end any chance Wexler had of a local political revival (he had lived in Maryland for years but still carried some minimal local influence) . He became a member in Brian Ballard’s lobbying firm earlier this year,  joining several Florida Democrats, many with more influence over the current direction of the party than him in the firm, whose principal has been President Trump’s lobbyist for years. But it seems thus far Wexler’s addition to the firm might have been related to a single contract – with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey.

Make no mistake about it, association with Erdoğan and his autocratic state where a free media and political dissidence is not tolerated is a bad look. But support of the likes of Erdoğan might appear to be a contradiction of Wexler’s history as a “fire breathing liberal,” but he’s made an honest attempt to be fair broker with Middle Eastern leaders be they democrats or autocrats in the past. Wexler’s relationship with this Turkish government almost certainly helped Ballard Partners gain a contract – oddly just months after National Security Adviser James Flynn was fired by President Trump over allegations related to Russia not Turkey. Flynn had been Erdoğan’s man in Washington collecting a half a million dollars in fees from Turkey, something the Obama Administration was aware of but Trump seemed to not care about.

Now Wexler has stepped into that minefield. Perhaps Wexler’s disconnect from the more Likud-oriented elements of the Jewish-American community has forced him to seek business from Turkey’s autocratic ruler? Maybe like Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt he’s sold out progressive principles to make some money in the private sector? Perhaps Wexler, a liberal feels he can be a mitigating influence on the autocratic and Islamist Turkish government?

It’s impossible to really know Wexler’s motivation but he has been transformed no doubt. It will be interesting to keep an eye on how he does in his new role.

2 comments

  1. Dave S. · · Reply

    I wonder why the POS really resigned? He is not a representative for any Ds or Jews for that matter. He is a joke!

  2. Pat Lavins · · Reply

    Your article on Robert Wexler left out a key issue. His tenure in the U. S. House of Representatives did not continue because he became a full-time resident of Montgomery County, Maryland. Florida law dictates that a person must be a Florida resident to have voting rights. When he was challenged about his residency, he claimed to be living with his mother in an age restricted high rise in Palm Beach. However, he bought a house, enrolled his children in public schools and was no longer eligible to be considered as a person with voting rights in Florida,

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