2022, Florida and the future: Anticipating the political year ahead

A vision of Florida’s future? The dome homes of Cape Romano off the coast of Southwest Florida. When built in 1979 they were on solid land. (Photo: Andy Morfrew/Wikimedia Commons)

Jan. 3, 2022 by David Silverberg

At the end of every year, most newspapers and media outlets like to do retrospectives on the year past. They’re easy to do, especially with a skeleton crew: just go into the archives, pull out a bunch of the past year’s photographs or stories, slap them together, throw them at the readers or viewers and then staff can relax and party for the New Year. Or better yet, when it comes to a supposedly “daily” newspaper, don’t print any editions at all.

What’s much harder to do is look ahead at the year to come and try to determine, however imperfectly, what the big stories will be.

That takes some thought and effort but it’s much more valuable and helpful in setting a course through the fog of the future.

Although there will be surprises and any projection is necessarily speculative, there are a number of big issues in the nation and Southwest Florida that are likely to dominate 2022.

Democracy vs. autocracy

Donald Trump may no longer be president but the impact of his tenure lives on. Just how much will he and his cultists continue to influence events this year?

Although the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection and coup failed, the effort to impose autocratic, anti-democratic rule continues at the state and local levels as Trumpist politicians push to create mechanisms to invalidate election results they don’t like.

Nowhere is this truer than in Florida where Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is playing to the most extreme elements of his base as he tries to ensure his own re-election and mount a presidential bid in 2024. He also has to outdo his other potential presidential hopefuls, most notably Texas’ Gov. Greg Abbott (R).

In Florida, the race is on to produce the most extreme, radical right measures both by DeSantis and members of Florida’s Republican-dominated legislature.

Examples of this include DeSantis’ 2022 $5.7 million budget proposal for an Office of Election Crimes and Security within the Department of State to investigate election crimes and allegations. In another time and in other hands, this might seem like a politically neutral and straightforward law enforcement agency, if a redundant and unnecessary one. However, given the past year’s efforts in Florida to narrow voting options and the continuing influence of Trump’s Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him, it could have more sinister purposes, like invalidating or discarding legitimate election results.

DeSantis is also proposing creation of a Florida State Guard, which would be wholly subject to his will and authority. The Florida National Guard, by contrast, can be called up for national duty and is answerable to the US Department of Defense in addition to the governor.

These efforts, combined with DeSantis’ past assaults on local autonomy and decisionmaking and his anti-protest legislation, are moving Florida toward a virtual autocracy separate and unequal from the rest of the United States.

The question for 2022 is: will they advance and succeed? Or can both legislative and grassroots opposition and resistance preserve democratic government?

The state of the pandemic

The world will still be in a state of pandemic in 2022, although vaccines to prevent COVID and therapeutics to treat it are coming on line and are likely to keep being introduced. However, given COVID’s ability to mutate, new variants are also likely to keep emerging, so the pandemic is unlikely to be at an official end.

Globally, vaccines will be making their way to the poorer and more remote populations on earth.

In Florida and especially in Southwest Florida, vaccination rates are high. However, there’s no reason to believe that anti-vaccine sentiment and COVID-precaution resistance will slacken. Further, as President Joe Biden attempts to defeat the pandemic by mandating and encouraging vaccines, Republican states are trying to thwart mandates in court. At the grassroots, as rational arguments fail, anti-vaxxers are resisting COVID precautions in increasingly emotional and extreme ways, potentially including violence.

In Southwest Florida the political balance may change in favor of science as anti-vaxxers and COVID-deniers sicken and die off. This will reduce their numbers and their political influence. As their influence wanes that of pro-science realists should rise—but it’s not necessarily clear that realistic, pro-science sentiment will automatically translate into equal and opposite political power.

This year will reveal whether the DeSantis COVID gamble pays off. He has bet that resisting and impeding COVID precautions in favor of unrestrained economic growth will result in political success at the polls.

Will Floridians forget or overlook the cost in lives and health at election time? It’s a result that will only be revealed in November.

Choice and anti-choice

Abortion will be a gigantic issue in 2022. Anti-choicers are hoping that a conservative majority on the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade and abortion will be outlawed.

A Supreme Court ruling on a Mississippi law outlawing abortion is expected in June. There may be a ruling on Texas’ ban on abortions before then. If Roe is overturned, a number of Republican state legislatures are poised to enact their own bans based on the Texas model and Florida is one of these.

If House Bill 167 passes the Florida legislature, it will inaugurate an environment of civil vigilantism as individual citizens sue anyone suspected of aiding or performing abortions. It’s hard to imagine anything more polarizing, more divisive or more destructive both at the state level and grassroots, as neighbor turns on neighbor.

By the same token, the threat to safe abortion access may galvanize political activism by pro-choice supporters regardless of political party. That was the situation in Georgia in 2020 when a fetal heartbeat bill was passed and signed into law, only to be thrown out in court. Politically, the issue helped turn the state blue.

This year, if Roe is struck down, millions of women may turn against an anti-choice Republican Party and mobilize to enact reproductive rights legislation.

What will be the reaction if Florida follows Texas’ lead and enacts an abortion ban?

Whichever way it goes, abortion will be a sleeping but volcanic issue this year. It will erupt when court decisions are announced. It has the potential to completely reshape the political landscape.

Elections and redistricting

All other issues and debates will play out against the backdrop of a midterm election. Nationally, voters will be selecting 36 governors, 34 senators and the entire House of Representatives.

The national story will center on whether Democrats can keep the House of Representatives and their razor-thin majority in the Senate. In the past, the opposition party has usually made gains in the first midterm after a presidential election. That is widely expected to happen again this year.

In Florida, DeSantis is up for re-election as is Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), all state senators, all state representatives and county and municipal officials.

DeSantis is a base politician, in every sense of the word “base.” He doesn’t try to appeal to all Floridians but has clearly decided that his victory will be won by pandering to his most extreme and ignorant supporters—including Donald Trump. His actions reveal that he is calculating that this will give him sufficient support to keep him in office and provide a platform for the presidency in 2024.

Trump, however, is a jealous god and has lately been denigrating his protégé, whom he apparently sees as a potential threat for 2024 and getting too big for his britches. DeSantis may face a Trump-incited primary on the right from Roger Stone, the previously convicted and pardoned political trickster and activist, who lives in Fort Lauderdale.

If the Stone primary challenge does indeed materialize, it will make for one of the great political stories of 2022.

The primary action on the Democratic side will be between the three candidates for the Party’s gubernatorial nomination: Rep. Charlie Crist (D-13-Fla.), a former governor; Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only statewide Democratic officeholder; and state Sen. Annette Taddeo (D-40-Miami.). This battle will be resolved on primary election day, Aug. 23.

On the Senate side Rep. Val Demings (D-10-Fla.), is currently the leading contender to take on Rubio, although Allen Ellison, who previously ran in the 17th Congressional District, is also seeking the Party’s nomination.

In Southwest Florida Democrat Cindy Banyai is pursuing a rematch with Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.). Currently, no other Democrat is contesting her candidacy.

The congressional and state elections will be occurring in newly-redrawn districts and the exact boundaries of all districts, congressional, state and local, will be a major factor in determining the political orientation of the state for the next decade. The Republican-dominated legislature, which begins meeting on Jan. 11, must finalize the state’s maps by June 13, when candidates qualify for the new districts.

If the maps are overly gerrymandered they will be subject to court challenges. In 2010 court challenges were so numerous and complex that maps weren’t finalized for six years. This year state Sen. Ray Rodrigues (R-27-Fort Myers), who heads the Senate redistricting committee, has publicly stated that he wants to avoid a repeat of that experience by drawing fair maps at the outset.

Whether the final maps approved by the legislature are in fact fairly drawn and meet the terms of Florida’s Fair Districts Amendment, will be a major question in 2022.

Battle over schools

School boards were once sleepy and relatively obscure institutions of government and education was a quiet area of governance.

That all changed over the past two years. With schools attempting to keep students, teachers and employees safe with mask and vaccine mandates despite vocal opposition from COVID-denying parents as well as right-wing hysteria over the teaching of critical race theory, school board elections have become pointed ideological battlegrounds. Frustrated Trumpers are determined to impose ideological restrictions on teaching and curriculum and use school boards as grassroots stepping stones to achieving power.

In Virginia the 2021 gubernatorial race turned on the question of parental control of curriculum, resulting in a Republican victory. Across the country Republicans will be trying to duplicate that success by making education a major focus of their campaigns. The resulting battle is already fierce and poised to become fiercer. It has erupted at the grassroots as school board members have been physically threatened and Attorney General Merrick Garland’s mobilization of law enforcement assets to protect school board members was denounced by right wing politicians and pundits as threatening parents.

This is prominently playing out in Florida. DeSantis has proposed the Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees [WOKE] Act to prohibit critical race theory teaching and allow parents to sue school board members and teachers. Locally, state Rep. Bob Rommel (R-106-Naples) has proposed putting cameras in all classrooms to monitor teachers. Local grocer, farmer and conservative extremist Francis Alfred “Alfie” Oakes, has demanded that teachers’ unions be “taken down” by “force.”

The school board elections of 2022 will not be what were once considered normal, non-partisan contests. They will be extreme, passionate, heavily politicized, bare-knuckled ideological battles. The outcome of these elections will determine whether students, teachers and school employees are kept safe from the pandemic, whether teachers are able to teach free of surveillance and liability, and whether the lessons imparted to students encourage open inquiry and critical thinking or narrow, ideologically-driven indoctrination.

Climate change—natural and political

The past year was one that saw some of the most extreme weather on record, clearly driven by a changing climate. Biden’s infrastructure plan had some measures to address these changes and build resilience in the face of what is sure to be climatic changes ahead. However, a major initiative to halt climate change is stalled along with the rest of his Build Back Better plan.

Climate change is the issue that undergirds—and overhangs—every other human endeavor. That was true in 2021, it will be true in 2022 and it will be true for the rest of the life of the human race and the planet.

Florida was extraordinarily lucky last year, avoiding the worst of the storms, wildfires, droughts and heat waves that plagued the rest of the United States.

Locally, Southwest Florida got a taste of climate change-driven weather when an EF-1 tornado touched down in Cape Coral on Dec. 21, damaging homes and businesses.

Nonetheless, on Dec. 7 at a Pinellas County event, DeSantis accused climate activists of trying to “smuggle in their ideology.”

“What I’ve found is, people when they start talking about things like global warming, they typically use that as a pretext to do a bunch of left-wing things that they would want to do anyways. We’re not doing any left-wing stuff,” DeSantis said to audience cheers.

“Be very careful of people trying to smuggle in their ideology. They say they support our coastline, or they say they support, you know, some, you know, difference, our water, environment. And maybe they do, but they’re also trying to do a lot of other things,” he said.

This does not bode well for the governor or legislature addressing climate change impacts this year. Still, even the most extreme climate change-deniers are having a hard time dismissing it entirely.

Reducing or resisting the effects of climate change will be the big sleeper issue of 2022, providing a backdrop to all other political issues as the year proceeds. If there is a major, catastrophic event like a very destructive hurricane—or multiple hurricanes—DeSantis and his minions may have to acknowledge that the urgency of climate change transcends petty party politics.

Beyond the realm of prediction

It is 311 days from New Year’s Day to Election Day this year. A lot can happen that can’t be anticipated or predicted.

In past years a midterm election might seem to be a routine, relatively sleepy event of low voter turnout and intense interest only to wonks, nerds and politicos.

But the stakes are now very high and the dangers considerable. As long as Trumpism continues to threaten democracy and the future of the United States, nothing is routine any more.

The world, America, Florida and Florida’s southwest region are facing unprecedented perils. But as long as America is still an election-driven democracy, every individual has a say in how those perils are addressed.

That precious vote is a citizen’s right and obligation—and it can no longer be taken for granted.

Liberty lives in light

© 2022 by David Silverberg

Biden’s infrastructure plan, Naples’ seawall and a Simpsons moment

President Joe Biden signs the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act into law on Monday. (Photo: White House)

On Monday, Nov. 15, President Joe Biden signed the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act into law.

The same day, the Naples City Council voted to repair an aging, sagging seawall running along Gulf Shore Blvd., outside Venetian Village. Its cost is estimated to be $900,000. The city spent a whopping $341,000 in litigation fees denying responsibility for the seawall, only to lose the case in May. On Monday it was presented with four alternatives to repair the wall by engineers and voted to proceed with a hybrid solution using the existing structure but improving it with a new section.

The deteriorating section of seawall along Gulf Shore Blvd. (Photo: City of Naples)

Is there a connection between Biden’s signing the Infrastructure Act and the Naples City Council voting to fix the seawall?

Well, yes and no. There isn’t right now, but there could be.

The Infrastructure Act will be pumping $19 billion into Florida over the next five years. A chunk of that change will be going toward helping communities build resilience against the effects of climate change. That includes things like bolstering seawalls holding back waters rising because of global warming.

Could the City of Naples present its crumbling seawall as a bulwark against those rising waters caused by climate change?

It likely could if it broadened its horizons beyond just Venetian Bay. The whole point of the Biden infrastructure plan is to reach down to local communities like Naples and help them improve the built environment that makes civilized human life possible and efficient.

Of course, the city would have to apply for a grant, presumably from the state, to get the money. That grant application might be rejected. Then again, it might be approved—but the city won’t know unless it tries.

Also, the City of Naples would be doing this in a state that is virtually in revolt against the federal government, led by a governor Hell-bent on rejecting all forms of federal assistance and blocking all efforts to keep Floridians safe, healthy and alive.

But if the City of Naples has the good sense to look beyond the partisan hysteria and sheer bile being hurled at Washington, DC from Southwest Florida’s more primitive residents, it just might find that its seawall problem is part of a much larger, global situation—and that it has a partner in a President and a federal government committed to addressing it.

A Simpsons moment

The Naples situation is reminiscent of an episode of The Simpsons animated TV show called “Last Exit to Springfield” (season 4, episode17). In the episode Homer Simpson’s daughter Lisa needs braces on her teeth. However, Homer’s union is about to give away its dental benefit in exchange for a keg of beer.

As Homer lines up to get his cup of beer, his friend Lenny’s voice repeatedly plays in his head, saying “dental plan!” It’s answered by his wife Marge’s voice saying “Lisa needs braces!”

Homer thinks there might be a connection—but can he make it?

Naples right now might just be the Homer Simpson of Florida, with two voices going through its head.

“Infrastructure plan!” “Seawall needs repair!

“Infrastructure plan!” “Seawall needs repair!

“Infrastructure plan!” “Seawall needs repair!

Can Naples make the connection? Let’s hope the answer isn’t “d’oh!

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg

The Rooney Record, Part IV: The Legacy

Rep. Francis Rooney briefs a congressional audience on red tide. (Photo: Citizens Climate Lobby)

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

Hurricanes Irma and Jose in the Atlantic Ocean, 2017. (Photo: NOAA)

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.

Handling HABs

A red tide warning at the entrance to Delnor-Wiggins Beach in Collier County, 2018. (Photo: Author)

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

Federal and state officials break ground on an Everglades reservoir project in October 2020. (Image: SWFLWMD)

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

(Photo illustration: The Daily Beast)

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.

Sunset in the Everglades. (Photo: National Park Service)

Liberty lives in light

© 2020 by David Silverberg

FGCU professor: Climate change hitting SWFL; citizen action needed — Updated

10-21-19 Climate change lectureProf. Michael Savarese addresses the Collier County Democratic Club.      (Photo: author)

Oct. 23, 2019 by David Silverberg

Updated, Oct. 24 with link to Power Point presentation at end of article.

To an individual Southwest Floridian, the dangers of climate change can seem vast, global and intimidating.

What’s more, the impact of climate change is already being felt in Southwest Florida, which is particularly vulnerable given its coastal location.

But as big and as overwhelming as climate change may be, people can take action to protect themselves and their communities and make a real difference.

10-21-19 Michael Savarese
Michael Savarese

That was the message that Michael Savarese, a professor of Marine Science at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) brought to the Collier County Democratic Club meeting in North Naples on Monday, Oct. 21, in a lecture titled “Climate Change Preparedness and Community Engagement.”

Among those measures, residents can improve their preparedness for severe storms. They can urge their county and municipal governments to do more to build resilience to counter the effects of climate change. They can put a focus on mitigation, eliminating or reducing the impacts of carbon emissions. And equally important, they can educate friends and neighbors about the dangers looming ahead if nothing is done.

The problem

Climate change is already impacting Southwest Florida—sometimes severely, said Savarese.

Sea level rise is eroding more than the shore and beaches, he pointed out. It’s altering the terrain further inland. In wildlands, mangrove forests are moving inland, away from salt water invading their traditional territory. They’re going into what are now freshwater marshes.

Elsewhere, the seawater percolating inland is killing vegetation and leading to soil subsidence and the formation of brackish “pocks” in the landscape, particularly in parkland where there are no buildings or structures imposed on the environment. Those pocks expand and join together, creating lagoons of seawater where there was once dry land.

Sea level rise is threatening Southwest Florida’s barrier islands, where the interiors of the islands become seawater-infused and the vegetation dies. Though the rims of the islands remain, their centers disappear, like Pacific atolls. Sea level rise is eroding beaches, for example, at Keeywadin Island, where the back of the island becomes beachfront as existing beachfront erodes.

“Florida’s coastline is critically eroding,” he warned.

“Nuisance floods”—daytime, fair weather floods unrelated to storms—are becoming more common. These have plagued Marco Island, Goodland and Naples.

Climate change is also making storms more intense, slower moving and wetter so they do more damage when they reach land, as evidenced by recent hurricanes like Harvey, Irma and Maria.

Precipitation is changing as a result of climate change, altering past seasonal expectations. The traditional “dry” season is now wetter and its pattern is harder to predict.


Savarese didn’t just focus on the problems, he also suggested steps that citizens can take to address the challenge and he presented them in a very clear order:

  • Understand the vulnerabilities;
  • Plan to improve resilience;
  • Implement the plans;
  • Mitigate the conditions resulting from climate change.

“The key,” he said of the measures being taken, “is getting from here to there.”

Some changes are already underway. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration is in its third year of studying Collier County’s vulnerability to sea level rise and storminess and is beginning the transition to planning to cope with it. On Sanibel Island, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection Coastal Partnership Initiative project is studying the City of Sanibel’s vulnerability.

“The county and city levels are fully aware and understand the basic principles of vulnerability,” said Savarese. “I’m very much trying to get people to come together.”

There are obstacles. “You have to overcome this misinformation at the federal level at the state level,” he observed. “If it takes Collier County [alone] to take steps over 10 years and no [other community] does anything, it’s all over.”

Savarese had high praise for the environmental efforts of Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.), whom he said had been an advocate for dealing with climate change and provided federal support for local efforts.

In addition to existing measures, the University of Florida and FGCU have created ACUNE (Adaptation of Coastal Urban and Natural Ecosystems), a Web-based interactive tool allowing researchers to model the path and impact of individual storms, flooding and other climate-related probabilities.

Cities, towns and counties are also banding together to create regional organizations that can pool information and resources and work together.

All these were encouraging actions, according to Savarese—but there’s a big gap.

“What are we doing about mitigation here?” asked a member of the audience.

“Nothing,” answered Savarese emphatically.

Collier County is doing nothing to mitigate the root causes of climate change in the local area, whether that would be reducing carbon being released into the atmosphere or cutting down other forms of pollution—and the need is urgent.

One action people can take is to join the Citizens Climate Lobby, an apolitical, non-partisan environmental activist group.

“There will be decisions made about funding adaptive planning and that effort will be important,” he said, urging his listeners to weigh in at the county and municipal levels when those decisions are discussed.

“If a city would sign a resolution saying that carbon-less is the way to go, that would be a beginning,” he said. “Have a target community that steps up, like the City of Naples.”

The state has appointed a “resilience officer” to oversee resilience measures. Counties and cities in Florida are doing the same. He suggested that appointment of resilience officers for Collier County and its towns would be a step forward.

Some of these steps seem very small in light of the enormity of the problem—but every single one is important, no matter how small it may seem. “Here in a community so entrenched in conservative values, it takes baby steps,” Savarese noted.

To see Prof. Savarese’s Power Point presentation, click here.

Liberty lives in light

© 2019 by David Silverberg


Analysis: Conservancy climate change survey represents a sea change in SWFL attitudes, politics

Sunset Delnore Wiggins after TS Colin 2 6-6-16

Sunset on Delnore-Wiggins beach in Naples after Tropical Storm Colin, June 6, 2016.   (Photo by author)

Feb. 21, 2019 by David Silverberg

A new public opinion survey released by Southwest Florida environmental groups may have finally broken the local political taboo against talking about climate change.

The Southwest Florida Climate Metrics Survey was released yesterday, Feb. 20, by the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, an environmental advocacy organization. It surveyed 800 adults over 18 years of age of which 401 were in the Fort Myers area, with proportions in Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry and Lee counties. The survey was conducted online from September 25 to October 2, 2018 and had a margin of error of 4.9 percent.

Its most outstanding finding was that people are aware of and believe there is climate change—something not previously apparent in Southwest Florida:

  • 76 percent have noticed more severe weather and changing seasonal weather patterns over the last several years;
  • 75 percent believe that climate change is happening;
  • 71 percent are concerned about climate change;
  • 59 percent believe that the effects of climate change have already begun to happen.

The turning point was Hurricane Irma in 2016. As Rob Moher, president and CEO of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida stated, “Hurricane Irma was a wake-up call for Southwest Florida.”

The survey confirms this, stating that the hurricane “has made most [Southwest Florida residents (SWFR)] more concerned about climate change, motivated them to prepare for climate impacts, and inspired them to do more to stop pollution. A vast majority of SWFR agree that all levels of government should do more to protect mangroves and wetlands. High majorities view extreme weather and rising sea levels as a threat to their community. Most SWFR say red tide and algae outbreaks are being made worse by climate change.”

In addition to simply confirming that Southwest Floridians are aware and concerned about climate change, the survey discovered public support for government action to deal with the effects of climate change in Southwest Florida:

  • 93 percent agreed that local, state, and federal governments should do more to protect mangroves and wetlands;
  • 67 percent say  the government  needs  to  protect all  people  from  the  impacts  of extreme weather;
  • 62 percent say if the U.S. took steps to prevent future climate change, it would improve our health;
  • 54 percent say if the U.S. took steps… it would improve the economy;
  • 53 percent say if the U.S. took steps… it would increase jobs.

There is much more to the survey that can be accessed on the Conservancy’s website.

Analysis: A sea change

The importance of this survey to Southwest Florida’s politics and culture cannot be overstated. It is a sea change—literally.

Even after Hurricane Irma, it was taboo to discuss climate change in public life in Southwest Florida. Gov. Rick Scott (R) banned the term “climate change” from official state usage. President Donald Trump, during his campaign and after his inauguration, dismissed it as a Chinese hoax—and he continues to dismiss it to this day.

The conventional wisdom in Southwest Florida was that the area’s deep conservatism and Republicanism made mention of climate change political poison. It was never mentioned in the news and even TV weather forecasters did not use the term or attribute extreme weather events to it for fear of offending viewers, as privately told to this author.

The expectation was that any mention of climate change would bring an immediate and intense backlash. Southwest Florida officials, appointed and elected, never mentioned it or attributed local climatic changes to it. Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) stated that “I think that there is very complex issues surrounding global warming. Sea levels have been rising since the ice age,” during a town hall meeting in February 2018.

Even Hurricane Irma did not break the stranglehold. Despite this extreme weather event, climate change was never referenced by local meteorologists to explain the storm’s formation or intensity. Subsequent wildfires, droughts and intensely hot summers brought no attribution or reference to climate change either. (To see this author’s Dec. 8, 2017 letter to the editor of the Naples Daily News acknowledging climate change, see “Climate change is here.”)

Last year the stranglehold began to break. The advent of red tide in the Gulf of Mexico and blue-green algae blooms in the Caloosahatchee River made clear that larger climatic forces were at work and people were suffering as a result. It was a crisis that no one could deny or cover up and it was clearly exacerbated by official government environmental neglect and indifference.

During the 2018 congressional election campaign, Democratic candidate David Holden made environmental protection the keystone of his campaign and raised the issue of climate change, by name, for the first time in a Southwest Florida political campaign. He campaigned to make Southwest Florida the most climate change-resilient place in the nation. However, Holden lost the general election 37 percent to 63 percent. (Full disclosure: This author served as his communications director.)

For all this ferment, there was no hard data on Southwest Florida attitudes on climate change and the subject continued to largely be taboo in public discourse.

The Conservancy survey now reveals that Southwest Floridians recognize the role of climate change, are ready to publicly acknowledge it and take appropriate action both personally and officially. What is more, the survey revealed this in a rigorous, scientific way, so it will be very difficult if not impossible for climate change deniers to dismiss or refute it.

Climate change is now in the public forum and the Southwest Florida public is ready to have a real discussion based on facts and science. In this regard the Conservancy of Southwest Florida and the affiliated organizations that funded the survey—the Community Foundation of Collier County and the Southwest Florida Community Foundation—have done a signal service.

It is like the world acknowledging Galileo’s confirmation that the earth revolves around the sun despite the dogma of the past. For the first time, Southwest Floridians can plan, prepare and discuss the issues of climate change in the light of facts and scientific reality without fear or foreboding.

Liberty lives in light