Politics

Florida lawmaker reconsiders trademark hats. She points to unsettling call, worry about ‘racists’

Trump feuds with congresswoman over call to fallen soldier’s widow

President Donald Trump and U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson from Miami Gardens feuded over a call he made to a fallen soldier's widow. Sgt. La David T. Johnson was killed in an ambush during a joint-military mission in Niger on Oct. 4, 2017.
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President Donald Trump and U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson from Miami Gardens feuded over a call he made to a fallen soldier's widow. Sgt. La David T. Johnson was killed in an ambush during a joint-military mission in Niger on Oct. 4, 2017.

Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, whose trademark colorful hats have helped make her one of South Florida’s more recognizable political figures, has decided to be more selective about when she wears them.

Fear, not fashion, is the reason.

Wilson, a 76-year-old Miami-Dade Democrat serving her fourth term in the House of Representatives, said she made the decision after an unsettling phone call to her home following her visit — as part of a Democratic delegation that included Georgia Rep. John Lewis — to the Homestead detention center, where more than 1,300 undocumented migrant children are being held.

The caller, who she said did not give a name, was angered over a response Wilson gave to a reporter about a secret Facebook page created by 62 Border Patrol agents, which included lewd, doctored pictures of freshman U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat who had become a frequent target of President Donald Trump and Republican leaders. Wilson, in televised comments, called the page a disgrace and said the person who posted the photos should be prosecuted.

The caller, she said, argued that the Border Patrol page was protected under the First Amendment and while he didn’t directly threaten her, suggested that her hats made her easy to find. Wilson, subject of a not-so-subtle threat in late June, said she was shaken. She said from now on, whether she wears a hat or not will be dictated by the event and whether she’s in a public setting or not.

“I felt I was in danger. No one has ever done that,” said Wilson. “He said, ‘Everywhere you go, we’re going to tell people to look for the hats.’ So I decided I’m going to stop wearing hats that create attention for myself. Now I’m not wearing them when I think I can be targeted. The mood of this country is so full of hate, venom and retribution. You can’t be sure.”

Wilson said she gave the number of the caller to her staff, who passed it along to law enforcement in Miami Gardens. She’s since changed her number and it’s no longer public.

Wilson said so far she’s only shared her decision to forgo hats with family members, not wanting to make it a public spectacle. Capitol Police refused this week to discuss any security detail involving Wilson. But the Miami Herald confirmed that Wilson had increased security for several weeks.

Wilson was already under heavy security detail during her July 2 visit to the children’s migrant detention center at Homestead due to an earlier threat. According to federal agents, a Pentagon contractor named Darryl Albert Varnum was so angered by Wilson’s introduction of a bill requiring public schools to vaccinate children or lose federal funding that he called her Florida office in late June and threatened to kill her. Varnum has since been jailed.

Since then, Wilson said she’s been accompanied by Capitol Police from Washington, D.C., and agents from Homeland Security when she travels. Records show Miami Gardens police also had placed a 24-hour detail on her home while she was in South Florida.

Wilson called the security detail “confining” and said she no longer does several things she used to take for granted, like going to the nail salon, because she doesn’t want to show up surrounded by law enforcement.

The decision to hang up her hats was difficult, she said. She owns hundreds of them, in an array of colors and styles — a look she adopted in homage to her grandmother and namesake, who Wilson said always seemed to have a hat on her head.

“My hat is so much a part of me,” said Wilson in a text. “But I will decide day by day, event by event and city by city. Safety first. The hat has become a rallying call to right-wing zealots and racists who taunt me. It’s hurtful, but I know how to fight.”

Wilson wore hats as a school principal at Skyway Elementary in Miami Gardens and then again after she was elected to the School Board of Miami-Dade County Public Schools. When she spoke out after the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, a Miami-Dade student who died at the hands of security guard George Zimmerman, Wilson stood before the cameras wearing a signature hat.

Her hats were even the subject of a congressional rules battle in 2010. During her first term representing southern Broward and northeastern Miami-Dade counties, Wilson petitioned House Speaker John Boehner for a reprieve on a centuries-old rule that forbade wearing a head cover in the House chamber, calling it “sexist” to a Miami Herald reporter.

In the end, Wilson’s request was refused and for the past decade the congresswoman has simply removed her hat when she enters the chamber. On Wednesday, she arrived at the House in a white jacket with bright red accents — but without a hat. But the next day, she tweeted out a clip of her wearing a bright pink cowboy hat during a statement at a subcommittee hearing she chairs.

“Hats are what I wear,” she said. “People get excited when they see the hats. Once you get accustomed to it, it’s just me. Some people wear wigs or high heel shoes or big earrings or pins. This is just me.”

Like Ocasio-Cortez, Wilson has been attacked by Trump and other GOP leaders. Most notably, the president and then-White House Chief of Staff John Kelly castigated her after Wilson publicized a statement the president made to a grieving family member of Army Sgt. La David Johnson, killed in an ambush in Niger in 2017.

The threats against her come in the wake of the president taking to Twitter to tell four freshman lawmakers, all women of color, that they should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” Three of the women were born in the U.S. A fourth gained citizenship as a child after escaping war-torn Somalia.

Like Wilson, several of those women have received death threats. In March, police found a cache of high-powered weapons in the home of a New York man who called and threatened the life of Minnesota U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, one of only two elected Muslims in Congress.

Wilson believes the president’s remarks about immigrants and minorities have given confidence to a group of racists who have for the most part hidden their true feelings for the past few decades.

“It’s unbelievable and it’s emanating from the White House. They do not respect women of color,” said Wilson. “It’s coming from the top.”

Chuck Rabin, writing news stories for the Miami Herald for the past three decades, covers cops and crime. Before that he covered the halls of government for Miami-Dade and the city of Miami. He’s covered hurricanes, the 2000 presidential election and the Marjory Stoneman Douglas mass shooting. On a random note: Long before those assignments, Chuck was pepper-sprayed covering the disturbances in Miami the morning Elián Gonzalez was whisked away by federal authorities.
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