Rooney reaches 2-year mark in avoiding constituents, town halls

05-31-17 Rep. Francis Rooney town hallRep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) at a May 31, 2017 town hall in Bonita Springs.   (Photo by author)

730 days (2 years) since Rep. Rooney has met constituents in an open, public forum

Feb. 22, 2020 by David Silverberg

Today, Feb. 22, marks two years since Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) has faced constituents in person in an open, public forum to hear their concerns and answer their questions.

It was on Feb. 22, 2018 that Rooney held his last two town hall meetings, one on Marco Island, the other in Fort Myers.

Rooney announced his retirement from Congress on Oct. 19 of last year. He’s not running again but he’s still representing the 19th Congressional District in the US House—and doing it in a radically different way than he did prior to last Feb. 22.

However, constituents may never get an in-person explanation of the changes since an actual public appearance by the congressman to answer constituent questions seems unlikely to ever happen again.

Absenteeism

There have been many changes for Rooney since his retirement announcement but one major difference is in his behavior—he’s been absent a lot more from Congress than previously.

Rooney has missed 25.4 percent of the votes in the 116th Congress, making him the sixth most absent member, according to ProPublica, a public reporting initiative. This is in stark contrast to his first term in the 115th Congress, when he only missed 10.1 percent of the votes and was the 33rd most absent member.

These absences include critical votes such as allowing the government to negotiate lower prescription drug prices or opposing Trump’s withdrawal of US troops from Syria, and major federal budget measures.

In this regard, Rooney is behaving very similarly to former representative and fellow Republican Curt Clawson (2014-2016), whose absences also went up strikingly after he announced in May 2016 that he would not be running again, according to the website GovTrack.

Apparently, working in Congress as a lame duck is not that much fun.

Metamorphosis

Rooney is no longer the reliable Trumper he was when first elected.

During his first term in Congress Rooney voted 95 percent of the time with President Donald Trump. He advanced the president’s positions and defended him in the media and was praised for it by Trump during the president’s appearance in Estero on Halloween night 2018.

“He’s brutal,” Trump said of Rooney, to applause in the Hertz Arena. “He gets the job done.”

Between that, Rooney’s conservative base and his self-financed campaign, Rooney won re-election in 2018 by 63 percent.

However, that election brought in a Democratic majority in the House and Rooney successfully accommodated himself to it (a trend well documented by The Paradise Progressive).

Behind the scenes, though, Rooney was apparently changing. He’d always made water purity and Everglades restoration a key plank in his platform and he was pummeled during the 2018 red tide/blue-green algae crisis. However, he consistently denied the reality of man-made climate change; in fact, his denials elicited outrage at his last town hall meeting.

Sept. 11, 2019 was as momentous a day in Rooney’s world as it had been 17 years before for the nation. On that day Politico magazine published an op-ed by Rooney in which acknowledged climate change in a big way.

“I’m a conservative Republican and I believe climate change is real,” Rooney wrote. “It’s time for my fellow Republicans in Congress to stop treating this environmental threat as something abstract and political and recognize that it’s already affecting their constituents in their daily lives.

“If we don’t change our party’s position soon, our voters will punish us,” he warned.

Rooney had apparently learned from the previous year’s red tide and blue-green algae blooms that he ignored environmental issues at his peril. Southwest Florida voters had come to accept the reality of climate change, as documented by the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. If Rooney was going to get re-elected in 2020 he had to go with the flow and as a newly-minted member of the House Science Committee, he couldn’t deny the reality of the data.

“Climate and the environment must be bipartisan concerns, but Republicans are lagging,” he wrote. “Congress must work together to find solutions that will advance the goals of both parties and the best interests of the American people.”

In that spirit of bipartisanship, Rooney got important environmental legislation passed by the entire House of Representatives. It was House Resolution 205, the Protecting and Securing Florida’s Coastline Act of 2019, which made permanent the moratorium on oil and gas drilling off the Florida coast. A key figure in making that happen was House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.), who agreed to Rooney’s request to move the bill.

It passed on Sept. 11—the same day his op-ed was published in Politico.

Heresy

Rooney was clearly positioning himself for his next run for Congress and doing so successfully. He was shoring up his environmental flank and building moderate support with centrist, bipartisan positions.

But at the same time President Donald Trump’s behavior and the impeachment inquiry in the House derailed any such mundane considerations.

After Mick Mulvaney, White House chief of staff, announced that the president had demanded a quid pro quo from Ukraine in return for releasing military aid approved by Congress, Rooney said he was open to considering evidence of presidential wrongdoing, dissenting from the Trumpist propaganda line and party discipline. This was more than his local political base would tolerate and Rooney announced his retirement the next day.

Despite his openness to the evidence and a short period of wavering, Rooney voted against impeachment.

Although he voted for the president and followed party discipline, Rooney remains a pariah at home among Southwest Florida Trumpers and presumably in Congress where he appears to have been cast into the wilderness by the president and his fellow Republicans.

Now he doesn’t seem to be reliably showing up for work.

Lessons

The arc of Rooney’s congressional career shows the perils of supporting a would-be absolutist dictator.

It needs to be remembered, as people look back fondly on Rooney’s environmental record, that during his elected political career he campaigned for, supported, enabled and defended Donald Trump, a man whose highest priority is the blind, unthinking obedience of everyone around him—and the nation at large.

The moment Rooney showed the most fleeting flash of independent thought, the slimmest sliver of an open mind, he was cast into an outer darkness of exile and excommunication. None of his past support, his “brutal” defenses of the president, his call for a political purge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, his faithful adherence to the president’s wildly changing and unstable doctrines made any difference.

In this, Rooney’s experience is similar to that of fellow Floridian Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-1-Fla.), who was a loud and outspoken Trumper and the man who in Trump’s defense ostentatiously led the Republican charge on the House Intelligence Committee’s secure chamber to protest its impeachment proceedings. Yet when Gaetz voted one time against the president’s wishes, voting to restrict presidential warmaking power against Iran, none of his previous fealty counted or was remembered and he too was cast out.

Rooney and his fellow Republicans, especially Florida’s two senators, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, have enabled and elevated one unworthy and unfit man to dictator-level status. That exaltation brings with it all the abuses and perils of dictatorship: corruption, megalomania, bigotry, rage, oppression, absolutism, fanaticism; what might be called the seven deadly sins of dictatorship. And as with all dictators, the tyrant’s wrath can fall suddenly and unexpectedly on anyone at any time for any reason—or for no reason at all.

Rooney has experienced this at a high governmental level; the American people are beginning to experience it at the grassroots.

It would be nice to discuss all this with Rep. Rooney in person—if he ever again holds a town hall meeting.

Liberty lives in light

© 2020 by David Silverberg

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