Dec. 2, 2019 by David Silverberg
It took 18 days from the time Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) announced his retirement from Congress on Oct. 19 until State Rep. Dane Eagle (R-77-Cape Coral) made his own announcement on Nov. 6.
“Our values, our way of life and our president are under attack from the far left, the media and even some in our own Republican Party,” Eagle warned ominously in a video statement on Twitter, that subtly lashed out at Rooney.
Against a dark, grayed-out, brooding image of protesters and then a picture of “The Squad” of four Democratic members of Congress, Eagle declared: “Washington has been infiltrated by radical socialists who despise our Constitution and detest our freedoms. They know President Trump is winning, they know he is making America great again and they will stop at nothing to destroy it.”
And so battle was joined on the Republican side and the tone was set for the coming contest.
In the days following Rooney’s abrupt announcement, Southwest Florida’s Republican politicians had some hard thinking to do. The seat was open. The primary on Aug. 18 of the following year would likely determine the election and so this was both an opportunity but one with risk and danger.
One by one the most likely Party candidates took themselves out of the running: State Sen. Lizabeth Benaquisto (R-27), who ran in the 2014 congressional primary, issued a statement saying that “running for Congress in 2020 is not the right path for me and my family… .” State Sen. Kathleen Passidomo (R-28) demurred. Former Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott said that he wasn’t running.
Then, the day before Thanksgiving, Nov. 26, Mayor Randall (Randy) Henderson of Fort Myers announced that he would be running for the seat.
The opportunity to file for the seat is open until noon, April 24, so more candidates may enter. Prime possibilities include State Reps. Byron Donalds (R-80), Bob Rommel (R-106) and Heather Fitzenhagen (R-78).
However, the longer they wait, the more difficult their runs.
The current contenders
Dane Eagle is a 36-year-old resident of Cape Coral who attended the University of Florida where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics. He started out selling real estate and was a broker associate for Commercial Real Estate Consultants in Fort Myers.
But Eagle had early political ambitions and showed promise. At the age of 24, he served as Republican Gov. Charlie Crist’s deputy chief of staff, the youngest person ever to hold that office.
In 2012, the first election after new maps were drawn following the census, Eagle ran for the state legislature in the newly-created 77th District encompassing Cape Coral. In the primary he was up against former city councilman Christopher Berardi and won by 70.6 percent. (Berardi is today Rooney’s press secretary.) Eagle then went on to win the general election against African-American Democrat Arvella Clare by 62.4 percent to Clare’s 37.6 percent.
Once in the legislature, Eagle began a remarkably rapid rise—but it was practically over before it began. On April 21, 2014, at age 31 and the start of his second term he was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol in Tallahassee. At 2 am, after nearly colliding with another car and bumping a curb, he was pulled over by a police officer who smelled alcohol and found Eagle’s eyes bloodshot and watery. Eagle denied drinking but stumbled getting out of his car and refused to take a field sobriety test. He blamed the alcohol odor on previous passengers. The policeman’s dashcam video of the entire incident was released to the public.
In a subsequent statement to constituents he acknowledged that “while there are some decisions that I would have made differently” he said that the full story had not been told and contended that legal proceedings meant he could not discuss it further. Three months later he pleaded guilty to a charge of reckless driving and received six months of probation, had to take alcohol tests and perform 100 hours of community service.
The arrest notwithstanding, Eagle continued a robust legislative career that featured his sponsoring legislation consistent with conservative Republican orthodoxy. He sponsored or co-sponsored legislation to increase criminalization of various aspects of abortion, increase penalties for offenses committed by undocumented aliens (which died in committee), called for a supermajority vote of the legislature to raise any state taxes or fees, and sought to reduce penalties for openly displaying weapons if the person has a concealed weapon permit.
Eagle’s legislative record earned him an “A” rating from the anti-taxation Americans for Prosperity and a 2019 “F” rating from the People First Report Card for his votes on the environment, immigration, public schools, healthcare and other issues.
Eagle had a relatively easy time electorally. In 2014 he defeated three other primary challengers, winning 64.1 percent of 12,410 votes cast and then cruised to victory over Independent Jeremy Wood. He was unopposed in both the primary and general elections of 2016.
In 2018 he won with 63.4 percent of the vote against Democrat Alanis Garcia, the first trans-gender candidate to run in a Florida election.
He also rose through Republican ranks in the legislature, becoming House Majority Whip in 2016 and then House Majority Leader in 2018.
On Oct. 1 of this year at a church in Iceland, he married Brooke Iwanski, a chiropractor based in Fort Myers.
Randall (Randy) Henderson is the 63-year-old mayor of Fort Myers, an office he has held since 2009. As of this writing he had announced his candidacy but not yet legally filed with the Federal Election Commission.
Born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Henderson has an extensive record in government. He served on the Fort Myers City Council for nine years before running for mayor and is now in his third term, the first Fort Myers mayor to serve that long.
Professionally he has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Mars Hill College, Mars Hill, North Carolina, and is a licensed real estate broker in both North Carolina and Florida. He came to Fort Myers in 1979 to take a position with the Ellis Banking Corporation. He left banking in 1986 to join the Corbin Henderson Company, a family-owned firm specializing in office, warehouse and light industrial and multifamily real estate. He’s been very active in civic and business groups
Electorally, Henderson has had some big advantages. During his tenure mayoral races have been held in off-years and the primary election served as the general election. Turnout was extremely low. Henderson won his first race in 2009 with a mere 1,777 votes. In 2013, he won with 65.2 percent of only 886 votes cast, a mere 23 percent turnout of the eligible registered voters. In the 2017 election he won with just 4,073 votes, 70 percent of 20,782 votes cast. (Starting next year, Fort Myers will hold its elections on the same days as presidential primaries and general elections.)
“My 10 years as mayor, including nine years on the City Council, has provided insight and vast experience working in the public sector including solving complex issues while improving the quality of life for the citizens of Fort Myers,” Henderson stated when he announced. “I believe this experience provides me the background to lead the charge for serving citizens in District 19 and bring focus and support from Washington to our district.”
He’s been married to his wife Ginny for 40 years and they have three children: Laura, Marcus, and Alex.
Antonio Dumornay is a Miami native who grew up in Naples. The father of three, he began getting involved in local politics in 2015 in the City of Naples and served on a Community Redevelopment Advisory Board.
In a July 3, 2017 meeting at the Unitarian Universalist Sanctuary in Naples covered by the Naples Daily News, Dumornay related his personal experience as an inmate in the criminal justice system. He was arrested selling drugs, which he said he did to support his family during a crisis. He did hard labor and was paid 10 cents an hour “but we didn’t get paid. They promised us gain time, but we didn’t get that either.”
At the meeting Dumornay said was creating an organization to keep people out of the criminal justice system.
On his campaign website Dumornay states that he is concentrating his campaign on community and small business development, infrastructure and education improvement, youth career training and Medicaid expansion.
William Figlesthaler is a Naples-based urologist who is making his first run for public office. According to his professional biography he’s a cum laude alumnus of Wake Forest University and graduated with honors from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, NC. He then completed his urological surgery training at the University of Kentucky, in Lexington, Kentucky. His specialty is treating prostate cancer.
As of this writing he has not yet posted a campaign website and his positions were only made public in a Nov. 7 interview with NBC-2’s Dave Elias.
In that interview Figlesthaler stated that he’s completely loyal to President Trump. “I will be loyal to the president. All the way. I believe in Donald Trump’s policies,” he told Elias.
At the same time he demurred when asked if he supported all of Trump’s statements and tweets. “I mean that is a loaded question. He’s not our messiah. He’s not somebody who says, ‘Oh my goodness I worship this man. [sic]’”
Figlesthaler’s second wife, Olga, is a Russian immigrant.
Daniel Severson, 65, of Cape Coral, is a graduate of St. Cloud State University, St. Cloud, Minn., where he graduated in 1979 with a bachelor’s degree in physics. He enlisted in the Navy in 1978 and served as a Navy fighter pilot, officer and commander until 2000.
In 2002 he won election to the Minnesota House of Delegates where he represented District 14A until 2011 and served as minority whip. In 2010 he ran for Secretary of State but lost to incumbent Democrat Mark Ritchie by 49 percent to Severson’s 46 percent.
In 2012 Severson sought the Republican nomination for the US Senate to run against incumbent Democrat Sen. Amy Klobuchar. However, he lost the party’s endorsement at the state convention and withdrew from consideration. He was narrowly defeated in his second bid for Secretary of State in 2014, losing to Democrat Steve Simon, who won with 47 percent of the vote to Severson’s 45.9 percent.
On his campaign Facebook page Severson states: “During these impeachment hearings, it is important to remember the American people supported President Trump when they elected him in 2016, and we continue to support him going into 2020. We’ve got your back Mr. President!”
He also states: “Donald J. Trump and Mike Pence are men of God serving in the White House,” and “Christians need to put people of faith back in leadership across all sectors of public office!”
When it comes to the Second Amendment he states: “I am the only person in this race who can truly say I support our Constitutionally protected right to bear arms, which includes assault weapons. As your Representative to the U.S. House, I will fight all legislation that undermines the 2nd Amendment in the slightest.”
Severson is married to Cathy Jo Severson.
Analysis: The fight on the right
OK, we’ve done our due diligence, now let’s get real. As of this writing, there are two credible candidates in this race: Dane Eagle and Randy Henderson.
They both have the name recognition, the historical records, the experience and the access to funding to make them genuine contenders.
An Eagle-Henderson race is going to be an interesting one for a number of reasons:
It pits a Trumper against a Republican
As his video demonstrated, Eagle is tying himself entirely to Trump and playing the conspiracy card, warning of socialist infiltration of government. He has established his campaign on national themes and absolute allegiance to and adoration of Trump, which can be expected to continue.
Henderson, by contrast, is basing his campaign on local issues and his record. He told the News-Press that he intends to run a clean race emphasizing the environment, quality of life, business expansion, infrastructure modernization and disaster resilience issues.
This race is shaping up as a contest between the Trump Cult and the Republican Party for the souls of Southwest Floridians.
It’s a contest of generations
Eagle is 36, Henderson is 63 (a nice bit of numerology there!). Each brings a different generational perspective. With 27 percent of the district 65 or older (28.6 percent in Lee County, 32.2 percent in Collier County), it will be interesting to see which candidate can elicit the greater loyalty from the area’s seniors.
It pits Cape Coral against Fort Myers
Each candidate has his own geographical base, Eagle in Cape Coral, Henderson in Fort Myers. According to current census figures, Cape Coral, the fastest growing city in the country, has 189,343 residents as of July 2018, Fort Myers, 82,254.
Can the personal and ideological appeal of each candidate retain his geographic base and expand it sufficiently to win the nomination?
Turnout will be everything
Robust turnout is always key to an election and that is certainly true in this case. Each candidate will have to motivate his followers to get to the polls by primary day, Aug. 18 amidst the deathly stillness of a Florida summer and the uncertainties of hurricane season—not on Nov. 3, when turnout in the general election should be very big given the presidential election.
Follow the money
This race is going to be more expensive than any either of these candidates have previously run. Will the money come from local donations or contributors outside the district? The sources of funding will say much about whom the winner will serve should he attain office.
Past and future
Both candidates have had a relatively easy time in their past elections.
In his general elections Eagle was up against Democratic candidates who were outside the Cape Coral mainstream: an African-American woman and a transgender person and in 2016 he ran unopposed. This time he’ll be facing a mainstream candidate with a strong record.
Henderson always ran for mayor in off-year elections when the primary was the main contest and turnout was extremely low, requiring few votes to win. Now he’s running in a jurisdiction with over 500,000 registered voters and turnout is likely to be high, given that it’s a presidential election year. He’s going to need lots of money and very vigorous campaigning to win.
Funding and endorsements will be key elements. Eagle has started strongly with numerous endorsements and a reported $100,000 raised in the first few hours of the campaign (although this is based on campaign claims, not on official FEC filings).
The tendency of candidates in any primary contest in any party is to gravitate toward the extremes. Primary voters tend to be people who hold strong political beliefs and are active in party activities. That certainly seems to be the case here.
Already, three of the five declared Republican candidates are vying to show that they are “Trumpier than thou,” so to speak. Like worshipers of some inscrutable god who expresses himself through volcanoes and hurricanes, they appear to hope the sincerity of their belief and their obedience to his commands will be rewarded by divine favor—or votes of the party faithful.
Ironically, the litmus test of true Trumpiness appears to be attitudes on impeachment, which actually has nothing to do with these candidates’ rising class in Congress. Only Rooney, already sitting in Congress, will actually get a substantive vote on anything having to do with impeachment. By the time any of the candidates are elected to the 117th Congress in November 2020, the entire political landscape may have changed and impeachment may no longer be an issue.
Nonetheless, it’s an emotional hot button in Southwest Florida conservative circles—as it is around the nation.
By the time this is posted, other candidates may have jumped in the Republican primary race.
The 2020 election is shaping up to be the most crucial in American history. On a national level, it will likely decide whether the nation remains a democracy—and even whether it has future elections.
Southwest Florida will reflect in microcosm all the nation’s conflicts. It makes for an interesting election—and a potentially cataclysmic one.
Coming next: How a Democrat can win in Southwest Florida
Liberty lives in light
© 2019 by David Silverberg