When U.S. Rep. Byron Donalds is mentioned in the media, his name is routinely preceded by the same two words: “rising star.”
Donalds has completed just one two-year term in Congress but is already a serious force in his party. The Naples Republican dominated the national news cycle for a day in January when he was nominated for Speaker of the House and is considered a frontrunner for Florida governor in 2026. A master at staying on message and strong on TV, Donalds of late has received extensive national exposure; just last week, CNN gave him thirty minutes of primetime air to debate a Democrat on gun safety.
And where Donalds goes, so goes Larry Wilcoxson, the Congressman’s senior political advisor and almost literal right-hand man. The pair are together so often Donalds joked about it at a recent gathering in Washington.
“People are always like, ‘Who is this guy, is that your body man? What they really don’t know is I’m his body man,” said Donalds. “But what most people don’t know is that Larry and I were there in the car day after day after day, knocking doors, talking to voters [on the campaign trail].”
Wilcoxson told the Florida Trident that his actual role with the congressman is nothing short of “brother away from home.” He bonded with Donalds more than a decade ago over not only their shared political views – the two men were often the only Black faces in a sea of whites at Tea Party events – but also their similar backgrounds.
Both men were born in 1978 and were raised largely by single mothers in low-income homes, Donalds in Brooklyn and Wilcoxson in rural Immokalee, one of Florida’s poorest towns. In a recent Facebook post, Wilcoxson wrote that he would lay down his life for Donalds, comparing their partnership to Starsky and Hutch, and vowed never to let Donalds “fail or fall.”
“He’s a yankee and I’m a true southerner,” Wilcoxson told the Florida Trident. “I really believe in ‘give me liberty or give me death.’ I do whatever needs to be done, but I’m a senior advisor. We talk about everything. I care more about him winning than anything.”
Despite Donalds’ explosive rise to political prominence, both he and Wilcoxson have been the subject of controversy among liberal and conservative circles alike in their home district in Southwest Florida, a MAGA stronghold.
In the fall, Donalds and Wilcoxson were recorded in two heated situations involving Collier County School Board Member Kelly Lichter, who has filed a federal lawsuit against Donalds’ wife, Erica, in a dispute over control of a local charter school.
In one of the videos, Donalds and Wilcoxson surround Lichter, a fellow Republican, in a supermarket and Donalds can be seen shouting after her, “Stop the lawsuits, Kelly!” In the other, police are seen restraining Wilcoxson, who says he stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 300 pounds, after he allegedly lunged at Lichter’s husband, Nick, during a local Republican Executive Committee (REC) meeting.
Wilcoxson said he was playing the role of peacemaker in the restaurant and was only responding to the aggression of Lichter, who chairs the REC, and two other men at the meeting.
Cindy Banyai, Donald’s Democratic opponent in the last two congressional races, said Wilcoxson similarly “cornered” her on the campaign trail in the past and “shouted” at her, prompting Donalds to pull him back.
“Larry is the intimidator, that’s his role,” said Banyai. “I call him Byron’s id. He does all the stuff that Byron wishes he could do, but can’t.”
Former Collier Republican Committeeman Rob Tolp says the behavior, along with other internecine political conflicts, has caused Donalds to become persona non grata at his home REC to which he has belonged for years. He said there are specific concerns about Wilcoxson’s temperament and arrest history, which has never been fully explored by local or national media.
“He resorts to threats of violence almost instantaneously,” said Tolp of Wilcoxson. “It’s almost like it’s his first go-to move. That’s a bad sign.”
Court and police records reviewed by the Trident show that Wilcoxson has been charged with armed robbery, aggravated battery, misdemeanor battery, and grand theft auto in Collier County over the years, beginning with the armed robbery arrest when he was 14-years-old growing up in Immokalee.
While attending college in Tallahassee, where he earned a criminology degree from Florida State University, Wilcoxson frequently got first-hand experience in the justice system as well. From 1997 through 2000, he was charged with multiple crimes, including a forgery and stolen credit card case for which he took a plea deal and was sentenced to probation; a firearm charge on college grounds for which he was never formally charged (he said the charge was false); a petit theft arrest that he won at trial, and a charge of criminal mischief that was dropped.
The judge withheld adjudication in the forgery and credit card case, meaning that the only felony Wilcoxson is known to have been convicted of was the grand theft auto charge in 2015. He was served six months in jail, but the conviction was vacated in 2022, which means he has no standing convictions on his record.
In March of last year, his former fiance, Melissa Kamin, filed an injunction for protection against Wilcoxson alleging that she was “picked up, thrown on the kitchen counter, and held against [her] will” in her Marco Island home where she lived with Wilcoxson. Kamin further alleged that Wilcoxson had somehow found her across the state in Lauderhill, where he “broke into my car and scattered all my personal property on the ground,” according to her petition.
Wilcoxson said Kamin’s allegations were false and denied he’d ever been violent with her at all. Court records show that after she obtained a temporary restraining order, Kamin voluntarily dismissed the injunction in May. Efforts to reach her were not successful.
It’s a child molestation case from 2006 that remains the most disturbing of the criminal charges filed against Wilcoxson. Police alleged Wilcoxson molested a 13-year-old student when he was working as a substitute teacher at a middle school in Indianapolis.
Initially held on $100,000 bond, Wilcoxson said the case “mentally and physically hurt” him so much that he considered taking a gun to the police department.
“I was going to make them kill me,” he said. “It was wrong.”
The charges were ultimately dropped for unknown reasons. Wilcoxson denied he molested any children and claimed police set him up in part because he was related to Edgerrin James, the Hall of Fame NFL running back who was a star for the Indianapolis Colts at the time. And he said he was the victim of racist cops.
“The f—ers made me take four lie detector tests,” Wilcoxson said. “The officer said, ‘N—–, I want to send your ass to prison for the rest of your life.’ Report that, because that bothers me a lot …
“Do you think I would have actually gotten into the game of politics if I was guilty of any crimes, let alone that kind of disgusting and horrendous act or behavior?”
A look at the public record shows there are many questions still unanswered about the case. The Indianapolis Star, citing prosecutors, reported at the time that Wilcoxson had been fired from the school for exposing himself to a female custodian and federal court records show there was more than one accuser.
Wilcoxson himself said there were multiple alleged victims. When asked if they were all lying, he didn’t directly answer the question.
“I’m not gonna open up that can of worms,” said Wilcoxson. “The law has spoken. It took me to a dark place. In my America, in your America, only a Black man will be guilty and will always be guilty.”
He said he would quickly resign his position with Donalds should his past run-ins with the law cause troubles for the Congressman, who did not respond to requests by phone and email from the Trident for an interview.
“Before I would let anything happen to Byron,” said Wilcoxson, “I would step down from Byron.”
“I’m a Lady’s Man”
The girl is known only as “T.T.” in federal court records. She was a student in Wilcoxson’s class at Henry W. Longfellow Middle School in Indianapolis, where she attended sixth and seventh grade. In June 2005, her mother, Valerie Davis, learned from T.T. that Wilcoxson had molested her, according to a federal lawsuit filed the following year.
Davis reported the alleged abuse to the school system, which, along with police, conducted a “superficial and flawed” investigation, according to the complaint, which was filed by Indianapolis attorney Robert Feagley against the City of Indianapolis, Indianapolis Public Schools, the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, and Wilcoxson on behalf of Davis.
“This investigation incorrectly and falsely determined that Wilcoxson was the cousin of an Indianapolis professional football player and that T.T. and Davis were simply ‘out to get Wilcoxson,’” Feagley wrote in the complaint.
The suit alleged that while T.T. was treated in a “hostile manner” by authorities and threatened with arrest for filing a false report, Wilcoxson was cleared and allowed to remain employed as a substitute teacher.
That employment ended in February 2006 after Wilcoxson was accused of exposing himself to a female custodian at the school. Five months after that, on July 20, Wilcoxson was charged with three counts of sexual molestation of an unnamed 13-year-old student at Henry Longfellow.
“Wilcoxson gave the girl a nude photograph of himself, which Marion County prosecutors said she showed to several classmates,” the Star reported. “Prosecutors said three other students told authorities they saw the picture. The girl told police she had a crush on Wilcoxson. The assaults occurred in Wilcoxson’s car while it was parked in a lot [near the school], prosecutors said.”
The case worked its way through the courts for a year before the charges were dismissed. The reason for the dismissal isn’t clear, but the court docket shows the judge granted a motion to exclude a witness’s testimony the day before the case was shut down.
Wilcoxson provided no answers as to why the charges were dismissed, but said he was videotaping his sexual encounters with women at the time and that police seized those tapes and found no incriminating evidence.
“I was having a menage a trois with three women at once and I had the video footage,” he recalled. “I said [to police], ‘Did you see any little girls in there? I’m a real life pimp. I’m a lady’s man.’ They went through all my sexual tapes, all of them. They looked on my computer. I said, ‘Did you see me looking at porn with kids?’ I don’t do that. That’s what white men do. As a criminologist, look at the statistics. With Black men, it’s homicide, it’s robbery … with white men, it’s bombs, it’s serial killers, it’s child molestation.”
Wilcoxson said he might have hurt his own cause when he lashed out at Indianapolis police officers, particularly a certain detective.
“I was young and I said a lot of nasty stuff,” said Wilcoxson, who was a month shy of his 28th birthday when he was charged in the case. “My lawyer said, ‘You wouldn’t have been arrested if you wouldn’t have said what you said.’ … I said [to the detective], ‘I’m gonna f–- your wife, maybe your daughter too.’ I’m older now. That was my stupidity.”
As for the allegation that he had exposed himself at the school, Wilcoxson said the custodian alleged it occurred when he was in the men’s bathroom and she had entered to clean it.
“Show me the camera where she even walked in on me,” he said. “They said the camera wasn’t working.”
Federal court records show that the case filed by T.T. and her mother was settled out of court on June 22, 2009. The terms have not been disclosed, but Wilcoxson said he didn’t even remember the civil case, which was targeted primarily at the school system and police department, and that he’d returned home to Immokalee by that time.
Less than a year after the case settled, Wilcoxson pulled off what seemed to be a magic trick: He was running as a candidate for the Florida House of Representatives and was already a favorite of the conservative Tea Party.
“I pretty much took them by storm,” he said.
“I Fought Back”
When Wilcoxson took the stage at a Naples Tea Party rally on June 5, 2010, he made sure the older and almost all white audience knew that he had more than just a criminology degree.
“My most proud degree is my Masters of Divinity,” he said of the degree he earned from tiny Martin University in Indianapolis. “Because I am a child of God.”
Running with no party affiliation, Wilcoxson then served up some anti-immigrant rhetoric, complaining of murders on the border and the beheading of a Mexican prison warden.
“If you can do [these crimes], I definitely don’t want you around me or my fellow American citizens,” he told the crowd.
Though he lost that race as well as a 2012 run for Hendry County Clerk of Court, his campaign wasn’t impacted by the controversy in Indianapolis. On one occasion it was mentioned in a Naples Daily News column that painted Wilcoxson as a victim of racism in the case. From the newspaper in July 2010: “[H]e says he was targeted by police who roughed him up and used racial epithets during an investigation of a sexual molestation case to which he had no connection. The experience left him sensitive to instances of racism. The tea party simply isn’t a racist group, he said.”
Wilcoxson’s local arrests also went largely unexamined. In the juvenile robbery case in Immokalee, sheriff’s deputies alleged a 14-year-old Wilcoxson, whose nickname is Scooby, shoved and tried to strike one of the victims and that his .22-caliber revolver discharged “during the scuffle,” according to the arrest report.
After the legal troubles in Tallahassee, Wilcoxson returned home to Immokalee, where he was arrested in 2003 on charges of aggravated battery and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. The arrest report alleged Wilcoxson, then 25, hit someone with a stick in a fight on the street.
Witnesses told police that the person Wilcoxson was with pulled a gun during the fight, which predicated the aggravated assault charge. Prosecutors never formally filed any charges in the case.
“There was some gangsters and again, I’m not afraid of you all gangsters – I fought back,” said Wilcoxsin. “I did that. I fought back, but there were no charges filed, and [the people he fought] apologized to me.”
In late 2013, after his electoral defeats, Wilcoxson got a job at Hertz Rental Cars at the Naples Airport and, according to a police report, was fired after being accused of driving a vehicle for two months without permission. After his termination, the company suspected Wilcoxson had taken another vehicle, a Chevrolet Impala, and reported it to the Collier County Sheriff’s Office. When deputies found the Impala in Wilcoxson’s driveway, they charged him with grand theft auto.
While he awaited trial in that case, Collier deputies charged Wilcoxson with misdemeanor battery in Immokalee after he allegedly attacked a car detailer named Johnny Lee Hughes. According to the arrest report, Hughes was washing a car when Wilcoxson parked his own car next to it, obstructing his work. Hughes told deputies the two men were in a verbal argument and that Wilcoxson returned later and approached him in an “aggressive manner with his shirt off.” Hughes said he “retreated” but Wilcoxson thought he was going to spray him with the hose and attacked him.
“Larry struck Johnny on top of his left eye causing Johnny to fall back [and hit] his head against a trailer containing water for Johnny’s car detailing business,” Deputy Michael Portnov wrote in his report. “Larry also struck Johnny in the lips.”
A witness confirmed Hughes’ account, but Portnov, who took photos of Hughes’ injuries, reported that Wilcoxson claimed he had returned to “make amends” with Hughes and alleged Hughes was the initial aggressor.
“He hit me with the iron end of the hose,” Wilkinson told the Trident, adding that surveillance video supported his story. “Then I went to beating on him.”
Portnov determined that Wilcoxson “maliciously and intentionally struck Johnny against his will” and charged him with misdemeanor battery. He took the case to trial and a jury found him not guilty on July 27, 2015.
A year later, during the grand theft auto trial, Wilcoxson argued that he had a rental agreement with Hertz to possess the car, but a jury convicted him and he was sentenced to six months in jail. The conviction was vacated in January 2022 after Hertz came under fire for faulty business practices that caused numerous customers across the country to wrongfully face car theft charges.
So why did Wilcoxson take possession of the car?
“Because I smoke crack and I smoke marijuana and I also do heroin and I was a druggie,” he said.
While he said the words in dead seriousness, it was clear he was being sarcastic about preconceived notions about him as a Black man.
“Everything is a joke to me – life is a joke,” he said. “I’m always going to be looked at as a villain. People will say, ‘Oh that’s just a Black thug.’ I also tell them to put adjectives in front of it, smart, intelligent, handsome, whatever you want to put in front of it.”
Wilcoxson acknowledged that his personal thoughts on racism might seem to contradict Donalds’ stance against teaching about America’s racial history in public classrooms that might make some students uncomfortable. He says that while he acknowledges racism exists, he judges everyone on an individual basis and supports law enforcement (and has police officers in his family).
He described his life in Immokalee as a struggle both due to race and poverty, with his mother, who died in 2004, serving as the supportive heart and backbone of the family, while his father, Harry Wilcoxson, was in and out of prison,.
“My father was a kingpin, living a double life, my father was that guy,” he said. “I’m 44, about to be 45, and my father spent 30 years behind a fence.”
Harry Wilcoxson’s rap sheet includes convictions for assault with intent to commit second-degree murder as well as cocaine trafficking convictions in both Florida and Georgia. He was most recently convicted on 2014 charges of cocaine distribution and possession of a firearm by a felon and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Despite losing an appeal, Harry Wilcoxson was released at the age of 80 from federal prison in November 2020 after serving just a fraction of his sentence. Larry Wilcoxson said his father was pardoned by former President Donald Trump, but Harry Wilcoxson’s name is not on pardon lists released by the White House.
It was Larry’s mother, Dorothy Dove, who not only paved the way for his academic success, he said, but also instilled in him a strong Republican mindset (though he also admitted she voted for Bill Clinton and county records show Wilcoxson was once a registered Democrat). As an example of his mother’s conservatism he said she didn’t approve of abortion.
“I was with a girl who had an abortion and she was livid about it,” he said.
It was his decision to join Tea Party politics that led to his union with Byron Donalds – and the rise to the upper rung of Congress.
“Everything Else Is A Facade”
Though he never won elected office, Wilcoxson said he developed political cachet as at one time essentially the lone Black voice in the Naples Tea Party.
“The party is only like 3 percent Black and it gave me the opportunity to speak for Immokalee and for what they consider a poor town, an uneducated town,” Wilcoxson said. “It allowed them to see somebody like me, who was smart, dressed extremely well, and I have the same values that they have. I took them pretty much by storm.”
It was during his early political barnstorming that another budding Black politician, Byron Donalds, arrived to court the same crowd.
“He happened to be speaking at the same engagement,” Wilcoxson recalled. “I spoke first and then he spoke and I was like, ‘Who’s this young negro trying to steal my thunder?’ I knew I was the only Black person out there. I was like, ‘What’s he doing?’”
He said later he and Donalds recognized each other from FSU, which they attended at the same time.
“Me and Byron had crossed paths back at Florida State,” said Wilcoxson. “We were running in different crowds. He had gained weight, that married weight. He said, “Didn’t I see you in Tallahassee?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I used to see you!’”
While the two men share much in common, Donalds had a greater gift for oratory and won a seat in the Florida House in 2016 before graduating to Congress in 2020 and taking Wilcoxson, his body man, along with him.
“He don’t give a dern about whether he wins or loses,” Wilcoxson said of Donalds. “He grew up differently than other statesmen; he grew up on these streets.”
And it’s there where Wilcoxson said he still feels most at home.
“You can find me in the hood – that’s my people, that’s where I come from,” he said. “Everything else is a facade.”
About the Author: Bob Norman is an award-winning investigative reporter who serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Florida Trident and journalism program director for the Florida Center for Government Accountability.