The Rooney Record, Part II: The Believer

Members of the 115th Congress take the oath of office. (Photo: US House)

Dec. 1, 2020 by David Silverberg

There is no ritual more solemn in Washington, DC, than the taking of an oath of office. It expresses an individual’s deepest, most fundamental commitment to the United States as witnessed before God. It is when those who walk in the footsteps of the Founders pledge their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to their country.

As a new year dawns after an election, the members of the House and Senate take their oaths of office, followed weeks later by the president at his inauguration.

For members of the US House of Representatives, on the first working day of January they gather en masse in the Capitol with grave pomp and, inserting their names, recite: “I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”

The loyalty expressed in the oath is not to a person; it’s to a Constitution and the principles underlying that Constitution. In fact, the US oath is a form of rebellion against the oath used in colonial times, when officeholders swore allegiance to the king.

But Donald Trump saw loyalty differently. In his mind, loyalty could flow only to him and he expressed that view bluntly and directly. “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty,” Trump told James Comey, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, according to Comey’s account—shortly before he was fired. Trump didn’t want just loyalty; like a feudal monarch, he wanted unquestioning fealty and obedience.

On January 3, 2017 members of the 115th Congress may have sworn allegiance to the Constitution of the United States but the Republican members were going to be called upon to demonstrate their personal loyalty to the man who would take office on January 20. Their loyalty was going to be tested to the limits of rationality and reality and morality.

And of those members, none seemed prepared to be a more loyal defender of the man he saw as a national savior than Representative Francis Rooney of the 19th Congressional District of Florida.

Rep. Francis Rooney poses for an oath of office administered by House Speaker Paul Ryan. His wife Kathleen holds the Bible. (Photo: Office of Rep. Rooney)

Defender of the faith

For ordinarily sleepy Southwest Florida, politics were not usually a primary concern. But the election of Donald Trump after his extreme and threatening rhetoric on the campaign trail and his wild actions immediately after taking office alarmed and upset many local residents. A women’s march in Naples the day after the Inaugural attracted well over a thousand participants, much to the astonishment of the organizers.

Rooney launched his first town halls with constituents shortly after he took office and on March 3, 2017 he held two, one in North Naples and the other in Cape Coral.

The town halls drew more people than such events might have in the past and at the North Collier Regional Park the lines to get in were so long and the community room so full that people were turned away. Later that day, the Cape Coral church where the town hall was held was packed.

Constituents line up to get into Rep. Rooney’s first town hall meeting in North Naples on March 3, 2017. (Photo: Author)

Rooney had called for “a civil and constructive dialogue” so that he could hear “your thoughts, concerns, and suggestions.” He really wanted to discuss his efforts to fund Everglades restoration and he clearly hoped the town hall would cover water purity and environmental issues.

But participants had other things on their minds. They wanted to hear where their representative stood on a broad array of Trump-related issues, which had only vaguely been discussed during the campaign.

What they got was Rooney’s pure, unvarnished Trumpism and conservative gospel:

On why the United States did not have universal healthcare like other industrialized nations: “Half the country voted not to do that and I don’t believe America is behind in anything,” Rooney said. “I don’t want to live in France. I’ve lived in Italy but I don’t want to live in a place with 1 percent growth, with no upward mobility where if your father was a baker, that’s what you’re going to be.”

On Obamacare: “It was an experiment that didn’t work” and should be repealed, he argued.

On cutting off federal funds for Planned Parenthood: “I definitely want to de-fund Planned Parenthood. I want to get government out of the abortion business.”

On Trump’s ties to Russia and the stream of lies coming from the administration: Rooney said the House and Senate Intelligence Committees “have superior knowledge and they have access to the classified data.”

On the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): “The EPA needs to be reined in.”

On whether Trump should release his tax returns: “We all have opinions. You didn’t hire me to express my opinions about things I can’t do anything about. I spend my time focusing on something that I can do something about for you.” Angry audience members started chanting “Yes or no! Yes or no!”

On and on it went in both town halls, with the audience getting more angry and agitated with his answers and seeming evasions. There were boos, catcalls and in both meetings audience members jumped up and started to approach the stage, having to be restrained.

It wasn’t good then and it never got better during his first term. Rooney always seemed grim, humorless and tense. It was as though he could not believe the audience wasn’t reading from his own conservative catechism. He would open the meetings trying to explain Everglades restoration and water flow, mounting charts and slides, clearly intending to deliver what was essentially an engineering briefing but the audience would never buy it. The events would quickly go off the rails into chants, shouting and discord. His own supporters were always vastly outnumbered and although his aides made sure to pick at least some softball questions from the cards people submitted in advance, what was clear and palpable was the fear, anxiety and alarm caused by Trump’s words and actions, which Rooney proved unable to address.

To his credit, Rooney continued having town halls. The meetings, he told the Fort Myers News-Press, “are critically important because this is democracy at work. This is what our country is built on.”

But his town halls ended on Feb. 22, 2018 at Marco Island and Fort Myers. It was only eight days after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. People were horrified and frantic about the bloodshed. In his opening remarks in Fort Myers he presented a technical, architectural proposal to screen students entering schools. It didn’t satisfy anyone.

On Marco Island, when asked if he would support a semi-automatic weapons ban, Rooney replied: “How willing are we to throw the Constitution out the window?” The answer elicited angry shouts and catcalls.

In Fort Myers Rooney was confronted by six surviving students of the shooting. Though stating that “irresponsible people” shouldn’t have guns, his opposition to a ban or any other gun control measure led to jeers and angry shouts from the audience.

“Children are…dying at my school!” yelled Michael Weissman, who had graduated from the school the year before. “You are heartless!”

“I’m for making sure that people who are dangerous don’t get guns in their hands,” Rooney said, to a chorus of boos. “I’m not voting to abdicate the Second Amendment.” Students from Naples and Palmetto Ridge high schools chanted: “Tell us Rooney how you dare, to put us all in the cross hairs” and “Close down the NRA; we don’t want it anyway.”

That was Rooney’s last town hall—ever.

Into the DC swamp

Freshmen members in Congress rarely have standing in an institution that reveres seniority and longevity, no matter what their stature back at home. In this Rooney was no exception.

Rooney, who had never spent a day of his life in a public school classroom, landed a position on the House Education and Labor Committee, which was something of a backwater, especially in Republican eyes. There, he supported the Chair, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-5-NC), whom Rooney once characterized as a “super conservative.” She wanted to abolish the Department of Education.

Rooney, working with Foxx, tried to cut national education spending by $2 billion and end scholarships for students intending to go into public service (“You know, you get a special loan if you commit to go into public service after college. It’s like paying people to fight against us,” he told a conservative audience in May 2018.). Rooney also hosted Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos for two tours of inspection of Southwest Florida schools.

In the end, faced with both Democratic and mainstream Republican opposition, none of Rooney’s education efforts amounted to anything.

On the labor part of his committee assignment, Rooney was relentlessly anti-union, sponsoring or cosponsoring bills to reduce union activity and make it more difficult to organize unions and easier to de-certify them. In a 2018 op-ed he specifically attacked the Coalition of Immokalee Workers as well as the idea of “worker centers” that are not unions but educate and assist workers.

Rooney also sat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, an appropriate assignment given his diplomatic experience. There he inveighed against the regimes in Cuba, Venezuela and Iran. Perhaps most memorably, he wrote an op-ed calling on State Department diplomats to at least consider the advantages of recognizing the independence of the Kurds, America’s frontline allies in fighting the Islamic State.

Bizarrely at one point, Rooney turned against legislation he himself had cosponsored and lobbied against it in the Senate. That was the Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act requiring democratic reforms in Nicaragua before American businesses could make investments there. At first Rooney supported it. Then, after it had passed the House and gone to the Senate, he turned against it, infuriating committee Chair and fellow Floridian, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-27-Fla.).

“Why Rooney chose to lobby against a bill that he himself cosponsored and to do so without even giving me the courtesy of a notice, is practically unheard of in this institution,” Ros-Lehtinen complained to the Miami Herald. “And then to take the extra step of being actively involved in lobbying against it, going to the Senate and lobbying senators against a bill he cosponsored? I don’t know what Rooney’s about, but it was not appreciated. It’s just uncool.”

Legislatively, Rooney’s most prominent effort was a quixotic attempt to impose term limits on members of Congress, which he called the Thomas Jefferson Public Service Act, an effort to return to the idea of the citizen-legislator at the dawn of the republic.

Terms of elected service are set by the Constitution and changing the Constitution is an arduous and lengthy process—deliberately so. Rooney wanted congressional representation capped at six terms in the House and two in the Senate (12 years) and he wanted to get this passed immediately. To do this, he proposed a business solution: reduce members’ salaries to $1 after the limits were reached.

The idea was criticized by Southwest Florida Democrats, among others, as being unconstitutional and favoring the wealthy who would be the only ones able to serve beyond the limits. The bill went nowhere, although it did take up a lot of Rooney’s time and attention.

The urge to purge

Rep. Francis Rooney is interviewed by reporter Hallie Jackson on Dec. 26, 2017. (Image: MSNBC)

As Trump’s actions alarmed and enraged much of the public at the national level, Rooney was quick to jump in and defend the president. He said that Trump’s idea for a border wall was a “metaphor for border security” and when Trump promised that Mexico would pay for it, the president was speaking in “an exuberant manner.” The investigation into Russia ties had been “propagated relentlessly by democrat officials in order to discredit the President and the election” and “continues to be debunked,” he stated.

He was open and available to national media of all political persuasions and made frequent appearances to respond to questions and drive home his points.

But one on-air defense stood out from all the others. It came the day after Christmas, December 26, 2017, during what should have been a very slow news day.

Trump had been tweeting fulminations against the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Russia investigation, which he maintained was a hoax. FBI Director James Comey had been fired by Trump in May. Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe had announced his resignation. Trump was putting pressure on the FBI just at the moment former FBI Director Robert Mueller was pressing ahead with his investigation.

Rooney was interviewed by correspondent Hallie Jackson on MSNBC about the tweets and the investigation.

He offered a full-throated defense of Trump and attacked the FBI and Department of Justice (DoJ). “I’m very concerned that DoJ and the FBI are off the rails,” he told Jackson. “I think the American people have very high standards…”

“Are those agencies not living up to those standards?” asked Jackson.

“Those aforementioned examples are really nerve-wracking to me and undermine my confidence that the agencies don’t respect the Constitution and will put the ends before the means.”

“That’s a pretty broad brush you’re painting with,” responded Jackson.

“Yeah, but we’ve seen a lot of ends before the means culture both in the Obama administration, out of Hillary Clinton, 4 million dollars of potentially illegal campaign contributions, the Clinton Foundation, Uranium One. We’ve got to have good, clean government.”

“Do you think we don’t have a good, clean government?” asked Jackson. “There are those who look at remarks like you are making and say that Republicans are trying to discredit the Department of Justice and thus the Russia investigation. Is that not what you’re doing?”

“No, I’m not trying to discredit them,” responded Rooney. “I would like to see the directors of those agencies purged and say, ‘We’ve got a lot of great agents, a lot of great lawyers here.’ Those are the people that I want the American people to see good works being done, not these people who are kind of a deep state.”

Jackson’s eyes widened: “Language like that, congressman? Purge? Purge the Department of Justice?”

“Well, I think Mr. Strozyk could be purged, sure,” he said, referring to Peter Strozyk, the FBI’s Russia expert, who had been critical of Trump in private text messages.

If Rooney was seeking national attention he certainly got it. His call for a purge was covered by major news networks and outlets across the country. It was denounced by commentators and pundits. His Democratic opponents in the District regarded it as a Christmas gift to their campaign. And non-Trump Republicans were horrified as well.

“This is rhetoric of the extreme right wing of the Republican Party,” said Richard Painter, former White House ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, interviewed on CNN. “We don’t have purges in the United States of America! That’s Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany. That’s not the type of rhetoric we use in the United States of America and that man does not belong in Congress and I sure as heck don’t want him in my party.”

Rooney never backed off or retreated from his statement. Over time, in fact, a purge did take place: Attorney General Jeff Sessions resigned; Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein resigned; Comey had been fired; McCabe was terminated the day before he qualified for his pension. Trump succeeded in eliminating nearly all the high-level federal law enforcement officers who threatened him.

Through it all Rooney established his position on the front lines of Trumpism, standing out as a vocal defender of the President and his program, taking all the heat the “deep state” and mainstream media could muster.

Climatic matters

Rep. Francis Rooney bags a Burmese python in the Everglades on Aug. 10, 2017. (Photo: Office of Rep. Rooney)

Rooney was genuinely concerned about the purity of Southwest Florida’s water and restoration of the Everglades, which was his top priority. He plainly understood that human habitation in the area depended on its water and the Everglades were a critical and delicate resource that protected the towns of the coast.

Accordingly, Rooney was very active in lobbying for full Everglades funding and doing what he could to enhance water quality. Familiar with construction planning, he dove into details of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan and pushed to get its projects moving. He brought key officials and congressional leaders to Florida to so they could see the river of grass for themselves. He took the opportunity of a private dinner with Trump to raise these issues directly.

On Aug. 10, 2017 Rooney even waded out into the swamp itself to hunt down invasive Burmese pythons—and bagged five, winning local and national publicity.

But as Rooney showed concern for the local environment, he was caught in a contradiction by his support for Donald Trump, who was not just indifferent to the natural environment but seemed actively hostile to it. When it came to Southwest Florida, for example, Trump cut $1 billion from the Army Corps of Engineers budget, which included money that would have gone to repairing the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee, essential infrastructure for water management.

While mildly expressing hope that Trump would increase funding, Rooney otherwise went along with the whole Trump program: in addition to calling for reining in the EPA, he supported Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement and he repeatedly denied the reality of climate change at his town hall meetings.

“The climate has been changing forever,” he said at one town hall. Did he believe in global warming? “I think that there is very complex issues surrounding global warming. Sea levels have been rising since the ice age,” he replied.

When asked specifically about sea level rise at a Bonita Springs town hall on May 31, 2017 he was vague: “We definitely need to learn all we can about why these sea levels are rising. I’m just not sure how much is man-made and how much is not.” Again he used his ice age line: “The sea level has been rising since the ice age.”

While Rooney and many Southwest Floridians might deny climate change, they could not deny the climate itself and Mother Nature had dramatic ways of making her presence known.

On Sept. 10, 2017 Hurricane Irma, then a Category 4 storm, rampaged ashore at Marco Island.

The storm’s arrival followed days of warnings, mandatory evacuations, supply-buying and frantic efforts to secure homes, businesses and effects. Irma may not have been as devastating as some of her bigger cousins but she did do considerable damage, knocking out power, flinging debris and harming numerous structures.

Rooney was in Washington, DC during the entire run-up and arrival of the storm. On his official website he posted standard warnings and suggestions and links to various agencies. He returned to Southwest Florida days after the storm’s impact, touring local sites and getting briefings.

Trump and Gov. Rick Scott (R) briefly visited the area on Sept. 14, when the president handed out sandwiches and bananas for a photo-op in East Naples. He also approved disaster relief for the state, a standard federal procedure after disasters. Rooney subsequently led the Florida congressional delegation in sending a letter to the president applauding his “swift” action.

At least Hurricane Irma had a beginning, middle and end. The next disaster was more complex and sneakier.

Beginning in October 2017 red tide began forming off the coast of Southwest Florida. A natural phenomenon caused by the growth of toxic algae, at first it wasn’t considered significant. But this red tide persisted. To make things worse, a different kind of blue-green algae began blooming in the Caloosahatchee River running through Fort Myers.

By the summer of 2018, the two algal blooms were destroying aquatic life, poisoning beaches and local waters and infecting the air. People coughed and choked and gasped as they breathed in the algal toxins. The red tide expanded up the Gulf shore and around Florida to the southern Atlantic coast. The blue-green algae fed on polluted runoff from Lake Okeechobee. It was a slow-motion disaster made worse by the fact that it took a long time for authorities to recognize it as a disaster.


(Terminology note:For the purposes of this article, the two blooms will be referred to here simply as the Big Bloom of 2018. You read it here first.)


When people looked to their public officials to do something to cope with the crisis, they were met with what seemed like a thundering silence. Rooney did request the Small Business Administration to assist affected Southwest Florida businesses but it seemed a relatively feeble gesture.

In fact, there was little that public officials could do about the bloom itself. In many ways, though, they didn’t even try to offer victims solace or comfort–or even concern. In an appearance in Venice, Florida in September, Rick Scott, then campaigning for a Senate seat, was so besieged by angry protesters that he retreated into his campaign bus and fled the scene and canceled a scheduled stop in Naples.

Rep. Francis Rooney and Gov. Rick Scott in Venice, Fla., moments before they fled red tide protesters. (Image: WINK News)

In August and early September, Rooney was nowhere to be found as Big Bloom concerns mounted, an absence exploited by his Democratic challenger. In fact, Rooney’s first public appearance amidst the bloom was in Rick Scott’s entourage as Scott retreated back aboard his bus.

It was not until November that the Big Bloom dissipated. Even the most obtuse Floridian could see that something was amiss and that nature was out of kilter. The big question was: would Southwest Floridians register their unhappiness at the ballot box in November?

The oil war

As a boater, a waterfront property owner and a member of the oil industry, Rooney was intimately concerned about another environmental issue: the possibility of offshore oil drilling.

Florida is an oil-bearing state and there may be oil reserves immediately off its coast. However, the cost of extraction has never made full-scale exploitation worthwhile for the industry. Nonetheless, the possibility that the azure Gulf waters could see a forest of oil rigs has mobilized Floridians of all political persuasions.

A moratorium on offshore oil drilling was in place until 2022 but in one of his earliest acts, in April 2017, Trump issued an executive order opening up American waters to oil exploitation.

Rooney’s loyalty to Trump was at odds with the interests of his district, his state and his own desires. He wanted to make the oil moratorium permanent and started working legislatively to do so.

But Rooney was up against virtually every force that could be mustered against him. He thought, at the outset of his term, that he had a commitment from House Speaker Rep. Paul Ryan (R-1-Wis.) to bring forward legislation to make the moratorium permanent. But that commitment never materialized. Instead, in addition to the oil industry, Rooney faced opposition in the person of Rep. Steve Scalise (R-1-La.), the Republican Whip, who hailed from a state almost completely owned by the offshore oil industry. Scalise consistently outranked and outflanked Rooney on this issue. Rooney even confronted him directly in a conversation on the floor of the House.

“You’re telling me that the industry won’t go for protecting the Eastern Gulf in Florida?” Rooney told Scalise. “What industry are you talking about?  I’m talking about tourism. I’m talking about why we’re all here, okay? Just because Louisiana is a pit, doesn’t mean we want to become a pit. Okay?”

It didn’t make a difference.

Rooney was also up against the Trump administration’s Department of the Interior, which was notoriously corrupt, subservient to industry and committed to drilling everywhere it could. He had dinner with Secretary Ryan Zinke to press his case but it didn’t seem to have an effect.

Lastly, he was up against the President who wanted to exploit every natural resource without any regard for environmental degradation.

Rooney’s only ally was the Defense Department, which used the eastern Gulf of Mexico to train its pilots and didn’t want any oil rigs in the way.

In his first term Rooney made no headway. Southwest Florida’s shores looked ripe for squeezing.

“He’s brutal”

President Donald Trump at the moment he praised Rooney for defending him, Oct. 31, 2018. The people behind Trump (including businessman Alfie Oakes on the left) are looking toward Rooney. (Image: C-SPAN)

As the 2018 midterm elections rolled around, Rooney was facing a Democratic challenger, financial advisor David Holden, and local Democrats were more energized than ever.

In a standard rite of democracy, the Collier County League of Women Voters invited both Rooney and Holden to a debate on Sept. 17, 2018. Holden accepted immediately. Rooney sent a letter saying that he had “no availability” on that date and “no future availability.” In short, he would never debate. Just to twist the knife, he said later that he didn’t have to debate “because everyone knows my positions.”

Holden protested. He very publicly sent a letter to Rooney challenging him to debate anywhere or any time. There was no response and Holden’s protests got little coverage except one time on the local Fox4 news channel.

From a tactical standpoint, Rooney’s refusal to debate made sense since he might face the same kind of outrage he faced at his town halls at an in-person debate. He was not alone in his reluctance; avoiding debates is a common tactic for candidates who feel they’re comfortably ahead, don’t want to jeopardize their leads and can absorb the negative fallout from their refusals.

Southwest Florida’s local media and civic organizations, which traditionally serve as the watchdogs of the democratic process and inform voters, stayed mute and unmoved in the face of Rooney’s disdain. Seemingly indifferent or averse to covering politics, this passive and supine media establishment, especially in print, simply accepted Rooney’s pronouncement. He suffered no adverse reaction and from a campaign standpoint it counted as a success. His record and positions were never examined or challenged.

The losers in this process were the voters of the 19th Congressional District, who lost any opportunity to evaluate the relative merits of the candidates on a side-by-side basis.

Rooney did no campaigning in 2018. While Holden was the first local Democratic candidate to place broadcast advertisements in the local market, the Rooney campaign remained dark. Rooney addressed no large gatherings. He did no canvassing and any in-person events were small and invitation-only.

But Rooney did shine brightly and his long-time efforts were recognized on one special night, Oct. 31, Halloween, when Donald Trump came to the Hertz Arena in Estero to do a rally.

The arena was packed as a relaxed and expansive Trump spoke, boasting of his accomplishments and excoriating Democrats, liberals, immigrants, the media, his enemies and the whole, standard Trumpist litany. He told the audience to make sure they went out and voted and then he asked: “Who voted? Who voted?” Nearly every hand went up.

“Oh wow! Everyone voted already? Then what the hell am I doing here tonight? Good bye…” He made as though he was going to leave the stage and the crowd laughed and cheered. “That’s like 100 percent of the people in this room voted!” he said, amazed. “All right. Let’s just enjoy ourselves, OK?”

Then he began a standard part of his speeches, his shout-outs to local politicians.

“We are honored to be joined tonight by many great Florida Republicans including a man who is so great to me on television. This guy is special. He was a great businessman. Now he’s a great congressman. Francis Rooney. Where’s Francis?”

Trump scanned the crowd and had to turn around to find Rooney sitting behind him. When Trump located Rooney, the crowd cheered.

“I love him when he defends me. He’s brutal. He gets the job done. Right, Francis? Thank you, thank you.”

There was no higher accolade in Trumpworld. The crowd loved it.

Coming Thursday: The Heretic

Coming Friday: The Legacy

Liberty lives in light

© 2020 by David Silverberg

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