Nov. 29, 2020 by David Silverberg
It was the day before early voting began. The Florida October sun shone warmly on the Collier County Fairgrounds as hundreds of supporters of candidate Donald Trump packed onto the dusty field and filled the bleachers.
As with all Trump rallies, the atmosphere was part carnival, part circus, an eruption of exuberant excitement for what all knew was a doomed candidate who was nonetheless going into the last days of battle full of defiant energy.
But before the candidate spoke there was a lineup of other personalities and politicians. Among them was the Republican candidate for Congress for the 19th Congressional District of Florida, businessman Francis Rooney.
“Once again, for the second time, we get to welcome our Republican nominee for president who may be our savior: Donald Trump,” Rooney said in his Oklahoma twang. A slight figure in rolled-up shirtsleeves, he stood amidst a sea of Trump signs and “Make America Great Again” hats.
After reminding the crowd to vote, he went on: “Now our nominee, Donald Trump, is the only thing standing between us and Hillary Clinton. It’s a thin red line between us and Hillary Clinton.”
The crowd erupted in chants: “Lock her up! Lock her up!” Rooney laughed and shouted, “Yes, lock her up!”
Trump, said Rooney, was the only thing protecting them from “three or four horrible Supreme Court nominees who are going to plague us, plague our kids and plague our grandkids for the rest of our lives.” He was also the only barrier against “invasive, oppressive regulations” and “a bunch of taxes that are going to make it impossible for people to start businesses and raise families and prosper like we’ve all been able to do since the Reagan revolution.”
He continued: “We’ve had eight years of nonstop trampling on our Constitution, an abuse of executive power. Hillary Clinton buys into every word of the Obama deal. He’s mocked, he’s mocked our traditional American values and sneered at conservative God-fearing Americans. He’s stealing our rights—right before our eyes!”
Then he yelled, emphatically, desperately, “We are at the breaking point! We’ve got to take our country back!” The crowd roared.
At stake, he continued, was whether the United States would remain an exceptional nation of opportunity and freedom “or are we going to go the way of Europe: slow growth, big government pessimism, no people have kids because they’re pessimistic or even worse. Are we going to go the way of authoritarianism?”
Southwest Florida, he said, is God’s country and “could change the game. We’re the redder than red region” and could deliver the state to the Republican Party and Donald Trump. Then he urged everyone to vote.
He finished the speech to boisterous cheers.
Rooney went on to win his congressional race and Donald Trump astounded the world—and himself—by being elected the 45th President of the United States.
Exactly four years later, Rooney was still in Congress. But now he was a heretic and a pariah, remote and removed from constituents, retiring amidst recrimination and accusation and in Congress disgraced and exiled from a key Party position.
Most of all, he had publicly renounced Donald Trump as his savior. He had questioned the creed and the doctrine and the infallibility of the man he’d once praised as the only protection for American freedom.
And when Donald Trump was defeated, Rooney, alone of all his fellow local Republicans, reached out to Joe Biden, the victor, and congratulated him. “All Americans need to come together in supporting President-elect Biden,” he wrote on social media. “Our nation will only be successful if the new administration is.” This was praise for the man who was once at the top of the Obama administration that Rooney charged was bringing authoritarianism.
Francis Rooney’s journey from believer to heretic is a great story of American politics.
But there is more, because Rooney was an active member of Congress who did change some things in Southwest Florida and in the nation’s capital. What he achieved and what he attempted to achieve need to be objectively evaluated and assessed so that the good can be a foundation and the bad can be healed.
In this four-part series, The Paradise Progressive will examine Francis Rooney’s two terms in Congress and the legacy he leaves. It is not only a story of one man’s odyssey, it also illustrates the extent and limitations of what a member of Congress from Southwest Florida can and cannot do. It illuminates the enduring issues that face the region. Lastly, it is important that Southwest Florida have a detailed history of the man who held the region’s highest elected federal position and his actions during his two terms in office.
(In a spirit of full disclosure, be aware that this author served as the communications director for Rooney’s 2018 Democratic opponent, David Holden and as such conducted and collected opposition research, helped formulate strategy and messaging and worked very hard to oust Rooney from his seat.
But this current series is meant as an evaluation, not a settling of scores. It is intended to be rigorously, factually accurate and as dispassionate in its analysis as possible, while coming from a liberal, progressive political perspective.
As part of the author’s due diligence and in a spirit of fairness, he reached out to Rep. Rooney’s office with over 30 questions seeking his input, reactions and insights and to give him the opportunity to present his viewpoint. No acknowledgement or response was received. All reporting was done from public sources.)
It is a long way from Muscogee, Oklahoma to Naples, Florida but that dusty Oklahoma town is where Francis Rooney began his journey on Dec. 4, 1953.
Rooney was the eldest of Laurence Francis and Lucy Turner Rooney’s six children.
The young Rooney was raised in a devoutly Catholic family and embarked on an education that most remarkably stayed entirely within Washington, DC’s Jesuit Georgetown school system, starting with Georgetown Preparatory School, Georgetown University (Bachelor of Arts, 1975) and Georgetown University Law Center (Juris Doctor, 1978).
Rooney had the good fortune to be born into a fourth-generation construction business, the Manhattan Construction Company, which was founded by Laurence Rooney in 1896 when Oklahoma was still a territory.
Manhattan Construction grew with Oklahoma, building schools, courthouses and, after Oklahoma became a state in 1907, constructing two capitol buildings as the state’s capital moved. When it was a territory Oklahoma was already producing more oil than anywhere else in the United States. Once it became a state and automobiles came into common use the oil industry boomed, ancillary business exploded and Manhattan Construction thrived and expanded.
As eldest son, Rooney took the helm of Manhattan Construction and in 1984 founded Rooney Holdings in Naples, Fla. The company formally purchased Manhattan Construction as a subsidiary and expanded into other businesses like investments, real estate, electronics and insurance. In addition to bread and butter work on bridges, buildings, stadiums and oil pipelines, the construction company won major, prestigious contracts for the presidential libraries of George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush and the Capitol Visitors Center, an enormous underground facility that provides screening and security while guiding visitors into the US Capitol.
All this made Rooney very, very rich. In 2018, the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call estimated his personal net worth at $22.6 million but other estimates range much higher. The website OpenSecrets.org estimated it as $74.3 million in 2017. Whatever its exact figure, it was enough to enable him to build a massive mansion, currently estimated to be worth $29 million, on the water in Naples’ swanky Port Royal neighborhood. There he lived with his wife Kathleen, two sons, Larry and Michael, and daughter Kathleen.
In addition to a variety of charities, Rooney was a major contributor to Republican causes, giving $1 million to Restore Our Future, the super political action committee (PAC) of Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and over $2 million to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s super PAC and numerous other candidates and committees. He served other political causes, mainly in a fundraising capacity. In another expression of his political conservatism, his company built the headquarters of the Koch brothers-funded Cato Institute think tank in Washington, DC.
In 2005, Rooney was appointed ambassador to the Holy See, the diplomatic arm of the Vatican, by President George W. Bush. Not only did the appointment make sense given Rooney’s education, faith and prodigious political donations, but Rooney had some experience of international relations given his extensive international business dealings in Mexico, the Bahamas and Central America, where he was on the advisory board of the Panama Canal Authority.
From all accounts his three years as ambassador were successful—there were no major bilateral crises between the United States and the Vatican during his tenure—and he wrote a book about it and Vatican foreign policy called The Global Vatican.
After returning to the United States in 2008, Rooney could have easily lived extremely well in Naples, tended to his businesses, donated to his charities, grown richer and remained a private citizen. But in 2016 came an opening for a seat in the United States Congress and Rooney decided to grab it.
Into the arena
When Republican Rep. Curt Clawson decided to step down after one term in Congress representing Florida’s 19th Congressional District, three men leapt into the breach: Chauncey Goss, the son of former Rep. Porter Goss, who had represented Southwest Florida in Congress from 1993 to 2004; Dan Bongino, a conservative commentator; and Rooney.
The contest took place against the backdrop of the rise of Donald Trump, the angry, racist, demagogue and proud outsider, who kept smashing Republican establishment figures in primary after primary in his quest for the nomination.
In many ways, the 2016 Republican primary in Southwest Florida mirrored the national contest: an establishment scion of an entrenched family—Goss—was running against a populist, outsider businessman who proudly pointed out that he had no prior elected experience. (Rooney conveniently downplayed his previous diplomatic service, his establishment academic credentials and the fact that he’d given generously to centrist Republicans being felled by Donald Trump, like Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney.)
Rooney poured an estimated $4 million into the race, running television ads that touted his business prowess, lack of political baggage and commitment to “conservative values.”
In the end, it paid off. Rooney won the Aug. 30 primary with 52.7 percent of the vote against Goss’ 29.9 percent and Bongino’s 17.4 percent.
Rooney closely allied himself with Donald Trump’s candidacy and attitudes. It was during his run for the general election that he shared the stage with Trump at the Collier County fairgrounds, praised him as a savior and called for Hillary Clinton to be locked up. (Also sharing the stage at that rally—and immediately preceding Rooney as a speaker—was Byron Donalds, who was running for Florida state House District 80.)
Rooney sailed on to a general election victory against Democrat Robert Neeld with 65.9 percent of the vote to Neeld’s 34.1 percent, a result reflective of the 19th Congressional District’s party registrations.
It was a smashing victory for all concerned, both locally and nationally. Against all expectations, Donald Trump had beaten the odds and become President. Republicans took the House of Representatives and the US Senate. Rooney would be going to the nation’s capital on behalf of Southwest Florida.
The world seemed the Republicans’ oyster. What kind of a pearl would it produce?
- Coming Tuesday: The Believer
- Coming Thursday: The Heretic
- Coming Friday: The Legacy
Liberty lives in light
©2020 by David Silverberg