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 GovTrack.com, 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

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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