The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rep. Frederica Wilson didn’t flinch at Trump’s attacks. Her record explains why.

Four U.S. soldiers were killed in Niger on Oct. 4, in an attack near Niger’s border with Mali. Here's what we know. (Video: Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

The fact that Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.) was riding in a limousine with the widow of Sgt. La David T. Johnson when President Trump called comes as no surprise. Nor does the outrage she expressed in one news interview after another in which she stood by her claim that the president’s insensitivity toward the fallen soldier made the young woman cry.

Wilson has deep roots in the South Florida community where Johnson grew up. Before entering Congress, she worked as a teacher, principal and school board member in the Miami-Dade area and served for more than a decade as a state legislator.

She also founded a program in 1993 called 5,000 Role Models of Excellence, which helps at-risk minority youths prepare for college, vocational school and the military. Her long career in public service and her work in the program have put her especially close to military families and victims of gun violence over the years. She does not shy away from grief.

Before Johnson was killed in an ambush in Niger earlier this month, he graduated from the program. Wilson was consoling his wife, Myeshia Johnson, when, by her account, Trump called and said that La David Johnson “knew what he signed up for, but when it happens, it hurts.” The president has called the allegation “totally fabricated” and criticized Wilson.

Wilson has a long track record of taking on her constituents’ tragedies as her own, helping people grieve and rallying her community in tough times — especially those who come out of her program, news archives show.

When a 22-year-old soldier from south Florida was killed in a car-bomb attack in the early days of the Iraq War, the news fell hard on Wilson.

It was spring 2004, and Wilson was then a state senator representing the Miami area. The soldier, Pfc. Jeremy Ricardo Ewing, was not only her constituent but a recent graduate of her mentoring program. She had known him since he was a middle-schooler.

At his funeral, she was overcome with grief and anger. She told the Miami Herald at the time that she believed Ewing died fighting in a senseless war, and she criticized the Bush administration’s rationale for the U.S.-led invasion. “I could not help but think how we went into war when the president said there are weapons of mass destruction,” she said. “And to this day, to this day, we have not found them. Now, Jeremy is gone.”

Days later, the 5,000 Role Models program held a memorial service honoring Ewing. Wilson lit a candle for him, and offered more restrained remarks about his death. “It’s unfortunate what happened to this young man,” she said, “but I feel proud to say I knew him and that he was part of my organization.”

Ewing’s death came shortly after another graduate of the program, Edmond Randle, 26, was killed by an improvised explosive device on a road north of Baghdad. Wilson knew him, too, as local media noted at the time.

Two years later, in 2006, Miami-Dade County was rattled by an alarming spike in homicides. Three of the victims had taken part in Wilson’s program. One was college-bound alum of 5,000 Role Models. Another was a wood shop teacher who served as a program mentor.

The third, Eviton Brown, 24,was a star football player who attended Florida A&M University, the Herald reported at the time.

When Brown was gunned down in northern Miami in October 2006, Wilson seized on the opportunity to call for gun control to curb the violence that killed the three men.

“He was killed with an assault weapon that probably only those fighting in a war should have access to,” she told the Herald.

The same year, a 9-year-old girl was struck by a stray bullet and killed while she was playing in front of her house in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood. The morning of her funeral, Wilson announced that the girl’s teenage brother would be awarded a full college scholarship, the Herald reported at the time.

Ending gun violence has been one of Wilson’s signature campaigns since she became active in politics.

In the late 1990s, as a school board member, she founded Stop Day, a statewide cease-fire and anti-violence pledge. She has also marched in vigils and presided over community meetings on gun violence, and has long focused on keeping children safe from gunfire.

“It’s really sad. I don’t think people realize nowadays that children don’t just wake up in the morning, brush their teeth, eat a good breakfast and go to school. Many times we should give them a standing ovation just for showing up in class,” she told the Herald in 1997.

A decade after that interview, Wilson was still at it, delivering the opening speech at a memorial breakfast in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., where she railed against the shooting deaths of young black men.

“That is what Dr. King would want us to do, take back the community from the hooligans,” she said, according to the Herald. ”Only 7 percent of people in the inner city are prone to violence. The other 93 percent are tired of it.”

When Trayvon Martin, a black teenager, was fatally shot by George Zimmerman as he was walking through a Florida neighborhood in 2012, Wilson spoke out on behalf of his parents and again called for an end to violence against young black men.

“It is as if someone cuts your chest open, rips out your heart, throws it on the ground, stomps on it, picks it up, placed it back in your chest and then sews you back up,” Wilson said in one of several impassioned speeches she gave at the time. “Trayvon’s parents endured a loss that no one should have to endure. Parents should not have to bury their child.”

Wilson went on to hire Martin’s brother, Jahvaris Fulton, as an intern and brought him into her 5,000 Role Models program. Fulton is now living in New York City and working as a special assistant at a city-backed effort called the Young Men’s Initiative, as Vice reported this year.

The 5,000 Role Models program is full of success stories like Fulton’s. It is fair to say that La David Johnson, who was in the Army Special Forces, was one of them. So were his brothers. One received a full scholarship to Bethune Cookman College, and the other is training to become a firefighter, Politico reported.

“When I saw the headline that a young man was killed in Niger from Carol City, I thought, ‘My God, please don’t let it be a role model.’ And it was,” Wilson told Politico.

She said of Trump in an interview with CNN: “For him to say that this young man stayed in school, did all the right things, went into the service, became a sergeant so quickly, that he signed up for his own death? That is so insensitive, his sarcasm.”

More from Morning Mix:

White ex-Tulsa police officer convicted of fatally shooting daughter’s black boyfriend

Lawsuit: Big Pharma funded terrorism in Iraq with payments to corrupt health ministry

A veteran died as a nurse’s aide played video games instead of checking on him, report says