Sanctuary in America: Haven or insurrection by other means?

An in-depth look at dueling definitions of ‘sanctuary’ in America and Southwest Florida and what they mean for the future

The Statue of Liberty in New York, the first sight for generations of immigrants seeking sanctuary in the United States. (Photo: Wikimedia)

July 7, 2021 by David Silverberg

Today the term “sanctuary” has taken on new meaning and is serving as a new cause of political controversy and contention.

This conflict is coming to a head in Southwest Florida—specifically in both Naples and Collier County—as movements to create sanctuary jurisdictions based on political criteria roil an otherwise placid region best known for its sunshine and beaches.

To understand the current conflict, it helps to go back into history and survey the evolution of the concept of sanctuary.

What are the origins of that concept? In the American political context, what were the sanctuaries of the past? What are the new concepts and how do they differ from previous concepts?

In a local context, how are these clashing concepts playing out in the American state of Florida—and especially in Southwest Florida?

And lastly, where is this heading and how is it likely to resolve itself?


In 1471 English King Edward IV is denied access to Lancastrian fugitives who have taken sanctuary in Tewkesbury Abbey. (Painting: Richard Burchett)

The notion of a place of sanctuary is very ancient.

The ancient Greeks and Romans revered groves and temples where people could find refuge from the forces that threatened them. In ancient Rome even slaves could find sanctuary at statues of gods and owners who otherwise possessed them would respect the site.

But it was in the Middle Ages that what is commonly thought of today as sanctuary made its appearance. By the thirteenth century a person could take refuge from secular authorities or a mob in a church. The refugee was allowed 40 days of safety during which time he had to be fed and protected; meanwhile, the interlude afforded time for negotiations, clemency, confession or proof of innocence. If none of those things took place, the refugee left the church, forfeited his goods and went into exile—but stayed alive.

Perhaps the most famous illustration of a medieval appeal for church sanctuary occurs in the novel (and movies) of The Hunchback of Notre Dame when the hunchback Quasimodo rescues the gypsy girl Esmeralda from hanging and, crying “sanctuary!” takes her into the cathedral for protection.

There have been other acts of sanctuary since then: French Huguenots were given refuge in England in 1681 in what may have been the first instance of a state offering sanctuary to another’s nationals. Today the concept of asylum has taken the place of the religious concept and been formalized between countries.

But in the United States the concept of sanctuary took different forms than in Europe—and for very different reasons.

The American context

In 2017 New Yorkers protest President Donald Trump’s ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. (Photo: Wikimedia)

From the day in 1620 that the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock, the continent of America became a sanctuary for people fleeing religious persecution.

After the American revolution, President George Washington best expressed the American sense of tolerance and sanctuary in an August 17, 1790 letter to the Jewish congregation at Newport, Rhode Island, in which he said: “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

The concept of sanctuary was deeply woven into the social fabric of the United States. It was next tested by the greatest moral challenge of the 19th century: slavery.

Beginning in the late 1700s anti-slavery activists using a variety of routes became known as the Underground Railroad, providing escaping slaves assistance and sanctuary on their way to ultimate sanctuary in non-slavery locations, chiefly Canada.

In the 20th century there were waves of dissent that gave rise to sanctuaries. In the 1960s dissident churches gave sanctuary to civil rights activists and Vietnam War draft resisters. Many Vietnam war resisters and those giving them sanctuary were arrested.

In the 1980s during the administration of President Ronald Reagan, Cold War conflicts in Latin America led to a rise in political refugees fleeing to the United States from countries like Nicargua, where the US was supporting a “Contra” movement against the communist government and El Salvador where the US was advising a repressive government.

“Sanctuary widened from the idea of a church to sanctuary communities who confronted immigration policies and intolerance as manifested in immigration policies,” writes Rhonda Shapiro-Rieser in the 2017 paper The Sanctuary Movement: A Brief History. “These actions included legal help and provision of shelter in private homes and other settings. They provided shelter in churches and homes, and created a modern Underground Railroad for refugees.”

As with the Vietnam War sanctuary movement, periodically the federal government would crack down on the sanctuaries and their refugees. Federal authorities arrested refugees and the Immigration and Naturalization Service deported them.

In the 21st century the 2016 election of President Donald Trump gave rise to immediate fears of deportation of “Dreamers;” undocumented US residents who had come to the country as children and been protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. During his campaign Trump said he would abolish DACA and deport the nearly 700,000 people, many of whom had known no other home.

Within days of Trump’s Nov. 3, 2016 election, his brutalist and threatening anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric led to a wave of “sanctuary campuses” at American colleges to protest his approach and provide refuge to migrants and Dreamers. From campuses the concept spread to cities.

The location of migrant sanctuary cities as of March 2021 according to the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank advocating restricted immigration. (Map: CIS)

The “sanctuary city” of the Trump era was one that refused to cooperate with federal deportation efforts. When a migrant was arrested, officials of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) directorate of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would issue a “detainer” requesting a 48 hour delay before the person was released so that his or her immigration status could be checked. If the detainee was found to be undocumented, the person would be subject to deportation. In “sanctuary cities,” officials refused to honor detainers.

The sanctuary city movement was based on the conviction that Trump administration policies were rooted in prejudice and persecution and therefore unjust. It took hold mainly in the Pacific northwest, the Atlantic northeast, California, the upper Midwest and in Colorado.

Although there were no declared sanctuary cities in Florida, on June 14, 2019, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law outlawing sanctuary cities for migrants in the state.


Gun owners demonstrate against restrictions outside the Virginia state Capitol in Richmond on Jan. 20, 2020. (Photo: Wikimedia)

Taking a leaf from the immigration sanctuary cities movement, conservative groups began using the “sanctuary” label for causes they regarded as threatened by the federal government.

To date, these causes have been protecting gun ownership, prohibiting abortion and nullifying federal laws.

“The push to impose ‘sanctuary’ and similar legislation is not the result of an organic, grassroots movement but rather a well-funded campaign marketed by the gun lobby and supported by antigovernment extremist groups such as Gun Owners of America, Oath Keepers and the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA),” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Gun sanctuaries

On Dec. 14, 2012, 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 six and seven-year old children, six adult staff and himself at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn. It was perhaps the most traumatic mass shooting in American history.

The shooting resulted in a wave of revulsion across the country and renewed calls for gun controls, some of which resulted in the passage of new laws governing gun ownership. This in turn led to a counter-effort.

On May 22, 2013, in response to the state of Maryland passing the Maryland State Firearms Act (MFSA) restricting the sale of different types of firearms, requiring their registration and limiting the size of magazines, the Carroll County Board of Commissioners adopted a resolution calling the county a “Second Amendment Sanctuary County.”

The Carroll County resolution announced that the county would not “authorize or appropriate government funds, resources, employees, agencies, contractors, buildings, detention centers or offices for the purpose of enforcing any element of the MFSA that infringes on the right of people to keep and bear arms… .”

While Maryland’s Harford and Cecil counties also passed such resolutions, this was the first time the word “sanctuary” was used in such an official measure, according to one account. According to another, in 2018 it was Monroe County, Illinois that was the first to use “sanctuary.”

Since then, similar resolutions have been passed by states, counties and municipalities across the country. There was another wave of resolutions following the Parkland, Fla., high school massacre of Feb. 14, 2018. As of July 2021, about 1,200 local governments in 42 states had adopted such resolutions.

In Southwest Florida, Collier County passed a resolution declaring it would not “assist, support or condone” any infringement of the Second Amendment on Feb. 26, 2013 but did not use the word “sanctuary.” Lee County passed a resolution on March 25, 2013, DeSoto County declared itself a gun “haven” on Jan. 21, 2020, and Charlotte County declared itself a gun sanctuary county on May 11, 2021.

Second Amendment sanctuary states and counties as of 2021. Statewide sanctuaries are in blue, county sanctuaries are in green, both county and state sanctuaries are in purple. (Map. Wikimedia)

Anti-abortion sanctuaries

On June 22, 2019 anti-abortion activist and preacher Mark Lee Dickson convinced the town council of Waskom, Texas, population 2,189, to pass an ordinance creating a “sanctuary city for the unborn.”

(For a fuller account of Dickson, the anti-abortion sanctuary movement and Naples, Fla., see: “‘Sanctuary city for the unborn’ movement threatens Naples, Fla., economic recovery.”)

Since Waskom, 32 towns and cities have voted in anti-abortion ordinances, according to the Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn website.

Of these, 29 are in Texas, of which the largest is Lubbock, population 278,831; two are in Nebraska (tiny Hayes Center, population 288 and Blue Hill, population 941); and one is in Ohio (Lebanon, population 20,529). Eight Texas cities are counted as “denying” an ordinance and the movement calls the state capital of Austin a “city of death” for its adamant opposition. The movement is aiming at 39 potential new sanctuary cities in Texas and one in Florida—Naples.

The movement continues its efforts, proclaiming that it is “Protecting our cities by outlawing abortion, one city at a time.”

Anti-federal sanctuaries

With the debate over pandemic masking and other health measures in 2020 and in the wake of President Donald Trump’s defeat and the failure of the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection, there was a new wave of “bill of rights sanctuary” efforts—essentially anti-federal sanctuaries—primarily in the southern United States.

These had their genesis in the gun sanctuary movement but went even further, back to the Posse Comitatus movement that began in the late 1960s. That movement held that local sheriffs were the highest ranking law enforcement officers in any county and no higher legal authority should be recognized. That, in turn, gave rise to a Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association founded in 2011 to get local sheriffs to uphold the Second Amendment by refusing to enforce any state or federal restrictions on gun ownership.

The premise of these ordinances is that the federal government, having fallen into hostile hands, is now going to try to violate rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights—mainly the Second Amendment. Under these ordinances, localities, primarily at the county level, refuse to cooperate with any federal actions they regard as unlawful.

Who would determine that the Bill of Rights was being violated, what exactly constitutes a violation and how it will be remedied is unclear.

By specifically calling on states and counties to “nullify” federal actions the movement harkens back to the pre-Civil War debate over “nullification,” when South Carolina politicians argued that they had the right to nullify federal laws with which they disagreed. In 1830 that idea was crushed by Sen. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts in the Senate (who concluded with the memorable line: “Liberty and union, now and forever, one and indivisible!”) and President Andrew Jackson, a southerner, who notably declared in a dinner toast: “Our federal union! It must be preserved!”

The current movement has a number of drivers. Organizations include Gun Owners of America, a non-profit lobby founded in 1976, which “sees firearms ownership as a freedom issue.” Another is Oath Keepers, the extremist organization of current and former military and law enforcement personnel whose members participated in the Jan. 6 insurrection and are being prosecuted.

KrisAnne Hall (C-SPAN)

An activist and nullification evangelist based in northern Florida is KrisAnne Hall, who characterizes herself as a “constitutionalist.” She has associated with far right and white nationalist groups, providing legal justifications for extremist anti-government beliefs. In YouTube videos and speaking engagements Hall preaches a pre-Civil War interpretation of constitutional relations and actively promotes nullification.

Addressing people who would pass nullification ordinances, in an April 21, 2021 video Hall stated: “If [your] law does not state that ‘we will not enforce this law’ and ‘we will not allow the federal government to enforce these laws here;’ if your law does not contain that language, it is useless!” she argued.

“We’ve got states out there that are trying to walk the fence, trying to placate you with their ‘Second Amendment sanctuaries’ and they’re going to turn around and say, ‘OK, we’re not going to enforce these laws but the [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] can come in and do it, the [Federal Bureau of Investigation] can come in and do it, DHS can come in and do it, whatever, the [Internal Revenue Service] can come in and do it. That’s not sanctuary, people, that’s setup. That’s enticement, that is entrapment, that is wrong.

“And so if your law does not include some kind of restriction and penalty for the federal government exercising those laws in your state, it is not a good law,” she insisted.

Hall came to Southwest Florida on April 24, 2021 to address the Republican Club of South Collier County, where she shared a stage with Dan Cook, a Naples-based far right activist, and Alfie Oakes, the grocer and owner of Seed to Table.

A nullification “Bill of Rights sanctuary” ordinance was put on the agenda of the Collier County Commission on June 22. It is due to be considered next Tuesday, July 13.

Analysis: Insurrection by other means

The anti-federal, anti-abortion sanctuary movement has remained largely under the media radar, spreading in rural areas among small towns that rarely get national attention. To most Americans it no doubt seems fringe, odd and often absurd, so it has long been ignored.

But it bears attention because it is an effort to subvert and, indeed, overthrow the authority of the federal government and replace it with—what? Its advocates want to treat the nation’s laws, Constitution and Bill of Rights like a buffet whose offerings they can pick and choose or ignore if they wish. But law doesn’t work that way and the only alternative seems armed anarchy.

The anti-federal sanctuarists (and you read that word correctly, for the first time here) can make the argument that the left (or in the usual formulation, the radical Democratic left) started the sanctuary movement first.

They have a point. But there are important differences between what we’ll call “social” sanctuaries and “nullifying” sanctuaries.

In the American political definition, no matter who asserts it, “sanctuary” is an effort to carve out an exemption or exception from federal law—which should be uniformly applied and enforced across the country.

The social sanctuaries—the Underground Railroad, Vietnam resistance, Central American refuges, DACA and migrant sanctuaries—were all illegal and were acknowledged as such. They were acts of civil disobedience in which the participants were aware they were breaking the law and could face the penalties. They did it nonetheless because they felt they were serving a higher moral cause.

The nullifying sanctuaries—the anti-abortion and anti-federal sanctuary movements—are attempts to cancel federal law, the Constitution and Bill of Rights through creation of what is essentially a counter-government where federal law does not apply.

When it comes to local governments the big difference between the anti-abortion and anti-federal sanctuary movements and their gun sanctuary predecessor is that they are trying to impose ordinances on their jurisdictions—rules with the force of law and penalties for violations. Previously, towns and counties passed resolutions, which expressed an opinion or sentiment and did not carry penalties.

By denying the jurisdiction of federal law, the nullifying sanctuary movements are actually practicing insurrection by other means.

By passing these ordinances, states, counties and municipalities are starting down a slippery slope whose logical end is the creation of a separate polity subject to its own laws and sovereignty. This is also known as insurrection, rebellion or secession. The ordinances may pay lip service to the Bill of Rights but in fact they are rejecting the United States Constitution with its Bill of Rights, all the other amendments and protections of the rule of law.

Americans have fought and died to prevent that kind of insurrection. Just because this movement is legalistic and non-violent doesn’t make it any less dangerous to the cohesion and indivisibility of the United States.

The battlefield for America’s future has moved from the walls of the Capitol building to the small towns and rural counties of its heartland but the stakes are no less high.

America has been here before. It has faced and overcome rebellion, nullification, secession and most recently insurrection. It now needs to overcome the threats to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights cloaked in the language and the trappings of sanctuary. The choice is between constitutional democracy and anarchy.

Anyone looking for a sanctuary for freedom and the rights of the individual need look no further than the United States itself and its Constitution. It’s the greatest sanctuary in history.

Now it’s up to every truly patriotic American citizen to ensure that it remains that way.

The Collier County Commission’s next meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, July 13 at 9:00 am. Public petition speakers are limited to ten minutes and general address speakers to 3 minutes. The Commission Chambers and Commissioners’ offices are located on the third floor of the Administration Building at 3299 Tamiami Trail East, Suite 303, Naples, Fla.

Meetings are also aired live on Collier Television CTV and are available online via Video On Demand.

To reach commissioners:

Rick LoCastro

Andy Solis

Burt Saunders

Penny Taylor

William L. McDaniel, Jr.

To read more about past sanctuary movements:

What’s the history of sanctuary spaces and why do they matter? by Elizabeth Allen

The sanctuary movement: A brief history by Rhonda Shapiro-Rieser

Talk on the logic of sanctuary, given at Duke University by Elizabeth Bruening

How Trump’s war on sanctuary cities affected immigrants by Felipe de la Hoz

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg

A riot, a putsch and the long fight ahead for American democracy

Rioters in the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Photo: Roberto Schmidt)
Nazi stormtroopers in Munich during the 1923 putsch.

March 12, 2021 by David Silverberg

The date Nov. 9, 1923 doesn’t hold much meaning for most of the world, especially for Americans, but it’s a date that may gain a new infamy.

It was on that date that an attempt to overthrow the government of Germany failed when authorities and police stood up against Nazi radicals marching on Munich’s government building. That attempted coup, or “putsch” in German, was led by a ranting but charismatic former army corporal named Adolf Hitler.

On that November day in Munich, 16 Nazis and four police died when the police opened fire. Hitler and his closest compatriots were arrested. It all seemed like the end of Hitler and the Nazi movement.

But it was not. Instead, Hitler and the Nazis gave up the idea of a sudden, violent takeover and began playing a long game for power through legal means, which they ultimately achieved, with catastrophic results for the world.

This bit of history raises some disturbing questions for the United States today.

What if the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the United States Capitol was the not the end of the Trumpist menace to the United States and democracy but its beginning, as Nov. 9, 1923 was the beginning of the Nazi menace to Germany?

This is what Trump effectively said in his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando on Feb. 28. As he put it in his usual scrambled and disjointed syntax: “Our movement of proud, hardworking, and you know what? This is the hardest working people, hardworking American Patriots, is just getting started. And in the end we will win. We will win.”

What can Americans who believe in democracy, justice, diversity, free thought and constitutional government do to ensure that America in the 21st century doesn’t go the way of Germany in the 20th century?

And to bring it to particulars: what can people who care about this country do about it here in Florida?

History repeating

Today, there are extremely disturbing parallels between Adolf Hitler after his failed putsch and Donald J. Trump after his failed insurrection.

Some of these are:

Turning to electoral politics

Hitler: After his failed putsch, Hitler gave up sudden, violent revolution for conventional, legal, electoral politics to take power. While not eschewing violence altogether, he and the Nazi Party commenced a long-term, nationwide effort to win elections at all levels and gain a majority in the Reichstag. Their aim was not to continue and maintain democracy once they achieved power but to end it.

Trump: In what may be a more important development than anything Trump said at CPAC, his followers are choosing to pursue elected office at all levels to enact the Trumpist (or as some prefer to call it, Trascist) program.

The Trumpiest Republicans Are At The State And Local Levels — Not In D.C.,”as Perry Bacon Jr. pointed out in an article on the website. Another example is Enrique Tarrio, Proud Boys chairman and FBI informant, who told CNN in a Feb. 25 interview: “I think right now is the time to go ahead and overthrow the government by becoming the new government and running for office.” Michael Flynn, the disgraced former national security advisor pardoned by Trump, told followers and QAnon adherents in a Telegram message on March 10: “As I recently said, we need to get involved in our communities & ensure our system functions the way it is supposed to BECAUSE it broke down. Let’s stop kidding ourselves with shoulda-woulda-coulda-and instead get involved in our communities.”

Equally striking are the already serving officials in Congress and in state and local governments who are attempting to advance Trumpism through voter suppression and election manipulation. (Much more about this later.)

Punishment—or non-punishment

Hitler: When Hitler’s ill-organized, chaotic and violent would-be revolution failed, he was jailed for nine months (out of a five-year sentence). He spent the time with his fellow prisoners writing his manifesto, Mein Kampf, which he would use to spread his message in the years that followed.

Trump: Today, Trump has retreated to the lavish cocoon of Mar-a-Lago—not exactly prison. He emerged at CPAC to announce that he might run for president again in 2024, that he will maintain his grip on the Republican Party and that he will purge, persecute and destroy any dissenters or heretics who doubt his infallibility.


Hitler: After the putsch Hitler was threatened with long imprisonment and, worse, deportation to his native Austria. Full punishment might have ended the Nazi movement right then. Instead, Hitler was given a gentle sentence in a vacation-like setting thanks to the right-wing sympathies of judges and elements of the public. Ultimately, his sentence was commuted to nine months.

Trump: After being impeached for incitement to insurrection, Trump was acquitted by his subservient supporters in the US Senate. He remains free to plot a return to power and find ways to broadcast his message, feeling exonerated and immune from the consequences of his actions.

A foundation of lies

Hitler: Following the putsch, Hitler and the Nazis built a foundation of giant myths and fantastic conspiracy theories: that a Jewish cabal manipulated the world to its advantage and against Germany; that Germany had lost World War I because Jews stabbed it in the back; that Germans needed “lebensraum,” or “living room” they could only get by conquering other nations; and that Germans were a superior race to all others.

Trump: Trump’s big lie ever since the election is that he won by a landslide; that the election was “stolen” from him; and that the presidency of Joe Biden is illegitimate. Even before the election he was lying that the election was “rigged” against him and that mail-in ballots were fraudulent. And the absurd QAnon conspiracy theory spins even more bizarre delusions for those who believe it.

Trump lied about race in his very first speech as candidate when he called Mexicans “rapists” and “criminals” and then became progressively worse as his presidency wore on. Today, as columnist Dana Milbank pointed out in The Washington Post: “Trump’s overt racism turned the GOP into, essentially, a white-nationalist party, in which racial animus is the main motivator of Republican votes.”

Fake news and the “lying press”

Capitol rioters attack media equipment. (Photo: AP/Jose Luis Magana)

Hitler: The Nazis used the term “Lügenpresse”—“lying press” to characterize all the media coverage they disliked and discredit all objective journalism. It actually had its origins during World War I when it was used to characterize foreign propaganda.

“At that time, the word was used more descriptively,” wrote reporter Nick Nolack in a 2016 Washington Post article. “The ugly history of ‘Lügenpresse,’ a Nazi slur shouted at a Trump rally.”

After World War I, he wrote, “it had turned into an explosive and stigmatizing propaganda slogan, used to stir hatred against Jews and communists. Critics of Adolf Hitler’s regime were frequently referred to as members of the ‘Lügenpresse apparatus.’”

From the time of the putsch to the time the Nazis joined the government in 1933, the Nazis built their own media ecosystem and started newspapers to propagate their message. They received a huge boost with the spread of the new medium of radio, which allowed Hitler to directly address the public.

Trump: Trump’s antipathy toward a free media is well known. The very first press conference of his presidency tried to promote the clearly absurd fiction that his inauguration crowds were the largest in history despite all evidence. He called journalists “enemies of the people,” tried to discredit independent reporting and promote subservient media outlets that would follow his dictates. Over the four years of his presidency the Trumpist mediasphere expanded considerably on Internet, cable television and social media.

Today, with Trump himself banned from Twitter and the social media outlets he most favored, the future of his media access and that of his followers remains an open question. However, it’s worth remembering that Hitler was banned from public speaking from the time of the putsch until 1927, leading to a decline in the Nazi Party’s fortunes. But that didn’t last.

Big smears

Hitler: Hitler had no small enemies and he had plenty of words to describe them. The Jews were “a parasite in the body of other nations,” the communists were “the scum of humanity,” non-Nazi Germans were “subhumans.”

Trump: As he put it in his CPAC speech, Trump says he is facing an “onslaught of radicalism, socialism, and indeed it all leads to communism once and for all.” All Democrats are “radical.” Anti-Trump, or even non-Trump Republicans are “RINOs” (Republicans In Name Only). His history of personal insults and invective needs no recounting.

(For further reading: An excellent book about the early period in Nazi history is 1924: The Year that made Hitler, by Peter Ross Range. For a detailed account of how Hitler came to be named chancellor, see The Last Winter of the Weimar Republic by Rüdiger Barth and Hauke Friederichs.)

Vowing a comeback

Donald Trump addresses CPAC. (Image: C-SPAN)

After four years of a Trump presidency, it’s easy to draw these parallels. But the beat continues since his attempted insurrection and fall from power.

“With your help, we will take back the House,” Trump vowed at CPAC. “We will win the Senate. And then, a Republican president will make a triumphant return to the White House. And I wonder who that will be? I wonder who that will be? Who, who, who will that be? I wonder.” 

It needs to be remembered that this is not politics as usual. It is not competition in a constitutional spirit. Trump and his movement are devoted to imposing a totalitarian, one-man rule that will admit no independent thought, political activity or disagreement. It is not just Trumpism that threatens the future, it is absolutism.

That kind of absolutism was explicitly rejected by the Founders of the United States. When they declared independence and wrote the Constitution, they were not only rebelling against a distant king, they were making a clean break from 250 previous years of religious warfare, massacre and bloodshed. From the time of Martin Luther, Catholic and Protestant monarchs had sought to impose their visions of one true, absolute faith on the populations—and minds—of Europe and Britain.

Americans rejected the kind of absolutism that would not admit or tolerate dissent or free thought or reasoned argument. It’s why the very first clause of the First Amendment prohibits establishment of a national religion and allows free worship—and by extension free thought—for all.

Trumpism is a throwback to dark days of dogma and doctrine. It admits no other way, no loyal opposition and no reasoned discussion. It is absolute in its demand for loyalty and obedience, as evidenced by the censure and condemnation of Republican lawmakers who voiced dissenting opinions and followed their consciences in dealing with Trump. In its fascistic universe, only the gospel of Trump can be admitted and even if Trump himself steps down from leadership or passes from this earth, those who seek to carry forth this creed in his name are promoting a rigid authoritarianism.

In the years to come, as shown, Trumpists will try to carry out this program through the electoral and constitutional system. They will run for office at all levels of government, from dogcatcher to the presidency. They will introduce restrictive and anti-democratic laws and regulations. They will seek to impose their will on everything from school boards to county councils to Congress.

Suppressing votes

Under new Florida proposals, the number of ballot boxes would be reduced. (Photo: Author)

Voter suppression is an integral part of this effort. It is an attempt to end democracy.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, as of late February, Republican lawmakers in 33 states had introduced, filed or carried over more than 165 bills to restrict voting through various devices. This was well over four times the number of such bills last year. These include limiting mail-in voting, imposing stricter identification requirements, slashing voter registration opportunities and more aggressively purging voter rolls.

But it even goes beyond voter suppression. In his article on state and local Trumpism, Bacon points out that Trumpers have more power in state legislatures, face less scrutiny, and are stronger than traditional establishment Republicans based in Washington, DC. They can gerrymander at will, censure or recall heretical officials and crush non-Trumper challengers at the state level.

Anti-Democratic voter suppression efforts are not just aimed at winning the 2022 elections by reducing Democratic or minority turnout. Nor are they just a response to Trump’s big lie that the 2020 election was tainted or fraudulent or improper. They are part of a holistic movement aimed at ending democracy and imposing authoritarian autocracy over the United States.

“A Republican Party that seems increasingly unwilling to abide by democratic norms could install officials in key swing states who basically won’t allow a Democrat to win any election. That possibility is real, and would present an incredible threat to American democracy,” wrote Bacon.

When winning just isn’t enough

Rep. Byron Donalds adjusts his mask while denouncing HR 1, a bill to prevent voter suppression. (Image: C-SPAN)

Florida, by all accounts, had perhaps the smoothest and most trouble-free election of all states in 2020. Mail-in ballots were counted early, in-person voting ran efficiently, and results were reported swiftly and accepted as accurate. There were no reports of voter fraud. It is a point of pride for the governor and the state.

What is more, Republicans swept virtually every office they contested. The entire state government—executive, legislative and judicial—is in Republican hands.

But winning is not enough; Republicans, and especially Trumper Republicans like Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in particular, want to ensure that there is absolutely no chance of losing power in 2022—or ever.

In the state Senate Sen. Dennis Baxley (R-12-Sumter County) introduced Senate Bill 90 in February to reduce the time Floridians would have to apply for mail-in ballots. The bill is currently under consideration.

DeSantis, while lauding the state’s successful 2020 election, has called for a variety of measures to restrict voting, like outlawing ballot “harvesting” (collecting numerous mail-in or absentee ballots by an outside party to submit them in one batch) by volunteers (collection by paid professionals is currently illegal), reducing the number of ballot collection boxes, and restricting mail-in ballots only to voters who specifically request them rather than sending them to all voters in a jurisdiction (which does not happen anyway in Florida).

For all this, Florida is not the most voter-suppressive state. According to the Brennan Center, “Arizona leads the nation in proposed voter suppression legislation in 2021, with 19 restrictive bills. Pennsylvania comes in second with 14 restrictive policy proposals, followed by Georgia (11 bills), and New Hampshire (10 bills).”

As if the onslaught on voting in Florida was insufficient, in the US Congress one Florida member, Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.), who represents the Southwest corner of the state, fought the For the People Act, (House Resolution  (HR) 1), which seeks to “expand Americans’ access to the ballot box, reduce the influence of big money in politics, strengthen ethics rules for public servants, and implement other anti-corruption measures for the purpose of fortifying our democracy.”

Donalds, whose congressional campaign was heavily funded by right-wing super political action committees like Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity, took to the House floor and in a one-minute speech (with an added 15 seconds because his mask kept slipping off his face), called HR 1, “really just a takeover of elections by Washington, DC.”

While lauding Florida’s voting system as “the very best election laws in these United States,” Donalds concluded: “the people of the State of Florida definitely do not want the things that are in this bill. Our system is the best. Frankly, leave Florida alone.”

Donalds’ speech raises the question: If Florida’s voting system is the best in the country, why are the governor and Republican state legislators trying so hard to change it—and in a restrictive, suppressive manner, no less?

Perhaps the best answer came from Manny Diaz, the chair of the Florida Democratic Party: “This is not an issue of Republicans versus Democrats, but instead an issue of Republicans versus democracy. Florida Republicans keep showing us that when given a choice between defending the rights of voters, or suppressing voter access, disturbingly they will all too gladly suppress, harm and sacrifice our most sacred constitutional right on the altar of preserving power for the sake of power.”

Recognizing the danger

Attendants wheel a golden idol of Donald Trump into CPAC. (Image: William Turton/Twitter)

Fortunately, the danger to American democracy is well recognized and countermeasures are starting up.

On Saturday, March 7, President Joe Biden issued an executive order directing the federal government “to promote and defend the right to vote for all Americans who are legally entitled to participate in elections.” The federal government, states the order, will “expand access to, and education about, voter registration and election information, and…combat misinformation, in order to enable all eligible Americans to participate in our democracy.”

The order was issued in light of the likelihood that HR 1 would fail in the Senate without a two-thirds majority to pass.

Elsewhere, lawmakers are introducing voter expansion bills in their state legislatures. But in states like Florida where Trumpers dominate, they are unlikely to succeed.

Nonetheless, those who favor democracy—democrats with a small “d” of whatever political allegiance—can take action. They can:

  • Fight voter suppression at the state and local levels by lobbying, pressuring their legislators and protesting against any anti-democratic measures;
  • Immediately challenge such measures in court if they pass in the legislature;
  • Run for all available elected offices at all levels;
  • Stay alert to Trumpist efforts to undermine democracy, promote authoritarian conspiracy theories and spread big lies and expose them to the light of day by whatever means available;
  • Report illegal, seditious or criminal activities to relevant law enforcement agencies;
  • Volunteer to aid voter registration efforts and serve in local election offices and at polling stations;
  • Organize to actively assist candidates who support democracy and voting access.

Most of all, people need to be aware that the struggle to protect, preserve and defend the Constitution and democracy is now a long game. It’s been going on since the Constitution was ratified but currently it’s in a new, domestic, post-Trump, post-insurrection phase. It is going to play out over many election cycles and decades.

People should not be lulled into thinking that because Trump and his cultists are in remission at the moment, that they are finished. That’s what Germans thought after the failure of the Beer Hall Putsch. Instead, the Nazi movement entered a new phase of steady effort until it achieved a breakthrough 10 years later (and, by the way, Nazis never actually won over a majority of Germans prior to 1933).

This is not to minimize the major differences between Germany in 1923 and America in 2021. There are also significant differences between Hitler and Trump (not least that Hitler was 34 years old at the time of the putsch with a full career ahead of him and Trump is 74). But still, the similarities are worrisome.

However, being aware of history can give true patriots the tools to determine a better course for the United States.

People are fond of quoting the aphorism, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”

The phrase, though, holds within it the solution to the problem it poses—because those who do know history can keep it from happening again.

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg

Respect the hustle: Lessons for Southwest Florida candidates from great campaigners

01-01-20 AOC Courage to change videoAlexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the streets of New York in her campaign video, Courage to Change.

Jan. 2, 2020 by David Silverberg

The story is told that Napoleon Bonaparte, when asked which historical generals he most admired, responded: “The ones that won.”

As it is with generals, so it is with political candidates. All the ideals in the world don’t make a difference if you don’t win your election.

It’s no secret for Democrats in Southwest Florida that the odds of winning an election are long. But there are candidates who faced similar odds in other circumstances and overcame them. What did they do right and what lessons can Southwest Floridians learn from them?

This article, the first in a series, will examine some of the mechanics of campaigning. In this one, we’ll look at elements of the ground game, the getting from A to B, or as one person called it, “the hustle.”

Pound the pavement, knock on doors

Perhaps no one is a better embodiment of the successful, come-from-nowhere insurgent than Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-14-NY), now nearly universally referred to as AOC. On June 26, 2018, the 28-year-old Boston University graduate and sometime bartender defeated Rep. Joe Crowley, a 10-term incumbent and the fourth-most senior Democrat in the House of Representatives in the Democratic primary.

AOC campaigned early, often and relentlessly—and her supporters did the same.

“In a year of campaigning, Ocasio-Cortez and her volunteers made a hundred and seventy thousand phone calls, knocked on a hundred and twenty thousand doors, and sent a hundred and twenty thousand text messages,” wrote David Remnick in a New Yorker profile. “Ocasio-Cortez spent the last week of the campaign going door to door, hoofing it to the end.”

01-01-20 AOC Courage to change video shoesAOC stops to change shoes as depicted in her campaign video.

“Look, it’s a credit to her. She did a very good job of organizing and in generating a turnout spike among younger voters,” an unnamed political expert told reporter Grace Segers of

“Something I can’t emphasize enough: There is no replacement for strong volunteer canvass. $3 million dollars is not a replacement for volunteer canvass. If you’re wondering what you can do to change the political situation right now, the answer is ‘volunteer canvass,’” analyst Michael Kinnucan wrote in “Ocasio-Cortez  —  a brilliant candidate at the right moment  —  brought in a whole mess of volunteers from all over the place, from other organizations as well as off the street.”

The same went for volunteers for Doug Jones, the insurgent Democrat who in 2017 defeated Republican Roy Moore for the US Senate seat in Alabama.

Doug Jones victory 12-13-17Doug Jones celebrates his 2017 senatorial victory in Alabama.

“Roy Moore had no ground game,” Rebecca Rothman, a Doug Jones organizer told Collier County Democrats during a visit to Party headquarters in December 2017. “They were so confident of winning that they didn’t put out any lawn signs or go door-to-door.” In contrast, Jones supporters vigorously went door-to-door, canvassing neighborhoods. The visits were critical even in areas that were regarded as safely Democratic because they helped turn out the vote there.

Closer to home and on a state level, the 2018 special election victory of Margaret Good in State District 72 in Sarasota was also the result of activist mobilization and grassroots, door-knocking efforts.

01-01-20 Margaret_Good
Margaret Good

Good was running in a majority Republican district very similar to those in Lee and Collier counties but overcame her numerical disadvantage with a strong field operation.

“Very early we made a conscious decision to invest in the field organization,” Reggie Cardoza, the director of political operations for Democrats in the Florida House, told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. “The most effective and efficient way to reach a voter is face to face.”

That kind of campaigning not only introduces the candidate to voters, it expands the electorate; people who may never have voted before can be inspired to go to the polls for the first time.

Margaret Good is now running for Congress in the 16th Congressional District against Republican incumbent Rep. Vern Buchanan.

In Southwest Florida, where Democratic candidates have to find new voters in order to win, face-to-face campaigning can start to make the necessary difference—and nowhere is it more important and more effective than when it’s done by the candidate in person.

Keeping tech in its place

Digital technology is seductive. It’s a great ego boost for a candidate or campaign to put up Facebook posts and see the yellow line of page visitors rise and count the numbers of “engagements”—actions taken by visitors—and to believe that this constitutes real progress in convincing voters.

It does constitute progress—but without face-to-face, on the ground introductions and follow-up, it also means nothing.

Before going further, let’s ask a crucial question: What do we mean when we refer to “technology?” Marshall McLuhan, the famous thinker and author of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, wrote that technology is an extension of a human capability by artificial means. In this instance, think of a loudspeaker or amplifier broadcasting or amplifying the sound of a person’s voice.

All recent successful campaigns have used technology, chiefly digital media, in new and creative ways to broaden their messages. Savvy politicians have always realized that new technologies extend their ability to reach voters. What newspapers and telegraphs did for Abraham Lincoln and radio did for Franklin Roosevelt, so Twitter did for Donald Trump—and for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

If Donald Trump uses digital media, especially Twitter, as a weapon, he uses it like a madman waving a club, swinging it insanely in all directions and battering anything and everything around him. AOC uses digital media like a dagger, thrusting it at a focused target and driving it home with the greatest impact.

In addition to her 2018 campaign’s 120,000 text messages and her massive Twitter use, AOC’s campaign produced a moving, beautifully crafted 2-minute video called “The Courage to Change.” It effectively introduced AOC, her platform, the issues and called for action. It cost less than $10,000 to make and it was durable; no matter what was happening in the news, it served over the long term of the campaign. It was never broadcast by local television stations or used in paid advertising but while it was only distributed digitally, it went viral and has had over a million views—and keeps being accessed to this day.

Unfortunately, in Southwest Florida, there is no reliable, publicly-available data on people’s media habits, so it’s very hard for a campaign to determine which platforms people use most and trust. As a result, campaigns can’t focus their messages accordingly.

However, it seems safe to say that given Lee and Collier counties’ high proportion of older people, traditional media (television and print newspapers) and more established social media (Facebook, perhaps Twitter) are probably their leading information sources, as opposed to newer applications like Instagram or Tik-Tok.

In Southwest Florida, Democratic candidates cannot rely on established mainstream media to do its traditional, constitutional job of objectively and comprehensively covering politics and government. Politics is a very low priority for local media and Democratic and progressive activity is usually overlooked, ignored or dismissed (hence the reason for The Paradise Progressive).

As a result, any Democratic campaign in Southwest Florida has to build its own media machine and aggressively push out its message. Fortunately, digital media provides a low-cost means of doing that. (Ironically, various digital platforms’ crackdown on false and misleading political messages also means cutting off a channel for low-financed, insurgent political campaigns.)

But media can only do so much. For those voters—and most importantly, new and potential voters who might not subscribe to digital media channels, nothing can take the place of a knock on the door, a friendly greeting and a handshake, or what’s known in campaign slang as “pressing the flesh.”

There is simply no substitute for committed, energetic, continuous, face-to-face campaigning, especially in person by the candidate.

Pressing the flesh—effectively

Clinton addresses rally cropped 11-1-16Former President Bill Clinton addresses a crowd in Immokalee, Nov. 1, 2016.      (Photo: author)

Former Democratic President Bill Clinton is the ultimate “people person.” Those who have met him have commented on his uncanny concentration on the person he’s with, making that person feel like he or she is the most important person in the universe—indeed, the only person in the universe.

Clinton’s people skills were on display on Nov. 1, 2016 in Collier County when he visited Immokalee on a campaign swing for his wife Hillary.

Although it was a small gathering for a man who has addressed massive crowds, Clinton nonetheless treated the audience with the same respect he would show a national convention. He was articulate and intelligent, addressing people as peers. He was unfazed by brief heckling and argued convincingly when challenged, showing full command of facts and figures.

But it was actually after he finished speaking that the complete Clinton treatment was on full display. Clinton just loved being there. An observer could see and feel it. Clinton gave the impression that there was nothing in the world he would rather be doing than shaking hands and posing for selfies with voters in the heat of Immokalee. His enjoyment seemed to just wash over the crowd and radiate outward. These were the people he most wanted to meet and the crowd reciprocated his pleasure. He would have stayed for hours if his entourage hadn’t pulled him away.

Clinton’s famous empathy and focus won him his elections in Arkansas and took him to the White House. It marks him as one of the most effective politicians in American history. And speaking clinically, it’s a key to making personal appearances effective with voters.

It’s also something AOC has, according to Michael Kinnucan: “If you’ve ever been in a room with Ocasio-Cortez, you know what I mean. She has the thing. You don’t need the thing, lots of sitting politicians don’t have it, but when you find it —it’s something else.”

It’s best if a candidate has “the thing” in her or his bones but it can be developed.

“The digital age has turned many of us into multitaskers who are constantly on the lookout for our next dopamine burst of novelty,” according to  Geoffrey Tumlin, author of Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life. Clinton, on the other hand, “has the ability to connect with an audience and then turn around and make the person who was helping with the slideshow feel like they’re the most important person there.”

In the 2014 article “How to Communicate like Bill Clinton” in the magazine Fast Company, Tumlin provided tips on making effective personal appearances. (They are: unplug from technology; seek out conversations; adopt “we-based” communication forms; empathize; and practice.) They’re lessons Southwest Florida Democratic candidates need to learn.

A winning candidate here should enjoy meeting people, being with them, listening to them and winning them over. It’s best if this is instinctive behavior but if it’s not, it can be learned. By the same token, a candidate who is detached, remote, aloof, dismissive or passive will definitely not succeed.


So in-person campaigning, technological savvy and empathy are some of the tactics that will help Democrats win in Southwest Florida. But all of this is nothing without sheer hard work, the willingness and drive to get up every morning and do what needs to be done, to campaign at every moment and opportunity, to inherently want to win over voters.

AOC put this very well after her victory. Her stunning upset had pundits pointing to every possible factor to explain her success, a major one of which was the change in her district from majority white to majority Latino.

But AOC was having none of it. She knew how much work she and her campaign had put into the effort. On June 29, 2018 she tweeted out her reply:

“Some folks are saying I won for ‘demographic’ reasons.

“1st of all, that’s false. We won w/voters of all kinds.

“2nd, here’s my 1st pair of campaign shoes. I knocked doors until rainwater came through my soles.

“Respect the hustle. We won bc we out-worked the competition. Period.”

12-28-19 AOC shoes.jpg    12-28-19 AOC shoes bottom

Pound the pavement; expend the shoe leather; respect the hustle: that willingness to work is the key ingredient if Democrats are ever to win in Southwest Florida.

Liberty lives in light

©2020 by David Silverberg


A tale of two swamps: Why Southwest Florida can’t keep its congressmen

11-15-19 19th District mapA satirical map of Florida’s 19th Congressional District.    (Illustration by author (c) 2019 by David Silverberg)

Nov. 18, 2019 by David Silverberg

Updated at 12:25 pm with new, updated voter statistics, thanks to June Fletcher.

What is it about Florida’s 19th Congressional District that devours its representatives in Congress?

Since its creation following the 2010 census, the coastal strip from Cape Coral to Marco Island on the edge of the Everglades swamp has had three congressional representatives. That may not sound like a lot but in a mere seven years it’s very unusual turnover for a safely Republican, conservative district.

Now Rep. Francis Rooney is retiring after two terms and the battle is shaping up to replace him. It seems worthwhile to try to discover why what should be a very stable district is in fact so volatile.

(Terminology note: There is no formal title called “Congressman.” A person is either a “Representative” or “Member of Congress,” which is what we’ll mostly be using here, the headline excepted.)

In the beginning…

For the 19th Congressional District, “the beginning” is 2010, the year of the census.

Before that year, the coastal area from roughly Cape Coral to Marco Island was variously the 13th or 14th congressional district and with one interruption was represented by the legendary Mack clan, (actually McGillicuddy, the original name of the Irish immigrant who started it).

Connie Mack III (officially Cornelius Alexander McGillicuddy III) served as Republican representative of the 13th district from 1983 to 1989 before running for the US Senate and serving in that body until 2001, when he was defeated by Democrat Bill Nelson.

He was followed by Rep. Porter Goss of Sanibel, who represented the 14th from 1993 to 2004, at which point he left when he was named head of the Central Intelligence Agency by President George W. Bush.

In 2005, the seat reverted back to the Macks when Connie Mack IV won election and served until 2013. Given its roots in the area and prestige in the national capital, the Mack dynasty was firmly entrenched and an overpowering political presence along this stretch of coast.

Behold, the 19th

Florida_US_Congressional_District_19_(since_2013)As is done every ten years after a census, Florida’s congressional lines were redrawn after 2010 to reflect new demographic realities and Southwest Florida was no exception. The old 14th District was now re-numbered the 19th. Thanks to a Republican legislature, the Florida map was gerrymandered to favor Republicans.

This new 19th largely followed the boundaries of its predecessor, with two important exceptions: two potentially Democratic communities were broken off. Lehigh Acres in northern Lee County was split so that the majority of it would be absorbed by the Republican 17th District, and all of Golden Gate Estates was put in the 25th District, which had its center of gravity in heavily Republican, largely Cuban-American Hialeah near the east coast. (Previously, a part of Golden Gate was in the district.)

The resulting 19th District consisted of 696,776 people in 2010. Its two most densely populated communities were Cape Coral and Fort Myers.

As intended by Republican mapmakers, today it is a majority Republican district. According to the Florida Department of State Division of Elections in 2018, of 505,197 total registered voters, Republicans made up 45.5 percent of the electorate (229,736) and Democrats 25.8 percent (130,286), while 28 percent (141,906) were non-affiliated.

Despite the high number of non-party affiliated voters, the Cook Political Report, the Bible of congressional district data and analysis, rates the district as R+13, meaning that it’s 13 times as likely to vote Republican compared to the national average in the last two presidential election—in other words, it’s very Republican.

The majority of its population—75 percent—live in Lee County. Some 66.4 percent of the entire district is considered suburban, with 31 percent classified as rural and only a sliver considered urban.

It is an overwhelmingly white district: 83.5 percent, with very small numbers of minorities: 9.7 percent Hispanic, 5.5 percent African-American and 1.1 percent Asian-American. Its population is also older, with 27.7 percent over the age of 65. The median income is $53,205, slightly above the state average of $49,054. In 2010 it was 48.8 percent male and 51.2 percent female.

Two demographic groups define the district: The largest is Midwestern Republican retirees who moved down once Interstate 75 opened a straight route from upper Michigan and the Canadian border to Naples in the 1970s. The other consists of descendants of people who have lived in the area since its earliest days of white settlement.

The first election in the new 19th District occurred in 2012 and it brought to power a newcomer.

Trey Radel

11-16-19 Trey_Radel_113th_Congress
Trey Radel, 2013

Trey Radel was a local broadcast journalist and publishing entrepreneur, whose libertarian opinions became increasingly conservative over time. Given his prominence, when Connie Mack IV decided not to run again, he called on Radel to take his place.

Radel describes the courtship and his experience in Congress in his 2017 book Democrazy: A True Story of Weird Politics, Money, Madness, and Finger Food.

Radel ran, won the primary and then the general election on Nov. 6, 2012 with 62 percent of the vote. He went to Congress, where he describes a dizzying round of work, votes, appointments, parties, networking and fundraising.

Over time, his manic activity began to lapse into alcohol abuse, recklessness and excess. He recalls telling his wife and himself, “‘This is the first year. Let me get through this intense year of meeting people, networking and learning. Soon all of this will calm down.’ I was struggling with something I have struggled with most of my life—balance.”

On Oct. 29, 2013 Radel was arrested by agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington, DC’s DuPont Circle after purchasing cocaine. The arrest quickly became public and Radel faced widespread condemnation and a congressional ethics probe. It was clear that he would not run again—but would he step down in mid-term?

Curt Clawson

11-16-19 Curt_Clawson
Curt Clawson, 2014

For a while Southwest Florida’s politicos held their collective breath while they waited to see what Radel would do. Finally, on Jan. 27, 2014, Radel announced he would resign. To replace him the district would have to conduct both a primary election and a general election.

For Democrats, there was only one candidate, April Freeman, a freelance movie and television producer from Cape Coral. But there was a scramble in Republican ranks; after all, the primary was viewed as tantamount to the general election.

Four candidates emerged: Curt Clawson, a former auto industry executive and Purdue University basketball star; Lizbeth Benequisto, a state senator; Paige Kreegel, a doctor and state legislator; and Michael Dreikorn, a former aerospace industry manager.

The candidates didn’t have much time; the primary was scheduled for April 22, only 85 days after Radel’s announcement. Television advertising was the key campaign tool. All espoused conservative values and portrayed themselves as the true conservatives in the race.

Clawson’s well-financed campaign played heavily on his basketball stardom, while Benaquisto’s television ads mocked his court prowess. The most bizarre moment in the campaign—and virtually the only campaign issue—came when the three Clawson rivals ganged up to question Clawson’s sale of a Utah property to a convicted sex offender eight years previously, with Clawson crashing his opponents’ press conference to discount the charges.

In the end Clawson won by 38.3 percent of the 70,302 votes cast in the primary. On June 24, 2014 he cruised to victory in the special general election with 67 percent of the vote compared to his next nearest rival, Freeman, who gained 29.3 percent. A Libertarian Party candidate, Ray Netherwood, took 3.7 percent. Those results were nearly duplicated in the regularly scheduled general election on Nov. 4 with Clawson moving down slightly (64.6 percent) and Freeman moving up (32.7 percent) while Netherwood lost ground (2.7 percent).

During his two years and seven months in office Clawson distinguished himself only once and not in a good way: During a hearing on July 24, 2014, he condescendingly addressed officials from the US Commerce and State departments as though they were officials from India when in fact they were American citizens who happened to be of Indian ethnicity. The incident went viral and became a laughingstock not only in the United States but India. It betrayed a lack of preparation, ignorance of the proceedings and what seemed like casual racism. Clawson dismissed it as “an air ball”—a missed throw in basketball.

Another, more positive moment came when he delivered the Tea Party response to President Barack Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address.

Legislatively, Clawson introduced a single piece of legislation but one that made it all the way into law. House Resolution 890 changed the boundaries of some units of the John H. Chafee Coastal Barrier Resources System in Collier County.

Rumors that Clawson was unhappy with his service in Congress began circulating shortly after he won the general election and gained with time. He was said to be frustrated by party discipline, by the constraints of the office and the slowness of legislating.

As time went on, Clawson’s disinterest and disillusionment began manifesting itself in more and longer absences. According to, from June 2014 to Dec 2016, Clawson missed 115 of 1,534 roll call votes or 7.5 percent, which was much worse than his colleagues, who only missed a median of 2.4 percent of the time. His absences became much more pronounced in the last six months of his time in office.

On May 19, 2016 Clawson announced that he would not be running for another term in order to attend to family matters. “With the passing of my mom, it’s a good time to show support for my dad and be close to (him),” he told the News-Press.

The time had come for District 19 to get yet another representative.

Francis Rooney

11-16-19 Francis_Rooney_official_congressional_photo cropped
Francis Rooney, 2017

As previously, in 2016 it was the Republican primary where the real contest occurred. Three newcomer candidates contended: Chauncey Goss, son of Porter Goss and a former budget expert in Congress and the executive branch; Dan Bongino, a conservative commentator; and billionaire businessman and former US ambassador to the Vatican Francs Rooney.

A construction magnate and major Republican donor, Rooney flooded the airwaves with ads touting his conservative values and business experience, while downplaying his diplomatic experience and academic credentials. On Aug. 30 the investment paid off when he won the primary with 52.7 percent of the vote and then cruised on to a general election victory with 65.9 percent of the vote against Democrat Robert Neeld, who took 34.1 percent, in keeping with general party registration numbers in the district.

In his first term in a Republican-dominated House of Representatives, Rooney was a reliable Trumper, voting with the president 95 percent of the time, calling for a purge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to make it more Trump-friendly, proudly trying to impose congressional term limits through unconstitutional means and denying climate change.

In 2018 he ran again, doing barely any campaigning, making few public campaign appearances and avoiding any debates with his opponent, Democrat David Holden, a financial adviser. On Nov. 6 he won along party registration lines, with 62.3 percent of the vote against Holden’s 37.7 percent. In so doing he became the first member of Congress from the 19th Congressional District to serve more than one term.

This time, however, Rooney was serving in a Democratic House and he began accommodating himself to it—and getting things done. His voting record dropped to only 73 percent agreement with Trump, he managed to get a bill imposing a permanent offshore drilling moratorium passed by the chamber and he acknowledged climate change and encouraged other Republicans to do the same.

On Oct. 19 of this year he stated that he was open to hearing the evidence that might lead to Trump’s impeachment. That was more than his conservative constituency and the Republican leadership could bear and two days later he announced that he was retiring and would not run again.

Once more the 19th District was up for grabs—as it remains today.

Analysis: The swamp at home

All of the 19th’s members of Congress departed their seats for different personal reasons and under different circumstances. But there are commonalities that give insight into the district’s volatility.

Capitol Hill inexperience

First, none of the members had prior Capitol Hill experience. Because Southwest Florida is so far from the federal government in every respect—no major center of government operations, minimal federal presence, no military facilities—national government and governance is very far from the everyday experience of its residents. As a result, there’s little knowledge of working with or in government among the pool of Southwest Floridians who might realistically run for office.

Rooney came closest to government experience with his Republican Party donations and federal contracting background. He’d served in a State Department capacity. But even here, at the time of his election his knowledge of Congress and legislating was minimal. Indeed, he campaigned in 2016 on his lack of political credentials, emphasizing his business success as his greatest asset.

As a result of this inexperience and lack of knowledge—sometimes willful—all the representatives appear to have gone into their races with unrealistic expectations of what they could do once elected. They all also exploited the conservative credo of hatred of Washington, actually playing up their inexperience and ignorance, although they portrayed it as freshness and populist rebellion.

The final result was that when they arrived in the capital they had denigrated so much, they were naïve in their assumptions and unprepared in their knowledge. It was not a good combination.

A one-party mindset

The 19th Congressional District and, indeed, all of Lee and Collier counties constitute a one-party polity. All elected offices are held by Republicans and the entire governing mechanism is in Republican hands. In this sense Southwest Florida governance has more in common with other one-party polities like China (minus the secret police) than with multi-party polities where there’s a real contest of ideas and solutions.

In one-party polities electoral politics are intensely ideological and trend toward the extremes; i.e., since only one ideology is allowed to thrive, the question becomes: who is the truest believer?

In all their campaigns, Radel, Clawson and Rooney emphasized their adherence to “conservative values” and the depth and strength of their conservatism. As a result, each was an intense and orthodox ideologue when he went to Washington, having promised to personally implement a grand ideological agenda.

However, once in Washington all encountered several unavoidable realities:

One, they had no seniority—even the janitors had been there longer than they had. They might be big men in Southwest Florida, but they were very small and insignificant in the US Congress, no matter which party was in power. That made it difficult to enact their local agendas and keep their promises. This is actually common to freshman members.

Second, they were expected to toe the party line, not be free thinkers or innovators, especially not in their first terms. This was not what they signed up for when they ran. Rather, in the Capitol they were viewed by the Party leadership as obedient foot soldiers, expected to do and say what they were ordered to do and say by senior Republicans. In his second term, when Rooney deviated even slightly from the Party’s dictates by saying he had an open mind on impeachment, he was quickly quashed both at home and in Washington and he chose to retire.

Third, legislating is hard. It’s tough to get 435 members of the House to agree to your ideas. Given their unfamiliarity with the legislative process, this seems to have come as a shock to all the members. Radel discovered to his pain that trying to trim the federal deficit meant eliminating a program—sheep shearing training—that was precious to a fellow Republican from Texas. When he successfully eliminated the program Radel made an enemy and that enemy turned out to be the key member passing judgment on him when his ethics case came up for review. Rooney couldn’t make any headway among fellow Republicans on banning offshore oil drilling until he went to the prime target of Republican ire, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who agreed to put his bill before the full body, where it passed.

Fourth, the hunt for money is constant. This seems to surprise all new candidates and it doesn’t stop once they’re elected. This was certainly true for Radel, who writes about it extensively. Rooney could finance his own campaign but even he accepted outside donations, for example from Publix Super Markets, the XL Group and Collier Enterprises.

Fifth, despite its Republican Party majority, Southwest Florida is actually a difficult constituency to represent. Given their remoteness from the national government, everyday conservative Southwest Floridians have little to no tolerance of government’s subtleties, nuances or limitations or the need to compromise. As a result, they tend to be demanding, unyielding, frequently unrealistic and extremely ideological. It leaves representatives with very little legislative leeway to maneuver.

On top of all this there is another factor that only came into being in 2017: President Donald Trump. The more extreme elements of Southwest Florida’s Republican base are insisting on a blind, unthinking allegiance to Donald Trump and whatever he’s dictating at the moment, which can change to its polar opposite on a whim—even within the same sentence.

For Francis Rooney that kind of blind obedience was a step further than he could go.

“I’m definitely at variance with some of the people in the district who would probably follow Donald Trump off the Grand Canyon rim,” Rooney said in an interview.

It’s not only in Southwest Florida that there’s been Trumpist attrition.

As pointed out on Meet The Press on Nov. 10, current congressional Republicans are retiring in droves. When President Trump took office, there were 241 Republican members of Congress. As of Nov. 10, 100 Republicans had announced that they were leaving or retiring, a departure rate of 41 percent. While 36 were voted out of office, far more—50—retired or resigned and many just felt they couldn’t go where Trump was taking them.

So the volatility of the 19th District, while once unusual for a majority Republican district, is actually part of a national trend, one that might accelerate before 2020 and possibly after.

For Southwest Florida, the combination of outsized expectations, political naiveté and rigid demands for ideological purity creates an extremely difficult atmosphere for a congressional representative.

“The American public may demand purity and litmus tests from their elected representatives, but the reality is that they live in gray areas too,” writes Radel in Democrazy. “Some call it compromise; some call it concession; some call it weak; some call it strength. Some may disparagingly refer to it as moral ambiguity. I call it life.

“From specific votes to overall policy, very little is black-and-white,” he concludes.

That may be true in life but in Southwest Florida, politics are getting blacker and whiter, more extreme and more absolute.

“Democracy is ugly, it is tough, and sometimes it’s a little crazy,” acknowledges Radel. “But only through unity, both as a society and government, can we form a more perfect union. Congress is a lot like you and me. It is a reflection of our society, all the good, bad and questionable. When we look at Washington, we’re looking in a mirror.”

Right now, if we look at Southwest Florida as the 2020 election gets going, the ugliness, toughness and craziness seems poised to intensify. That makes for a toxic swamp—and that swamp is likely to keep devouring those who represent it in Congress for the foreseeable future.

 (Editor’s Note: The Paradise Progressive tried to contact Mr. Clawson for the purposes of this article and to get more of his side of the story but was unable to do so. Nonetheless, if there’s any information for reaching him that anyone can share or if he would like to reach out, we’re still interested and this can be updated.)

Soon to come: A look at the Republican and Democratic congressional landscapes for the 2020 congressional election.

Liberty lives in light

© 2019 by David Silverberg