Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson in his campaign video. The clip of him giving Rep. Ilhan Omar the key to the city is on the television screen behind him. (Image: Randy Henderson for Congress campaign)
Feb. 13, 2020 by David Silverberg
Fort Myers mayor and congressional candidate Randy Henderson is exactly where a politician doesn’t want to be: he can’t appease the fanatics and he has offended the moderates. He’s like a freestyle mountain climber who’s halfway up the rock face with no shelter and the weather moving in. He has no cover and there’s no retreat.
Of course, he has no one else to blame for this predicament.
Will his candidacy continue? And how did he get here?
The video and its origins
Among the eight Republican candidates vying for Rep. Francis Rooney’s congressional seat in the 19th Congressional District, Henderson, at least from the time he declared his candidacy on Nov. 26, 2019, was the most moderate.
His platform rested on his record as a successful three-term mayor of Fort Myers, a record of economic achievement, downtown renovation, pragmatic problem solving and improving the quality of life. While his competitors brayed about their loyalty to Donald Trump’s policies and pronouncements, Henderson kept largely silent on that front and pledged to work for the welfare of all of Southwest Florida’s people.
But apparently Henderson decided that wasn’t working much for him. For the ever-Trumpers among Republican primary voters, Henderson had some serious vulnerabilities.
While the Republican field featured a candidate whose arrest for driving while intoxicated was caught on a police dashcam (Dane Eagle), a candidate who was arrested for selling and possessing illegal drugs (Byron Donalds) and one who had done hard prison time (Antonio Dumornay, now an Independent), Henderson’s vastly more serious sins in their eyes consisted of welcoming President Bill Clinton to the city of Fort Myers when he came to campaign on his wife’s behalf on Oct. 11, 2016 and in 2017 greeting Ilhan Omar, then a Democratic state legislator from Minnesota, to Fort Myers and giving her the key to the city.
So Henderson decided to get ahead of the right-wing wave and one week ago, on Thursday, Feb. 6, he released a 1-minute, 13-second campaign campaign video called “Done Playing Nice.”
The purpose of the video was to position Henderson as a mini-Trump as mean and tough as his competitors and expiate his prior sins.
The video opens with a video clip of Henderson handing Omar the key to the city. Henderson swings away from the TV monitor.
“Yep, that’s me giving Ilhan Omar the key to the city,” he says, sitting at a desk. “I didn’t know her politics then – or that she is an anti-Semitic socialist. Watching that now… makes me sick.”
He explains: “I’ve had to show respect to all kinds of people as Mayor… I even had to welcome Bill Clinton to town… but I’m done playing nice with people who won’t show respect to President Trump.”
Henderson gets in a small plane and takes off, while saying that by governing according to conservative principles and the Trumpist formula, he’s built Fort Myers’ economy.
Then, apparently the plane has landed and Henderson appears in front of the US Capitol. “My name is Randy Henderson. I’m running for Congress because President Trump doesn’t need more radicals in Congress pushing partisan impeachment… he needs allies who know how to grow the economy. And if you send me Congress, I’ll represent your values, be an ally to President Trump… and I’ll get that key back.”
Then, as the image fades out, text appears in the lower left corner of the screen saying “Sorry, Ilhan.”
But it’s not clear if Henderson is apologizing to Omar for taking back the key—or apologizing to her for having to make this video to get himself elected.
Reaction to the video has been swift and vocally negative.
Gabriele Spuckes, chair of the Lee County Democratic Party, called for Henderson’s resignation.
“If the Mayor can’t run a campaign with maturity and professionalism he should resign as Mayor of Fort Myers to avoid further embarrassing himself and the people of Fort Myers,” she stated.
“It is disappointing that at a time in our nation’s history when civility is rare and bi-partisanship almost nonexistent, that Mayor Randy Henderson of Fort Myers would engage in inappropriate, petty and childish rhetoric that is frankly insulting to the residents of this city, all of whom are his constituents, as well as the voters in the rest of the 19th district who he would presumably want to be his constituents,” she continued.
She called on Henderson to apologize to all the residents of the 19th Congressional District and abandon “this low road he has embarked on” and instead address Lee County residents’ needs and desires.
Members of the mayor’s diversity committee were reportedly considering resigning as a result of the video, including Peter Ndiang’ui, its chairman and the person who, as a member of the African Network of Southwest Florida, first invited Ilhan to Fort Myers.
At least one of Henderson’s Republican competitors wasn’t buying his act. State Rep. Byron Donalds (R-80-Immokalee) told Fox4 News: “In political campaigns, you’re going to see a lot of people try to rebrand themselves. Calling themselves conservative. Mayor Henderson or anyone else who’s running, they’re going to have to stand not just on what they’re saying in this campaign, but what they’ve done over their time in politics,” he said.
Henderson hit back at his critics in a Facebook posting on Monday, Feb. 10: “You may have seen me in the news recently,” he wrote. “I spoke up against socialism and anti-Semitism, and the ‘politically correct liberal mob’ went nuts. It’s the Democrat playbook. They can’t beat us on the substance, so they attack your character. Ilhan Omar’s actions were censured in the House of Representatives!”
The next day he did another post, trying to turn the controversy to his fundraising advantage: “Democrats are coming after us for telling the truth! We will never stop fighting against the socialism and anti-Semitism that is being peddled by Ilhan Omar and her supporters. Donate here to help us fight back.”
Commentary: Joining the stampede
Aside from its pettiness and meanness, what is so stunning about the “Done Playing Nice” video is that it’s so out of character for Henderson.
As a mayor, Henderson governed moderately and inclusively. He also governed relatively wisely and had a record of achievement of which he was rightly proud. He enjoyed considerable goodwill across the political, racial and ethnic spectrum. Fort Myers thrived.
When he declared his candidacy for Rooney’s seat Henderson seemed one of the only sane Republicans anywhere in the country, someone immune from Trumpist madness, which was leading his followers over a cliff, as Rep. Rooney once put it.
But in a hyper-partisan local race for Congress full of loud, fanatical mini-Trumps appealing to the extreme right wing of the electorate, Henderson’s sanity and reasonableness clearly didn’t sit well.
This was reflected in his fundraising. Although he was one of the first Republicans to declare his congressional candidacy, Henderson raised an anemic $68,391.74 in 2019, the sixth lowest total of all District 19 candidates, according to the Federal Election Commission.
So Henderson has made the calculation that he’ll use the Trump playbook and portray himself as a blindly loyal, fanatical, obedient Trumpist fighting against the “politically correct liberal mob.” After all, it’s not thinking people who appreciate good governance who determine the outcomes of Republican congressional primaries.
But this is not likely to work with anyone. The true Trumpers know Henderson’s not really one of them. His Republican competitors have far more genuine Trumpist credentials. He has now lost whatever moderate support and goodwill he once enjoyed. He has probably lost many of the supporters of all parties who formed the base he built over three terms in Fort Myers.
Henderson’s “Done Playing Nice” video doesn’t establish him as a tough, aggressive mini-Trump; on the contrary, it reveals him as a moral coward, abandoning decency to join the stampeding Trumpist herd.
In this, Henderson is a tragic political figure, a man who knew better but sold his soul to something dark and evil. It also reveals the insidiousness of Donald Trump’s corrosive impact on national politics, his meanness, pettiness and paranoia leaching down as far as the remote reaches of Southwest Florida.
Randy Henderson may be done playing nice—but the voters of Southwest Florida are also done playing nice with him.
Liberty lives in light
©2020 by David Silverberg