Dec. 4, 2020 by David Silverberg
Did Francis Rooney, representative of the 19th Congressional District and Southwest Florida in the United States Congress, make a difference during his four years in elected office?
Based on Rooney’s own evaluation, he did what he set out to do: increase funding for Everglades restoration and promote the purity of the region’s waters.
But when he ran in 2016 he hardly campaigned on such a narrow platform. He proclaimed that he was battling socialism and promoting conservative values. He characterized Donald Trump as possibly the nation’s savior and advanced Trump’s electoral victory.
So Rooney’s tenure should be evaluated on a broader spectrum than his own criteria.
What changes that Rooney made or promoted are most likely to live on after him? Will these be beneficial to Southwest Florida and the nation? Did he do any damage and can it be repaired? And lastly: what needs to be done in the future to build on what he did?
Acknowledging the obvious
In the future, if the planet doesn’t burn to a cinder, if objective history is still written, and if historians bother to look at Southwest Florida, they will be amazed that as late as 2019 denial of climate change was still firmly entrenched in many Southwest Floridians’ heads. It will seem as though a primitive tribe living in the region was cut off from civilization and still believed the earth was flat.
Francis Rooney acknowledged climate change as a fact and broke the Republican, conservative taboo against admitting its reality—and by admitting that reality made realistic measures to cope with it possible.
This may not seem like such a revolution but to appreciate its magnitude, a review of the intellectual landscape before his groundbreaking Sept. 11, 2019 Politico article, “I’m a conservative Republican. Climate change is real,” is in order.
For a region where human habitation and what is known as the “built environment” is a thin and fragile layer imposed on a primeval wilderness, climate change is a huge threat. This flat, coastal area is extremely vulnerable to hurricanes, erosion and sea-level rise. The fresh water that makes human life possible in this erstwhile swamp, while abundant during its wet season, is constantly threatened by pollution, algal toxicity and salt water intrusion. The habitability of this tropical environment and the health of its plants, animals and people is completely dependent on the wet and dry seasons coming predictably in their turns, at their expected times and with anticipated intensity.
As scientists detailed the data and warned of the dangers of unpredictable climatic changes driven by human activity, the response in Florida, and especially Southwest Florida, was simply denial. Before 2019 climate change was never mentioned in local media. As the local television meteorologists reported ever higher temperatures and worsening storms they never discussed climate change as a possible cause. To this day they still steer clear of it no matter how dramatic and compelling the weather they’re reporting.
Politically, discussing climate change was taboo because of the fear that conservative Republican voters would potentially react to the subject with vehement denials and retaliate at the polls. The most extreme manifestation of this came under Republican Gov. Rick Scott (2011 to 2019), who avoided meeting with scientists to hear about the data for as long as he could and informally banned state employees from using the words “climate change.” (To see a telling illustration of this, take note of the 2015 video of Brian Koon, Florida’s emergency management director, trying not to use the phrase during questioning by state senators.)
Then, on top of local resistance, in 2016 President Donald Trump was elected to office after calling climate change “a Chinese hoax” and withdrawing the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement. Internationally, it made the United States a global pariah as the rest of the world’s countries tried to deal with the crisis. Domestically, it enshrined climate change denial as a pillar of the Trumpist credo.
Rooney’s evolution was reflective of these currents. In his first term he denied and evaded acknowledging climate change. Then, in his second term, as a member of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, he followed a common Republican tactic of admitting deleterious climatic impacts like sea-level rise while avoiding naming their prime cause.
In this Rooney and local Republicans were actually lagging behind the thinking of the local public, which began to change after Hurricane Irma in 2017. This change in attitude was extensively documented in February 2019 by a carefully conducted survey commissioned by the Conservancy of Southwest Florida (“The Southwest Florida Climate Metrics Survey”), which found that 75 percent of local respondents believed that climate change was real and 76 percent believed they had observed it themselves.
Rooney’s Sept. 11, 2019 Politico article had multifaceted significance: It declared that climate change was real and called on Republicans to acknowledge it, face it and deal with it. Politically, it blessed realistic assessments of environmental changes and dangers, which in turn made possible real planning and countermeasures.
While die-hard deniers and ever-Trumpers will reject the notion of climate change until their bitter ends, they are now outside the mainstream dialogue on regional environmental matters. Rooney’s manifesto gave Southwest Florida a real chance. If his call is heeded by sensible Republicans nationally, it will advance the conservationist tradition of the Party.
Essentially, in his own District, Rooney was able to act as Galileo to Southwest Florida Republicans’ Inquisition, although without suffering house arrest. On this matter, with his help, science was able to succeed.
Following the Big Bloom of 2018 Rooney pulled together the disparate threads of response to harmful algal blooms (HABs) and established the momentum for local jurisdictions and federal agencies to work together to monitor, alert and respond.
This was no small achievement. Prior to the Big Bloom, HABs were not recognized as disasters and response was fragmented and uncoordinated. As the Big Bloom showed, HABs could seriously adversely affect the livability and economy of Southwest Florida.
The momentum of this effort should be continued and nurtured; there’s too much at stake not to pursue it.
A key element that Rooney began and needs to be continued was called the Protecting Local Communities from Harmful Algal Blooms Act (House Resolution (HR) 414), which consisted of a three-word amendment to the Stafford Act.
The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act provides the legal framework for disaster response. The change would add “or algal blooms” as major disasters subject to federal action. If the change was made and a bloom occurred again in Southwest Florida, the region would be eligible for a disaster declaration and various forms of support and assistance from the federal government.
Rooney introduced the bill on Jan. 10, 2019 and it never made it out of committee. It’s a small, unglamorous, easily overlooked piece of legislation that was unremarked and unrewarded in the District but it could be of major importance in the event of another HAB. It needs to be reintroduced in the 117th Congress and brought to enactment. It will have a much better chance of approval under President Joe Biden.
The shore and the Everglades
None of the legislation that Rooney introduced in Congress over his four year tenure made it into law. Actually, this is not that unusual. There are members of Congress who go through entire, lengthy careers without passing a piece of legislation. Rooney had only two terms.
The bill that got furthest was the Florida Coastal Protection Act, HR 205, which made an oil drilling moratorium in the eastern Gulf permanent. This bill made it all the way through the House—no small achievement. Of course, it never came up in the Senate and never arrived on Trump’s desk. Florida’s two senators never promoted it, other than in its initial introduction in that body, and it was opposed by the oil industry.
On September 8, 2020 Trump told a rally in Jupiter, Fla., that he would be issuing an executive order extending the offshore drilling moratorium for 10 years to 2032. The announcement was clearly intended to help Trump win the state of Florida. Had he been re-elected there is no telling whether the order would have stayed in force. (The Arctic was not so lucky; there, Trump rushed through an auction of leases on federal lands to facilitate drilling.)
Southwest Florida received a double benefit because during the campaign, Biden pledged not to allow new offshore oil drilling. Between the Biden pledge and the Trump executive order, Florida’s shores would seem to be safe.
Regardless of these statements, if the Florida Coastal Protection Act passed in the new Congress it would be enshrined in law and Southwest Florida would be that much safer from the possibility of offshore oil exploitation.
In addition to all these bills and measures, Rooney did help maintain the funding for Everglades restoration and provided momentum to get the many stalled projects of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan moving. He worked hard to persuade his fellow members of Congress and the administration to advance the region’s interests.
Presuming that these projects and this plan will help the natural environment of Southwest Florida to recover and thrive (and it’s worth remembering that past human interventions were all intended as improvements as well), Rooney made a significant contribution to both human habitability and the balance of nature by advancing them. It is to be remembered, however, that he was part of a large effort that took many individuals and lawmakers of all political persuasions to succeed.
Nonetheless, both his efforts and the bipartisanship of his second term deserve recognition and emulation in the future. It’s a worthwhile legacy.
The Trump shadow
Rooney’s time in Congress coincided with Donald Trump’s time in the presidency and Trump loomed over all that Rooney said and did.
Historians will likely look back at the Trump years as a sad, sick and savage interlude, a time that, far from making America great again, began what is likely to be a long decline. Rather than American exceptionalism, Trump put America on track to follow all the great empires of history toward diminution and decrepitude. Like a toddler with a new toy, he broke America.
Francis Rooney was one of the many millions of Americans who were willingly deceived by Trump. Especially egregious was his 2016 hailing of Trump as a “savior”—with that word’s full gravity and implications. From the day in 2015 that Trump descended the escalator in his building and delivered his first speech he made no secret of what he was: a bigot, a racist, an ignoramus, an autocrat and a pathologically narcissistic and selfish egomaniac. Those who supported him knew what they were getting.
Once in Congress, as a member of the governing class Rooney encouraged, enabled and emboldened Trump’s worst behavior. And Rooney bears special responsibility as Trump’s very visible, vocal and “brutal” defender during some of Trump’s worst excesses.
As such, Rooney will forever bear his share of the responsibility for the damage Trump did to America and the world, damage that seems likely to continue after he’s left the White House.
It also bears mentioning that Rooney’s conservatism was of the harshest and most unsympathetic kind when it came to healthcare, education, labor, women’s choices, disaster relief and most of all, the pandemic.
That said, Rooney ultimately summoned the courage to fully break with Trump, to assert his own thinking and perceptions and to make his views public. He opened his mind to the evidence of Trump’s impeachable crimes. He finally recognized Trump’s delusions as delusions and refused to parrot or obey them—and these delusions have killed hundreds of thousands of Americans and seem set to kill hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, more. And when Trump lost the election, Rooney was the first Southwest Florida Republican to acknowledge it, congratulate Biden and call for a smooth and cooperative transition for the sake of the country.
It was a late awakening but it was an awakening nonetheless. Regrettably, Rooney did not take the logical steps that his awareness should have led him to take: vote to impeach Trump and formally endorse Biden.
However, he did make his conclusions public and he paid the price in ostracism and condemnation from his Party and constituents. More importantly, though, he ultimately remained true to his oath of office to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” That was much more than many of his colleagues did.
During the ten years of the 19th Congressional District’s existence, Francis Rooney was its longest serving and most substantive representative.
This year marks the beginning of the post-Census redistricting process. The Republican legislature will carve up the state’s congressional districts. Whether the 19th will remain the 19th and what its boundaries will be remains to be seen. But it is a fair bet that it will be gerrymandered to favor Republican dominance into the indefinite future.
No matter what shape their boundaries take, the people of the Southwest Florida coast will need to be represented in the Congress of the United States and their vital interests advanced.
What will future representatives bring with them from Francis Rooney? To distil the best of what he leaves to its simplest, most basic essence, three things stand out:
Environmentalism: To protect, advance and conserve the natural environment that makes human habitation in the region possible and do it in a way that maintains a balance between human needs and natural processes.
Bipartisanship: To work with others of different ideas and persuasions to meet common needs, be open to their cares and concerns and cooperate to promote the general welfare.
And there’s the hope for Conscience: To fulfill the oath of office and serve the nation, the region and the common good despite party dictates or ideology or popular delusion, according to America’s best values and principles.
If these are the things that future officials take away from the service of Francis Rooney, who today marks the 67th anniversary of his arrival on earth, Southwest Florida and America will be well served.
It’s the least that we the people should expect from those whom we entrust with public office.
Liberty lives in light
© 2020 by David Silverberg