It wasn’t a coincidence that Frederica Wilson was in the car with the family of Sgt. La David T. Johnson when Donald Trump called.
Wilson, a 74-year-old fourth-term congresswoman from Miami Gardens, has spent years consoling and advocating for victims of gun violence in her overwhelmingly Democratic-leaning district in north Miami-Dade and southern Broward counties.
While Johnson’s death during an Oct. 4 ambush in Niger was different from the dozens of young people who have died from gunfire in Wilson’s district, her hands-on approach toward constituents who are dealing with heartache has been a priority for the former elementary school principal for years.
“When residents of her district are killed she is there to help the family... she is there to help the community cope,” said state Sen. Oscar Braynon, whose Miami Gardens-based district overlaps with much of Wilson’s. “She does what many people ask Donald Trump to do, which is to be a consoler -in-chief.”
Wilson has come out firing after Trump accused her of misrepresenting his words to Johnson’s family during a phone call minutes before Johnson’s body arrived at Miami International Airport on Tuesday.
The congresswoman said she overheard when Trump told Johnson’s family the soldier “knew what he signed up for... but when it happens it hurts anyway.”
Trump tweeted in response: “Democrat Congresswoman totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof). Sad!” The president called Johnson’s family nearly two weeks after the fatal ambush in Niger.
“I still stand by my account of the call b/t Donald Trump and Myeshia Johnson,” Wilson tweeted on Wednesday. “That is her name, Mr. Trump. Not ‘the woman’ or ‘the wife.’”
This isn’t the first time Wilson has waded into a national story on behalf of her majority-black district.
In 2012, 17-year-old Travyon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman while visiting relatives in Central Florida. Martin grew up and attended high school in Wilson’s district, and the congresswoman made a point to insert herself as a voice against Florida’s stand-your-ground law that initially kept Zimmerman from facing charges.
“I’m going to say it like I see it. Travyon was hunted down like a rabid dog,” Wilson said in 2012. “He was shot in the street. He was racially profiled.”
For weeks, Wilson took to the House floor and made speeches in Washington and Florida designed to draw attention to the fatal shooting.
“Yesterday, I promised that I would come to the floor of this House and announce to America just how long justice for Travyon Martin has been delayed,” Wilson said. “Today, Travyon Martin was murdered 26 days ago and still there has been no arrest. Today, this is for Sybrina and Tracy, Travyon’s parents, as they fight for justice. I stand with them.”
Zimmerman was arrested 19 days after that speech. He was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges in 2013.
And Wilson continues to fight three years later for the 113 missing Nigerian girls that were kidnapped in 2014 by the militant group Boko Haram, after the Bring Back Our Girls campaign ebbed from national attention. Wilson and her staff continue to raise awareness at various events around Washington and in Miami. Wilson’s Twitter avatar is #BringBackOurGirls #JoinRepWilson.
To some in Washington and Miami, Wilson’s affinity for bright-colored cowboy hats adorned with sequins and her tendency to muscle her way into the camera shots during the annual State of the Union address makes her a politician who values style over substance. The congresswoman has only passed two bills since entering Congress in 2011, and both of them renamed federal buildings in her district.
“One of the first things she did do was she tried to pass a bill for congressmen or women to wear hats in the House of Representatives,” said Randal Hill, a former University of Miami football player who unsuccessfully challenged Wilson in the Democratic primary last year. “I don’t know how that is helping the community as a sitting politician.”
But Wilson handily defeated Hill in 2016, and she has beat every primary challenger she’s faced since winning the seat by 19 percentage points in a nine-way primary in 2010.
During her 25 years in elected office, beginning with a non-partisan post on the Miami-Dade school board from 1992 to 1998 and continuing as a state representative and senator in Tallahassee from 1998 to 2010, Wilson has never been in the majority.
Braynon said Wilson understands the limitations of representing such a liberal-leaning community in Republican-controlled chambers in Tallahassee and Washington. Working with Republicans isn’t politically feasible when your district is over 80 percent Democratic.
“People in our district dislike [Gov.] Rick Scott and Donald Trump vehemently. They elected you to make sure everything [Scott and Trump] believe in doesn’t happen, and 80 percent of our district feels that way,” Braynon said. “Someone with that type of mandate is not there to make deals. What they do is they go up and they make sure that people I represent are heard.”
Braynon said there’s a substantive rationale behind Wilson’s seemingly flamboyant appearance.
“I think the hats and the sparkles get your attention to see her but then you realize she’s trying to help these little black boys in the 5,000 Role Models of Excellence program,” Braynon said, referring to a program founded by Wilson in 1993 that aims to place every participant in college, vocational school or the military.
Johnson, 25, was part of 5,000 role models program when he was in high school.
“The loved ones Sgt. Johnson leaves behind are my constituents and my job now is to do all that I can to help them heal,” Wilson said.