Gingrich move to Naples is just latest addition to rightist roster
May 17, 2021 by David Silverberg
–Updated May 18 with current valuation of Sen. Rick Scott’s home.
If you had the impression that all the debris and detritus of the Trump years was drifting southward to Florida—you’d be right.
The latest move is by NewtandCallista Gingrich, who on May 3 purchased a property in Naples’ tony Quail West development and will be moving there permanently in September.
They’re just part of the Trumps, Trumpsters and assorted Trumpers migrating to the swampy warmth of Florida south of Interstate 4.
Of course, the real lodestar for all this is Donald Trump himself, the loser of the 2020 election, who retreated to his luxurious lair of Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach following his failed January 6th attempt to overturn the US government and cancel the election. Trump became a full-time Florida resident in September 2019 and officially tweeted the change on Nov. 1 of that year.
“…Despite the fact that I pay millions of dollars in city, state and local taxes each year, I have been treated very badly by the political leaders of both the city and state. Few have been treated worse,” he complained of New York. At the time he was under pressure from New York authorities investigating a variety of suspected misbehavior. (That pressure may turn into indictments any day now, his Florida residence notwithstanding.)
Along with the Former Guy himself came the family Trumps, who have settled along the east coast of the peninsula. Daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushnerhave purchased a lot for $32 million on Miami’s exclusive Indian Creek Island, known as the “Billionaires Bunker.”
Further north, Don Jr. and his girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle, purchased two waterfront homes in Jupiter’s Admiral’s Cove, another exclusive high-end enclave. The main house, 492 Mariner Drive, listed for $11 million. Next door, Guilfoyle was planning to purchase a $9.5 million mansion for her family, according to The Palm Beach Post.
It’s not only the current family coming south: Trump ex-spouse Marla Maples has settled in Miami, joining her daughter Tiffany who already resides there with her fiancée, Michael Boulos. In March, Marla posted a photo on Instagram of her coyly displaying a Florida driver’s license.
Interestingly, while Trump & Family settle into extravagant and expensive digs, lesser Trumpsters who served his campaign or administration are pleading poverty and penury, either because they’re out of the graces of the Orange One, or because they’re facing the wrath of law enforcement.
Fort Lauderdale is home to Roger Stone, political trickster, lobbyist and consultant. Stone was arrested there on Jan. 25, 2019 and charged with witness tampering, obstructing an official proceeding, and five counts of making false statements during Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian collusion. He was convicted of seven felonies and sentenced to 40 months in prison. Trump first commuted his sentence and then pardoned him altogether just before leaving office. However, this past April 16, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) sued Stone for $2 million in back taxes.
Stone pleaded poverty: “The Internal Revenue Service is well aware of the fact that my three-year battle for freedom against the corrupted Mueller investigation has left me destitute,” Stone told The Associated Press. “They’re well aware that I have no assets and that their lawsuit is politically motivated. It’s particularly interesting that my tax attorneys were not told of this action, filed at close of business on a Friday. The American people will learn, in court, that I am on the verge of bankruptcy and that there are no assets for the government to take.”
That’s not the IRS view, which holds that Stone and his wife used a commercial front to “shield their personal income from enforced collection” and support a “lavish lifestyle.”
According to the IRS filing: “Despite notice and demand for payment, Roger and Nydia Stone have failed and refused to pay the entire amount of the liabilities.”
The drama will play out in a Fort Lauderdale courtroom over the coming months.
Also in Fort Lauderdale, Brad Parscale, who touts himself as “an advertising legend,” served as Trump’s campaign manager for 897 days before a major Trump rally he organized in June 2020 in Tulsa, Oklahoma failed spectacularly.
During his Trump time, Parscale was riding high with a salary of $15,000 a month but with seeming use of much more. Under Parscale Properties LLC, he invested in real estate around Fort Lauderdale including a $2.4 million waterfront home for himself. Over the course of a few months he also purchased $300,000 in luxury cars.
But apparently he wasn’t feeling well after his fall from grace. On Sept. 27, 2020 his girlfriend called Fort Lauderdale police to say that he was waving a gun and threatening both her and himself. Parscale’s takedown by police in his driveway was videotaped and widely broadcast. He sold his main house shortly after his arrest and the following day listed a townhome he also owned.
In March 2021, Pascale announced that he had formed a new super political action committee (PAC) called American Greatness PAC and a non-profit American Greatness Fund, which promotes what it calls the Election Integrity Alliance to “unite groups and efforts across the nation focused on combating election fraud.” It will fund state legislators and activists “on challenges to free and fair elections.”
Donors will no doubt be reassured by Parscale’s proven record of handling money in the past.
The other side of Alligator Alley
In an essay published in The Washington Post this past January, humorist Dave Barry put Florida’s east and west coasts into perspective:
“…Miami, where I live, is directly across the Everglades from Naples, only about 100 miles as the crow flies, which the crow had better do because if it lands it will be eaten by a Burmese python,” he wrote. “But despite their proximity, the two cities, because of unfortunate stereotypes, view each other negatively. Miami views Naples as a boring, retiree-infested backwater where the height of wild nightlife is ordering a second round of breadsticks at the Olive Garden. Naples views Miami as an insane urban hellscape whose residents celebrate every occasion, including Valentine’s Day, with gunfire.
“For the record, both of these unfortunate stereotypes are 100 percent accurate.”
Perhaps it was this boringness—or viewed another way, the peace and quiet—of the Gulf coast that first drew Indiana native Mike Pence to Sanibel Island. During his time as Trump’s vice president, Pence would occasionally vacation at an undisclosed location there. Whether his trips continue in the future or he settles there permanently, only Pence himself knows.
For four years Pence was an unfailingly loyal and servile wingman to Donald Trump—who rewarded him by inciting a murderous mob to try to lynch him on Jan. 6.
Also on the Gulf coast is the longtime home of former Florida governor and current senator Rick Scott, whose beachfront home at 3150 Gordon Dr., Naples, is estimated to be worth over $30 million as it awaits climate change-driven sea level rise to wash it into the Gulf.
Naples, with a picturesque downtown and beautiful beaches, has been a minor haven for right-wing pundits and performers for some time.
Fox News commentator Sean Hannity bought a $4.75 million penthouse in a luxury high-rise condo called Moraya Bay in 2009. It was one element of his real estate empire that reportedly includes as many as 900 properties around the country. Hannity sold that penthouse for $5.7 million in December 2020 and has reportedly moved on to Florida’s east coast.
Also in Naples, rocker Ted Nugent, better known at this point for his extreme political views than his music, has long been an occasional seasonal resident. Nugent announced on April 19 that he had contracted COVID-19 a week after performing at Seed to Table, a defiantly COVID-denying, anti-masking market in North Naples.
None of these celebrities made much of an impression on the local community, either showing up on the streets, in shops or in the pages of slick hometown lifestyle magazines as charitable donors.
To the north of Sanibel, Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson occasionally visits the $2.9 million, 3,000-square-foot plus, single-level modernist home he purchased in 2020 on Gasparilla Island, one of the Gulf shore’s many islands.
Newt and Callista Gingrich are the latest additions to the Gulf shore, scheduled to move permanently to Naples in September.
Newt, of course, was Speaker of the US House of Representatives from 1995 until he was ousted in 1999. Callista is just back from a stint as US ambassador to the Vatican’s Holy See.
Her presence will give Naples two former Vatican ambassadors, given the presence of Francis Rooney, who served in that capacity from 2005 to 2008 before representing the district in Congress from 2016 to 2020.
Rooney called Southwest Florida “the redder than red region” in a 2016 speech at the Collier County Fairgrounds when he introduced then-candidate Donald Trump. While he later broke with Trump and Trumpism, he was certainly right in his characterization.
To his credit, for all his ideological loyalty, Gingrich vehemently denounced the Jan. 6 insurrection in no uncertain terms:
“I was furious. I am furious. Every person who broke into the Capitol has to be arrested and has to be prosecuted,” said Gingrich in a Fox News interview the day after the riot. “This is the center of freedom on the whole planet. It’s a symbol for everybody. And what happened yesterday was utterly, totally inexcusable. People should be locked up and punished. And I’m delighted that they’re increasing the preparations for the inaugural because we have to make absolutely certain nothing like this happens again. But as a former House member as well, as you point out, former speaker, I found it enraging that people who clearly are not patriots — these are people are destructive barbarians and they are frankly criminals, and they should be treated that way and locked up. And I’m very proud of the Capitol Police, that they clearly needed a lot more reinforcements yesterday.”
This is not to say that Gingrich hasn’t pounded the Trumpist drum for a long time. But at least he drew the line at insurrection.
Someone who never broke with the Big Lie and in fact swore actual allegiance to the absurd QAnon conspiracy theory is Michael Flynn. He served 24 days as Trump’s national security advisor in 2017 before being dismissed after lying to Pence about his contacts with the Russians. He pleaded guilty to one felony count of lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, then withdrew his guilty plea. He was pardoned by Trump in December 2020.
In keeping with Trump’s “Me First” philosophy, Naples’ beachfront condos and hotels are now trying to drive Floridians off the sands of the area’s beaches.
Florida law allows property owners to possess beaches up to the “mean high tide line”—i.e., the dry sand up to the water. For the most part, the beaches are sufficiently broad that in the past there was room for all and people could walk and pitch their umbrellas where they liked.
But the high-end beachfront resorts and condos sell themselves as having exclusive, private beaches. They’re prohibited from putting up clear barriers like traffic cones to keep people off the sand. Instead, they put up barriers of beach chairs right to the water’s edge. Beachgoers are allowed on the dry sand as long as they keep walking but if they sit down they’re shooed away by security guards. Otherwise, everyday Floridians had better stay in the water—not exactly where people can camp out to enjoy a day at the beach.
The leader in this movement to appropriate the beaches is the Moraya Bay condo in North Naples, once home to Hannity. Further south, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on the town’s Vanderbilt Beach has moved with increasing aggressiveness to keep plebeians off its sands. Once upon a time, the Ritz-Carlton was tolerant and welcoming but no more. The condos’ movement against beachgoers is picking up steam, both with other property owners and with state legislators like the area’s state Sen. Kathleen Passidomo (R-28-Naples) who in 2018 introduced legislation to make it more difficult for municipalities to claim beaches for all residents.
Naples, which prizes its beaches as its main tourist attraction, is headed toward a time when all but a small strip of wet sand will be off-limits to anyone other than the extremely well-heeled. It’s the logical result of Trumpism on the ground—literally.
It’s the law
“My parents live in Florida now,” observed comedian Jerry Seinfeld. “They moved there last year. They didn’t want to move to Florida, but they’re in their 60s, and that’s the law.”
Seinfeld continued: “You know how it works. They got the leisure police. They pull up in front of the old people’s house with the golf cart, jump out: ‘Let’s go, Pop! White belt, white pants, white shoes! Get in the back! Drop the snow shovel! Right there! Drop it!’”
As it is for normal people, so it is for Trump and his Trumpsters. Perhaps Seinfeld’s Florida must-move law was the only law Trump ever obeyed—and even then he was tardy, being well past 60 when he took Florida residency in 2019. Flynn, Stone and the Gingriches are all past 60 and all coming to Florida to—presumably—retire.
Being under 60, the family—Ivanka, Jared, Don Jr., and Tiffany—have moved because that’s simply the way of the world: where Daddy goes, so they go all.
As for the rest of the Tumpers, pundits and assorted minions of all ages, in addition to the extreme politics, they’re attracted to the beaches, the heat and the low taxes like everyone else.
Politically, though, these are not just ordinary immigrants. Their presence along with their money, a Trumpist governor and a Republican legislature incline Florida to indeed become Florumpia—a state governed in true Trump fashion where voting is suppressed, dissent is crushed, corruption is pervasive, lawbreaking is excused, lying is instinctive, bankruptcy always looms and fantasy prevails.
In Florida, all the world will be able to see what a second Trump administration would have looked like—and could look like again if Trump and Trumpism are able to triumph in future elections at any level.
But then, Florida has always attracted delusional dreamers and fevered fantasists. Why should Trump be any different?
Rooney votes for veto override and praises Pelosi, Steube votes against help for the unemployed
Dec. 29, 2020 by David Silverberg
Dec. 29, 9:00 am updated with Rooney statement, Steube statement, Senate developments
In a momentous night of legislating, the US House of Representatives last night voted to provide Americans who have lost jobs due to the pandemic with $2,000 in stimulus funds. It also overrode President Donald Trump’s veto of the US Defense appropriations bill.
Votes by members of the Southwest Florida delegation were mixed.
The additional relief funds were provided in the Caring for Americans with Supplemental Health (CASH) Act, House Resolution (HR) 9051. It passed by a vote of 275 to 134.
On this vote, Reps. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) and Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) voted in favor of the resolution.
“Last night I supported an additional stimulus payment of $2,000 for the hard working Americans suffering financially from the deadly Covid virus,” tweeted Rooney this morning. “Thank you [House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.)] for swiftly bringing this to the House floor. It is my hope that [Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)] will do the same in the Senate.”
Rooney’s praise for Pelosi was remarkable, coming from a conservative Republican.
Rep. Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.) voted against the bill, denouncing it in a tweet, stating: “Americans don’t need inadequate stimulus checks and forced government dependency to get them back on their feet—we need efforts to safely reopen and return back to normal.”
In addition, he issued a longer statement explaining his vote, in which he called the bill an “unnecessary redistribution of wealth.” His position put him at odds with President Donald Trump of whom he has been a vocal defender. Trump called the previous $600 stimulus payment “measly” and demanded the $2,000, which Republicans had been blocking.
The vote to override the president’s veto of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), HR 6395, was much more lopsided in the House, 322 to 87, demonstrating overwhelming bipartisan support for US military forces.
In that vote Rooney voted for the override, while Diaz-Balart and Steube opposed it, siding with the president.
As of this writing, none had issued statements explaining their positions on this bill.
Trump vetoed the defense bill because it did not strip protections from social media companies like Twitter, which have increasingly flagged his baseless and inaccurate charges of voter fraud and because he opposed changing the names of military bases from those of Confederate generals.
“With this overwhelmingly bipartisan vote, the House has upheld our sacred constitutional responsibility to keep our country and our people safe,” stated House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.). “The National Defense Authorization Act has been passed on a bipartisan and bicameral manner for 60 years, and it will become law, despite the President’s dangerous sabotage efforts.”
She concluded: “The President must end his eleventh-hour campaign of chaos, and stop using his final moments in office to obstruct bipartisan and bicameral action to protect our military and defend our security.”
After long negotiations on pandemic relief and overall government appropriations, Trump suddenly denounced the bill that both houses of Congress passed and demanded that it provide more than the $600 originally allotted for out of work Americans. Although Pelosi tried to get the increased amount passed immediately by unanimous consent, it was blocked by Republican members, necessitating a new bill and a new vote.
Both bills now go to the Senate. The NDAA previously passed in the Senate by a vote of 84 to 13, enough to override a veto. The Senate override vote may be taken today, Dec. 29.
On the CASH Act, it was not clear whether Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would allow it to come to a vote. As of this writing Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), is threatening to filibuster the Defense bill unless McConnell agrees to submit the CASH Act to a Senate vote.
Under immense pressure from both congressional Democrats and Republicans, as well 14 to 20 million desperate Americans whose unemployment benefits ran out last night, President Donald Trump relented tonight and signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, which had been passed by Congress last week.
As of this writing, a formal statement from Trump, who spent the Christmas holiday playing golf at his resort in West Palm Beach, Florida, had not been issued.
The 5,593-page bill appropriates money for nearly all the government’s operations next year as well as providing Americans laid off by the pandemic with $600 in benefits. It also pays for purchasing and distributing the COVID vaccine.
After months of negotiations and passage by both houses of Congress, Trump suddenly chose to denounce the bill on Tuesday, Dec. 22, throwing the government into chaos and threatening much-needed relief for Americans unemployed by the pandemic. People who needed unemployment benefits were denied them for a week, since the president missed the deadline for aiding them. His action could have also shut down the government at a critical time.
House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.) issued a statement immediately following the signing: “The signing of the bipartisan, bicameral coronavirus relief legislation is welcome news for the 14 million Americans who just lost the lifeline of unemployment benefits on Christmas Weekend, and for the millions more struggling to stay afloat during this historic pandemic and economic crisis.”
She continued: “Now, the President must immediately call on congressional Republicans to end their obstruction and to join him and Democrats in support of our stand-alone legislation to increase direct payment checks to $2,000, which will be brought to the Floor tomorrow. Every Republican vote against this bill is a vote to deny the financial hardship that families face and to deny the American people the relief they need.”
Comments from Reps. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) and Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.), who both introduced provisions to the bill, were not immediately available after the news broke.
However, yesterday, Dec. 26, Rep.-elect Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) went on Fox News to blame the holdup on Pelosi.
“It is clear that Nancy Pelosi was playing politics with this bill,” said Donalds. “This is her fault. This is at her feet.” He called the bill “Pelosi’s wish list” and “a disaster” and said “It was awful, unconscionable, it was asinine and it has put everybody in the lurch.”
After Trump suddenly demanded that the $600 payment to individuals be increased to $2,000, Pelosi tried to increase the amount but was blocked by Republicans. A stand-alone bill increasing the amount is expected to be introduced in Congress tomorrow.
President Donald Trump’s sudden attack on the $900 billion coronavirus relief bill passed by the House and Senate on Monday, Dec. 21, deals severe blows to Southwest Florida and to the provisions that benefit the region.
Yesterday, Dec. 22, Trump, without warning congressional Republicans, issued a 9-minute, 53-second video on Twitter. In it he explained his reasons for trying to overturn the results of the presidential election and then denounced the laboriously negotiated and passed Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021. The bill funds the US government through the next fiscal year but most importantly to most Americans suffering from the pandemic, it provides $600 in payments to those who have lost their jobs.
Equally important, it provided funding for COVID vaccine acquisition and distribution.
In his video, Trump called the bill “a disgrace,” attacked it for funding foreign aid and a variety of domestic purposes and demanded that it provide $2,000 for each American.
House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) immediately agreed to try to provide the $2,000, this after weeks of negotiations during which they struggled to get Republican negotiators to raise the relief amount from an original offer of $300 to $600.
“Republicans repeatedly refused to say what amount the President wanted for direct checks,” tweeted Pelosi. “At last, the President has agreed to $2,000—Democrats are ready to bring this to the Floor this week by unanimous consent. Let’s do it!”
The bill includes provisions directly affecting Southwest Florida that were inserted by Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) and Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.).
According to Diaz-Balart, the bill funds local infrastructure, school safety, Everglades restoration, agricultural support and housing programs for low-income families and the homeless. Patients are protected from surprise billing and, in a move of particularly local interest, the Moore Haven Lock and Dam on Lake Okeechobee is re-named in honor of Julian Keen, Jr., a Florida Wildlife Conservation officer who was killed in LaBelle in June while trying to stop a hit-and-run suspect. (The full text of Diaz-Balart’s statement is below.)
Of critical importance to Southwest Florida is the inclusion of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) in the bill. WRDA provides authorization for every water-related infrastructure project in the country and has been a particular focus of Rooney’s efforts.
When WRDA was finalized earlier in the month he stated: “Passage of WRDA is an important step in finally advancing the 68 Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) projects that have been previously approved. These projects will significantly reduce discharges to the Caloosahatchee, reduce the toxic algal blooms that have plagued us in previous years, and improve overall water quality in SWFL.”
As Rooney points out, the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee Watershed include 16 counties and 164 cities. They have a $2 trillion economic impact on the state and support $1.3 trillion, or 55 percent of the real estate value in Florida. Four dollars in economic benefits are produced for every dollar invested in the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee Watershed.
The bill that Congress passed includes $250 million for Everglades restoration for fiscal 2021.
Analysis: Coming up next
While Trump has not formally vetoed the appropriations bill, it is unclear what the next courses of action will be, since it cannot be finalized without his signature. As Pelosi noted, she may try to get a new version of the bill passed through “unanimous consent” in which all the members of the House agree to simply pass it without objection—dubious in this Congress.
Otherwise, the entire 5,593-page bill will have to be renegotiated and passed by both House and Senate before Dec. 29 when funding for the government runs out. If Congress cannot do that, the government will shut down and the results will be truly and fully catastrophic: vaccines will not be purchased or distributed, Americans will not get any financial pandemic relief and the economy is likely to crash. All this will come when coronavirus cases are peaking, Russia is hacking the US government without any resistance or defense at the highest level and Trump is continuing to resist and deny the outcome of the presidential election.
If Trump had objections to the bill while it was being negotiated he should have expressed them and his concerns would have been incorporated at an earlier stage. But that kind of involvement in governing and attention to detail is not his style and all reports are that he simply ignored it.
Southwest Floridians should make no mistake about this: they are directly affected by Trump’s incompetence, grandstanding and mismanagement. People who don’t get coronavirus care or the vaccine will die—likely in large numbers. But perhaps the chaos and distress he is causing is exactly what he intended.
Full statement on the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart following its passage:
“The FY2021 funding bill includes big wins for our nation and for Florida. This bill prioritizes funding to enhance our infrastructure, support our military and law enforcement, and strengthen our national security. In addition, school safety remains a top priority, Everglades Restoration receives a significant influx of funding, and programs that our farmers and growers rely on will continue. It also supports critical housing programs such as the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and Homeless Assistance Grants.
“Attached to this bill are several legislative priorities, including an end to surprise billing—patients will now know the real cost of a scheduled procedure before it takes place. Additionally, this bill includes the final version of WRDA 2020, thereby ensuring the Moore Haven Lock and Dam is renamed in honor of fallen FWC Officer Julian Keen, Jr.
“We have already seen Florida capitalize on the programs these bills fund, and with its passage today, our state will continue to benefit from them moving forward.”
The US House of Representatives tonight passed a massive $900 billion coronavirus relief bill, which will provide $600 to Americans making less than $75,000 per year who have lost jobs in the pandemic.
Passage of the 5,593-page bill, the Consolidated Appropriations Act 2021 (House Resolution 133), which originally dealt with US-Mexican relations before it was extensively amended, required two votes. The first passed by 327 votes to 85.
Southwest Florida Reps. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) and Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) both voted for the measure. Rep. Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.) voted against it.
The second portion of the bill passed by a vote of 359 to 53, with Rooney and Diaz-Balart again voting for it and Steube again opposing it.
“I voted NO on tonight’s so-called relief bill,” Steube tweeted. “Instead of addressing the economic suffering of Americans, Democrats have manipulated this process to force their radical agenda on the American people during a time of crisis.” He expanded on his objections in a longer statement.
House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.) said in a floor speech that while there was more work to do to stop the pandemic and help Americans, the bill “will meet the needs of the American people—to crush this virus and to do so in a way that brings us all into the future in a very safe way.”
The gigantic piece of legislation also includes another bill of vital importance to Southwest Florida, the Water Resources Development Act, which governs all the water sources in the region.
The bill included one proposal by Diaz-Balart. It allows citizens who file taxes with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) rather than a Social Security number to receive benefits. Legal Permanent Residents can receive stimulus payments as well. Under previous versions of the Paycheck Protection Program both groups were ineligible for payments. This also applies to ITIN users married to spouses who are ineligible for payments.
“As I have stated before, there is no reason to justify why a US Citizen or Legal Permanent Resident should be excluded from receiving a benefit meant for Americans simply due to the legal status of a spouse,” stated Diaz-Balart. “I am thrilled to see that this provision was taken into consideration in this new COVID relief bill, and I look forward to seeing the great impact this will make in helping the American people.”
“We are disappointed that Republicans have refused to recognize the need to honor our heroic frontline workers by supporting robust funding for state and local governments,” stated Pelosi. “State and local governments need much more funding to prevent senseless layoffs and critical service cuts.”
The bill now goes back to the Senate, where it is expected to pass quickly—possibly within hours of the House’s vote—and then be signed by President Donald Trump. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has stated that, once signed, government-issued checks could go out as soon as next week.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) is the only Southwest Florida Republican to join 105 of his colleagues in an amicus brief supporting a Texas lawsuit attempting to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
Reps. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) and Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.), a vociferous supporter of President Trump, have not joined the effort.
None of the Southwest Florida congressmen issued statements explaining their positions or actions.
Nine of the signers are from Florida.
Ninety Republican members of the House of Representatives did not sign on to the brief, including the leadership, with the exception of Minority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise (R-1-La.). Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-2-Ind.), is not on the list due to a clerical error but tweeted that she supports the suit.
The lawsuit argues that election results in the key swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Georgia are “riddled with an unprecedented number of serious allegations of fraud and irregularities” and should be invalidated. There have been no confirmed cases of widespread fraud in any state.
Officials in the four states named in the lawsuit have categorically rejected the claims of fraud or irregularities.
Although the lawsuit is being submitted directly to the Supreme Court, experts give it little chance of succeeding.
On Wednesday, Dec. 9, all 50 states and the District of Columbia certified the results of the election and the victory of President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice-President-Elect Kamala Harris.
The Republican representatives joining the amicus brief are as follows, in alphabetical order:
Southwest Florida Reps. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) and Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) defied outgoing President Donald Trump last night, voting in favor of a defense authorization bill he is threatening to veto.
Rep. Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.), one of Trump’s most ardent defenders, was absent.
None of the members issued statements explaining their votes.
The William M. (Mac) Thornberry National Defense Authorization Act (House Resolution 6395) passed the US House of Representatives by a vote of 335 to 78. (It is named in honor of Rep. William Thornberry (R-13-Texas), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, who is retiring after 25 years of service in the House.)
The bill authorizes $740 billion in spending on US defense for fiscal year 2021. It includes a 3 percent pay raise for military servicemembers.
Trump’s war on Defense
Earlier in the day Trump demanded that Republicans oppose the bill, tweeting: “I hope House Republicans will vote against the very weak National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which I will VETO. Must include a termination of Section 230 (for National Security purposes), preserve our National Monuments, & allow for 5G & troop reductions in foreign lands!”
Section 230 is a law, part of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, that provides immunity from liability for providers and users of an “interactive computer service” who publish information provided by third-party users. In practical terms, it protects online platforms like Twitter and Facebook from being sued for content posted by users.
Trump has attacked Twitter for flagging his past false and misleading statements, arguing that Twitter’s actions amount to selective censorship. On May 28 he issued an Executive Order removing some of the immunity granted by Section 230. However, this order is being challenged in court and so has not taken effect.
Section 230 has no direct bearing on the US Defense Department. Trump is using this must-pass piece of legislation as leverage to try to get Section 230 repealed. Presumably he believes that threatening this foundational legislation for Internet companies will force them to bend to his will.
The bill has already passed the Senate and the two versions are being reconciled by committees in both the House and Senate. The final bill will be sent to Trump, who has said he will veto it.
The lopsided vote in the House demonstrates that there are the votes in the House to override a presidential veto. A Senate version of the bill passed in that chamber in July by a vote of 86 to 14, demonstrating a similar majority to override a veto.
A Trump-Congress showdown could occur if both sides move quickly enough before the end of the year to finalize the bill. Otherwise, the legislation will die with the end of this Congress and the entire process will have to start over again in the new Congress that starts in January. However, such a delay would adversely affect funding for the military and national security.
The United States House of Representatives voted today to decriminalize marijuana.
The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act of 2019 (House Resolution 3884) passed on a largely party line vote of 228 to 164. Five Republicans voted for it, six Democrats against it.
Southwest Florida’s representatives (Reps. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.), Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.) and Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.)) all voted against the bill. As of this writing, none had issued statements explaining their votes.
The bill, first introduced by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-10-NY) in July 2019, decriminalizes marijuana and specifically “removes marijuana from the list of scheduled substances under the Controlled Substances Act and eliminates criminal penalties for an individual who manufactures, distributes, or possesses marijuana.”
The bill now goes to the Senate where it is not expected to be considered before the Senate adjourns, effectively killing it for this session of Congress. However, it may be raised again in the next Congress. President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice-President-Elect Kamala Harris are on record supporting adult-use decriminalization, allowing states to set their own laws and expunging prior marijuana-related convictions.
Did Francis Rooney, representative of the 19th Congressional District and Southwest Florida in the United States Congress, make a difference during his four years in elected office?
Based on Rooney’s own evaluation, he did what he set out to do: increase funding for Everglades restoration and promote the purity of the region’s waters.
But when he ran in 2016 he hardly campaigned on such a narrow platform. He proclaimed that he was battling socialism and promoting conservative values. He characterized Donald Trump as possibly the nation’s savior and advanced Trump’s electoral victory.
So Rooney’s tenure should be evaluated on a broader spectrum than his own criteria.
What changes that Rooney made or promoted are most likely to live on after him? Will these be beneficial to Southwest Florida and the nation? Did he do any damage and can it be repaired? And lastly: what needs to be done in the future to build on what he did?
Acknowledging the obvious
In the future, if the planet doesn’t burn to a cinder, if objective history is still written, and if historians bother to look at Southwest Florida, they will be amazed that as late as 2019 denial of climate change was still firmly entrenched in many Southwest Floridians’ heads. It will seem as though a primitive tribe living in the region was cut off from civilization and still believed the earth was flat.
Francis Rooney acknowledged climate change as a fact and broke the Republican, conservative taboo against admitting its reality—and by admitting that reality made realistic measures to cope with it possible.
For a region where human habitation and what is known as the “built environment” is a thin and fragile layer imposed on a primeval wilderness, climate change is a huge threat. This flat, coastal area is extremely vulnerable to hurricanes, erosion and sea-level rise. The fresh water that makes human life possible in this erstwhile swamp, while abundant during its wet season, is constantly threatened by pollution, algal toxicity and salt water intrusion. The habitability of this tropical environment and the health of its plants, animals and people is completely dependent on the wet and dry seasons coming predictably in their turns, at their expected times and with anticipated intensity.
As scientists detailed the data and warned of the dangers of unpredictable climatic changes driven by human activity, the response in Florida, and especially Southwest Florida, was simply denial. Before 2019 climate change was never mentioned in local media. As the local television meteorologists reported ever higher temperatures and worsening storms they never discussed climate change as a possible cause. To this day they still steer clear of it no matter how dramatic and compelling the weather they’re reporting.
Politically, discussing climate change was taboo because of the fear that conservative Republican voters would potentially react to the subject with vehement denials and retaliate at the polls. The most extreme manifestation of this came under Republican Gov. Rick Scott (2011 to 2019), who avoided meeting with scientists to hear about the data for as long as he could and informally banned state employees from using the words “climate change.” (To see a telling illustration of this, take note of the 2015 video of Brian Koon, Florida’s emergency management director, trying not to use the phrase during questioning by state senators.)
Then, on top of local resistance, in 2016 President Donald Trump was elected to office after calling climate change “a Chinese hoax” and withdrawing the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement. Internationally, it made the United States a global pariah as the rest of the world’s countries tried to deal with the crisis. Domestically, it enshrined climate change denial as a pillar of the Trumpist credo.
Rooney’s evolution was reflective of these currents. In his first term he denied and evaded acknowledging climate change. Then, in his second term, as a member of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, he followed a common Republican tactic of admitting deleterious climatic impacts like sea-level rise while avoiding naming their prime cause.
In this Rooney and local Republicans were actually lagging behind the thinking of the local public, which began to change after Hurricane Irma in 2017. This change in attitude was extensively documented in February 2019 by a carefully conducted survey commissioned by the Conservancy of Southwest Florida (“The Southwest Florida Climate Metrics Survey”), which found that 75 percent of local respondents believed that climate change was real and 76 percent believed they had observed it themselves.
Rooney’s Sept. 11, 2019 Politico article had multifaceted significance: It declared that climate change was real and called on Republicans to acknowledge it, face it and deal with it. Politically, it blessed realistic assessments of environmental changes and dangers, which in turn made possible real planning and countermeasures.
While die-hard deniers and ever-Trumpers will reject the notion of climate change until their bitter ends, they are now outside the mainstream dialogue on regional environmental matters. Rooney’s manifesto gave Southwest Florida a real chance. If his call is heeded by sensible Republicans nationally, it will advance the conservationist tradition of the Party.
Essentially, in his own District, Rooney was able to act as Galileo to Southwest Florida Republicans’ Inquisition, although without suffering house arrest. On this matter, with his help, science was able to succeed.
Following the Big Bloom of 2018 Rooney pulled together the disparate threads of response to harmful algal blooms (HABs) and established the momentum for local jurisdictions and federal agencies to work together to monitor, alert and respond.
This was no small achievement. Prior to the Big Bloom, HABs were not recognized as disasters and response was fragmented and uncoordinated. As the Big Bloom showed, HABs could seriously adversely affect the livability and economy of Southwest Florida.
The momentum of this effort should be continued and nurtured; there’s too much at stake not to pursue it.
A key element that Rooney began and needs to be continued was called the Protecting Local Communities from Harmful Algal Blooms Act (House Resolution (HR) 414), which consisted of a three-word amendment to the Stafford Act.
The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act provides the legal framework for disaster response. The change would add “or algal blooms” as major disasters subject to federal action. If the change was made and a bloom occurred again in Southwest Florida, the region would be eligible for a disaster declaration and various forms of support and assistance from the federal government.
Rooney introduced the bill on Jan. 10, 2019 and it never made it out of committee. It’s a small, unglamorous, easily overlooked piece of legislation that was unremarked and unrewarded in the District but it could be of major importance in the event of another HAB. It needs to be reintroduced in the 117th Congress and brought to enactment. It will have a much better chance of approval under President Joe Biden.
The shore and the Everglades
None of the legislation that Rooney introduced in Congress over his four year tenure made it into law. Actually, this is not that unusual. There are members of Congress who go through entire, lengthy careers without passing a piece of legislation. Rooney had only two terms.
The bill that got furthest was the Florida Coastal Protection Act, HR 205, which made an oil drilling moratorium in the eastern Gulf permanent. This bill made it all the way through the House—no small achievement. Of course, it never came up in the Senate and never arrived on Trump’s desk. Florida’s two senators never promoted it, other than in its initial introduction in that body, and it was opposed by the oil industry.
On September 8, 2020 Trump told a rally in Jupiter, Fla., that he would be issuing an executive order extending the offshore drilling moratorium for 10 years to 2032. The announcement was clearly intended to help Trump win the state of Florida. Had he been re-elected there is no telling whether the order would have stayed in force. (The Arctic was not so lucky; there, Trump rushed through an auction of leases on federal lands to facilitate drilling.)
Southwest Florida received a double benefit because during the campaign, Biden pledged not to allow new offshore oil drilling. Between the Biden pledge and the Trump executive order, Florida’s shores would seem to be safe.
Regardless of these statements, if the Florida Coastal Protection Act passed in the new Congress it would be enshrined in law and Southwest Florida would be that much safer from the possibility of offshore oil exploitation.
In addition to all these bills and measures, Rooney did help maintain the funding for Everglades restoration and provided momentum to get the many stalled projects of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan moving. He worked hard to persuade his fellow members of Congress and the administration to advance the region’s interests.
Presuming that these projects and this plan will help the natural environment of Southwest Florida to recover and thrive (and it’s worth remembering that past human interventions were all intended as improvements as well), Rooney made a significant contribution to both human habitability and the balance of nature by advancing them. It is to be remembered, however, that he was part of a large effort that took many individuals and lawmakers of all political persuasions to succeed.
Nonetheless, both his efforts and the bipartisanship of his second term deserve recognition and emulation in the future. It’s a worthwhile legacy.
The Trump shadow
Rooney’s time in Congress coincided with Donald Trump’s time in the presidency and Trump loomed over all that Rooney said and did.
Historians will likely look back at the Trump years as a sad, sick and savage interlude, a time that, far from making America great again, began what is likely to be a long decline. Rather than American exceptionalism, Trump put America on track to follow all the great empires of history toward diminution and decrepitude. Like a toddler with a new toy, he broke America.
Francis Rooney was one of the many millions of Americans who were willingly deceived by Trump. Especially egregious was his 2016 hailing of Trump as a “savior”—with that word’s full gravity and implications. From the day in 2015 that Trump descended the escalator in his building and delivered his first speech he made no secret of what he was: a bigot, a racist, an ignoramus, an autocrat and a pathologically narcissistic and selfish egomaniac. Those who supported him knew what they were getting.
Once in Congress, as a member of the governing class Rooney encouraged, enabled and emboldened Trump’s worst behavior. And Rooney bears special responsibility as Trump’s very visible, vocal and “brutal” defender during some of Trump’s worst excesses.
As such, Rooney will forever bear his share of the responsibility for the damage Trump did to America and the world, damage that seems likely to continue after he’s left the White House.
It also bears mentioning that Rooney’s conservatism was of the harshest and most unsympathetic kind when it came to healthcare, education, labor, women’s choices, disaster relief and most of all, the pandemic.
That said, Rooney ultimately summoned the courage to fully break with Trump, to assert his own thinking and perceptions and to make his views public. He opened his mind to the evidence of Trump’s impeachable crimes. He finally recognized Trump’s delusions as delusions and refused to parrot or obey them—and these delusions have killed hundreds of thousands of Americans and seem set to kill hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, more. And when Trump lost the election, Rooney was the first Southwest Florida Republican to acknowledge it, congratulate Biden and call for a smooth and cooperative transition for the sake of the country.
It was a late awakening but it was an awakening nonetheless. Regrettably, Rooney did not take the logical steps that his awareness should have led him to take: vote to impeach Trump and formally endorse Biden.
However, he did make his conclusions public and he paid the price in ostracism and condemnation from his Party and constituents. More importantly, though, he ultimately remained true to his oath of office to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” That was much more than many of his colleagues did.
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.
On Nov. 6, 2018 Francis Rooney cruised to an easy victory in his reelection bid.
He won 62 percent of the vote to David Holden’s 37 percent and while Holden had increased the Democratic percentage by 2 points from 2016, he didn’t come close to winning.
Republicans had a very good night that night in Florida: Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-6-Fla.) would now be addressed as Governor, having squeaked out a 32,463 vote win over Tallahassee Democratic Mayor Andrew Gillum. Having been plucked out of obscurity by President Donald Trump, DeSantis was entirely indebted to Trump for his success. Term-limited Republican Gov. Rick Scott defeated Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson to ascend to the US Senate. Florida was looking redder than ever.
But nationally, the news was not so good: Democrats had gained 41 seats in the House of Representatives, meaning that Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.) would reclaim the gavel as the next Speaker of the House.
Nancy Pelosi! Short of Hillary Clinton herself, there was no more menacing she-Devil in Republican demonology. To Donald Trump she was “Crazy Nancy,” “MS-13 Lover Nancy,” “Nervous Nancy,” “Nancy Antoinette.” Republicans had been condemning, flaying and cursing her throughout her 32-year congressional career.
That she also happened to be a brilliant legislative tactician, a persevering partisan, a fruitful fundraiser and perhaps the nation’s canniest politician also did not endear her to them, either.
When Francis Rooney went back to Washington after his re-election he would be in the minority, in a House where, unlike the Senate, the minority is largely powerless.
How could a vocal conservative who had voted 95 percent of the time with Donald Trump in the 115th Congress possibly function in a House run by Nancy Pelosi and what Trump viewed as her army of ranting, raving, radical Democrats?
Rooney hit the ground running on the very first day, Jan. 3, after the oath-taking and ceremony when he introduced a bill to prevent oil and gas leasing in the eastern Gulf of Mexico where the military conducted its exercises.
This simply continued his crusade against offshore oil drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. But five days later the new reality was apparent when he signed on as a cosponsor to a different bill that accomplished the same thing—only this bill was introduced by his Democratic colleague up the coast, Rep. Kathy Castor (D-14-Fla.), who represented the Tampa area. Castor was also the newly-named co-chair of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, which gave her additional heft.
Her bill, the Florida Coastal Protection Act, would make the offshore oil drilling moratorium permanent. It would be given the number House Resolution (HR) 205. It was a promising sign of bipartisan cooperation and, in fact, the two had cooperated in the previous Congress to draft an amendment to the Defense authorization bill that did the same thing. That effort was quashed by the House Republican leadership, which didn’t allow it to come to a vote.
This time they were introducing a stand-alone bill into a new Congress and they were doing it together, reaching across the aisle in deeply divisive times. It was the kind of cooperation people so often said they wanted to see. Perhaps the stars would align better than in the past.
But this promising start was overshadowed by a government shutdown triggered by Trump’s obstinate insistence on getting funding for his border wall. Despite having promised that Mexico would pay for it, he now wanted $5.7 billion American taxpayer dollars for its construction. Democrats refused. The shutdown began at midnight on Dec. 22, 2018 and despite frantic efforts to head it off, it was still underway when the new Congress convened.
As the shutdown ground on, Rooney supported Trump’s position and the wall, helping prolong the crisis by voting 100 percent in agreement with the president. He missed votes on four measures that would have ended the impasse and then voted against one that would have resolved the battle.
Ultimately, the shutdown ended on Jan. 25 after 35 days, when Trump agreed to a stopgap funding measure. It was the longest such government shutdown in American history and it did enormous damage to the United States, costing the economy $11 billion, according to an estimate by the Congressional Budget Office.
While supporting Trump on the shutdown, on Feb. 26, Rooney took a startling position.
Having lost the shutdown battle, Trump tried to circumvent Congress by declaring a national emergency at the southern border and getting the money for the wall that way.
Rooney voted with Democrats and 12 other Republicans to end Trump’s state of emergency.
“I voted for the resolution because I believe in the rule of law and strict adherence to our Constitution,” he stated at the time. “We are, as John Adams said, ‘A nation of laws, not men.’ The ends cannot justify the means; that is exactly what the socialists want.”
Rooney may have couched his dissent in constitutional, anti-socialist, strict immigration control terms but the fact of the dissent was unmistakable. He was opposing a Trump position on a significant issue. It was a first chink in the policy bonds between them.
Protecting Southwest Florida’s fragile environment had always been Rooney’s priority and as the new Congress dawned he had a priority within this priority: dealing with what were technically called Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs).
Determined not to have a repeat of 2018’s Big Bloom, Rooney began the process of pulling together all the threads that would prevent or warn of a recurrence.
Shortly after the new Congress convened and in the midst of the government shutdown, Rooney introduced legislation to make HABs major disasters so that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) could intervene. He asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to study the health impacts of toxic algae. And he asked the Army Corps of Engineers to coordinate with state agencies to monitor fertilizer pollution that could lead to blooms.
But to really make the warning, monitoring and response to HABs effective, Rooney felt he needed to convene a grand meeting that would include all Southwest Florida’s elected executives as well as experts from relevant federal agencies: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.
He managed to pull them all together and proudly announced to the press and public that they would be meeting at Florida Gulf Coast University’s Emergent Technologies Institute on May 7, 2019—and then he closed the meeting to the public, saying it was “private.”
Rooney’s abrupt closure of the meeting full of public officials seemed of a piece with the Trump administration’s increasing secrecy and opacity. In Washington, Attorney General William Barr was deceptively summarizing the findings of Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling and the president was continuing to hide his tax returns. Bit by bit and piece by piece what had once been open and public in government was becoming dark and secluded. Now, on a local level Southwest Florida’s congressman was drawing the curtain on a matter of vital interest to residents. Rooney obliquely indicated that it was CDC officials who had insisted on secrecy in order to attend, but it didn’t make any difference.
Despite protests both verbal and physical and a letter from WINK-TV’s attorney charging violations of Florida’s Sunshine Law, Rooney, the experts, and local and state elected officials including DeSantis held their meeting, comparing notes on HAB warning signs, monitoring, alerts, local responses and funding.
As a sop to the press and public, Rooney held a second meeting at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida in Naples three days later where local conservation groups were allowed to vent and the press was permitted to attend. But at this meeting Rooney was the only elected official present and no decisions were made.
Despite the difficulties, the meeting and Rooney’s work did provide momentum for further progress on HABs by the agencies and jurisdictions involved.
Rooney advanced this further by introducing a bill in June to ensure that the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science could continue to monitor HABs even during a government shutdown—the kind of shutdown he had voted to prolong earlier in the year.
Funding the River of Grass
Despite praise lavished on Trump for his care and concern for Southwest Florida issues, Trump repeatedly shortchanged the state on Everglades restoration funding. In March, the budget he put out for fiscal year 2020 was no exception. Instead of requesting from Congress the $200 million that Florida was due, Trump requested a measly $63 million.
Rooney joined both Florida senators and Rep. Brian Mast (R-18-Fla.) in protesting the budget request, calling it “incredibly short-sighted” and saying that it was time for the administration to meet its commitments.
With Florida a crucial element of Trump’s re-election strategy, the president agreed to come to Lake Okeechobee to see the Hoover Dike for himself. He did so on March 29, which provided an opportunity for every Republican officeholder to be present in a kind of Florida mini-convention. Trump used the occasion to denounce immigrant caravans and call on the Army Corps of Engineers to build the border wall.
The Florida officeholders used the opportunity to lavishly thank the president and flatter and stroke his ego. Sen. Marco Rubio told Trump: “you have a chance, Mr. President, and your administration, to go down in history as the Everglades President — as the person who helped save and restore the Everglades.” Rooney weighed in as well: “Mr. President, I just want to thank you for this and for a lot of other things you’ve done to show when a businessperson gets involved in government, good things can happen. And you are going to save the Everglades. We’re doing as much in three years, because of you, than we’ve done in the preceding 13 years. So thank you, Mr. President.”
It took a reporter to bring Trump back to the topic of Everglades funding, asking when and how much money he would request from Congress. Responded Trump: “Soon. A lot. More than you would ever believe.”
Ultimately, in December, when Trump signed the new budget it contained $200 million for Everglades restoration. But that did not happen before Trump boasted in a tweet in May that he was “fighting” for the money.
The greening of Francis Rooney
It appeared in the first half of 2019 that Rooney was planning to run for a third term and to do so as a “green” Republican.
In addition to his work on offshore oil drilling and Everglades funding, he championed a tax to bring down carbon emissions. After the 2018 election he signed on as cosponsor to a proposal from fellow Floridian Rep. Ted Deutch (D-22-Fla.), which would progressively tax the carbon content of fuels. Although that bill died when the 115th Congress adjourned, he sponsored another, more business-friendly, version in the next Congress. This act was barely noted in the District but it violated the Republican anti-tax orthodoxy and brought down the wrath of the fiercely anti-tax Americans for Tax Reform.
Ultimately, 58 members signed on as co-sponsors to the legislation. Rooney was the only Republican.
Another aspect of Rooney’s environmentalism came in July when his committee assignment was changed from the Committee on Education and the Workforce to the Committee on Science, Space and Technology. This put him in a much better position to affect environmental policy.
A September to remember
September 11 is, of course, the anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, DC. But Sept. 11, 2019 was a very special day for Francis Rooney.
“If we want to show America that we’re the party of the future, then it’s time for all Republicans to return to their roots as champions of our environment,” he wrote.
It’s hard to overstate the magnitude of what amounted to an environmental manifesto. After nearly three years of publicly evading or downplaying questions about climate change, Rooney was fully recognizing it and doing so while Donald Trump was still dismissing it as a “Chinese hoax.” Many congressional Republicans and Southwest Floridians shared Trump’s opinion.
The very same day, HR 205, the Florida Coastal Protection Act making the offshore oil drilling moratorium permanent, passed the entire House by a vote of 248 to 180. Rooney was now listed as the legislation’s chief sponsor.
How had it passed? Rooney did his own shout-out in the statement announcing the passage: “Thanks to the support of Speaker Pelosi, Majority Leader Hoyer and Natural Resources Chairman Grijalva, the House of Representatives has done its job to protect Florida.” Pelosi, Reps. Steny Hoyer (D-5-Md.) and Raul Grijalva (D-3-Ariz.) were all Democrats, as was his chief cosponsor, Kathy Castor.
Rooney had learned to play well with others.
There was more good news in September when on Sept. 16 he was formally welcomed as a member of the Environmental Subcommittee of the House Science Committee, the key body that would deal with environmental policy. It was the perfect subcommittee assignment for further work on Southwest Florida’s environment.
Rooney was now positioned as the leading “green” Republican, he had proven that he could operate effectively in a Democratic House, he had collaborated successfully with Pelosi to the District’s benefit, he had taken a giant step toward protecting Southwest Florida’s coastline, he had begun a movement toward coping with toxic algae, he had increased Everglades appropriations, he was in a strong position in the District and his election to a third term seemed absolutely assured.
As the sun set on the month of September 2019, Rooney appeared to have attained that highest of all political ambitions—he was a winner.
What could possibly go wrong?
A ‘perfect’ phone call
On July 25, 2019 President Donald Trump had a phone call with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine. They discussed military cooperation and then Trump said, “I would like you to do us a favor, though… .” He wanted information damaging to former Vice President Joe Biden, his likely rival in the upcoming 2020 election.
That phone call, which Trump later characterized as “perfect,” set off a chain of events that led to the third presidential impeachment in American history.
Day after day the tension built as witnesses testified before Congress, new elements of Trump actions came to light and controversy grew.
In a polarized nation this led to even more extreme polarization. The more he was attacked and the more information emerged about his malfeasance the more Trump insisted on his near-papal infallibility and demanded absolute loyalty.
A key element of Trump’s defense was that there had never been a quid pro quo asked of Zelensky. However, on Oct. 17, Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s White House chief of staff, admitted to reporters that there had indeed been a quid pro quo when Trump froze aid to Ukraine unless he got the public accusations he wanted against Biden’s son, Hunter.
An open mind is a terrible thing to have
After weeks of denying the quid pro quo, Mulvaney’s admission shocked Rooney.
Over the months since Trump’s praise for Rooney on Halloween night 2018 rifts had grown between the president and his defender.
In addition to Rooney’s first vote against Trump’s state of emergency declaration over the border wall, Rooney had voted against the president yet again on the same issue.
The House had voted against the emergency declaration. So had the Senate. Trump vetoed the bill and then the House tried to override Trump’s veto. Rooney, sticking to his original position, voted with the Democratic majority and 13 other Republicans to override. Although the override failed, Rooney had bucked the president and his Party, even while denying his vote had anything to do with Trump and everything to do with the Constitution.
Then there was a matter of foreign policy. Rooney, a former ambassador who was passionate about foreign affairs, began expressing disapproval of some of Trump’s diplomatic moves, one in particular.
On Oct. 6, following a telephone conversation between Trump and Turkish President Recep Erdogan, the White House announced that it wouldn’t oppose a Turkish incursion into northern Syria, which was aimed against an autonomous Kurdish enclave there. The Kurds had fought shoulder-to-shoulder with American troops against the Islamic State, bravely facing the terrorist group’s cruelty and ruthlessness. Now American troops would abandon them. Trump’s decision amounted to the darkest betrayal of a close ally in United States history.
Rooney had repeatedly supported the Kurds in op-eds and statements. He now issued a statement urging Trump to reconsider. “The administration’s decision to remove our remaining troops from Syria is strategically short-sighted, erodes our credibility amongst our regional partners and fortifies Russia’s position in the conflict,” stated Rooney. Like so many statements made at that moment it was ignored and what followed was a genocidal assault against the Kurds that undid years of American effort.
So when Rooney agreed to an interview with CNN’s Poppy Harlow the morning of Oct. 18 after Mulvaney’s statement, he was perhaps not in as much of a mood to defend the president as he had been in the past.
“Whatever might have been gray and unclear before is certainly clear right now, that the actions were related to getting someone in the Ukraine to do these things [the quid pro quo],” Rooney said, noting that political power was not to be used for personal gain.
Were the president’s actions grounds for impeachment? Harlow asked. “I don’t know. I want to study it [the president’s statements] more,” Rooney said. “I want to hear the next set of testimony next week from a couple more ambassadors. But it’s certainly very, very serious and troubling.”
Rooney made a politically dangerous comparison to Richard Nixon’s situation after Watergate. “I don’t think this is as much as Richard Nixon did,” he said of Trump’s actions. “But I’m very mindful of the fact that back during Watergate everybody said it’s a witch hunt to get Nixon. Turns out it wasn’t a witch hunt but it was absolutely correct.”
He also said that Pelosi “had a point” when she told Trump in a meeting that “with you all roads lead to Putin.”
“I was skeptical of it, like most Republicans,” he noted of Pelosi’s remarks. But he was also led to ask: “Are we trying to exculpate Russia, who all our trained intelligence officials have consistently corroborated that Russia was behind the election meddling, not the Ukraine?”
Harlow kept pressing Rooney to say that the president’s actions constituted impeachable offenses. Rooney very carefully resisted. He said he wanted more information and he wasn’t an authority on impeachment.
Then Harlow changed tack: “I think you are saying that you are not ruling out that this was an impeachable offense for the President,” she said.
“I don’t think you can rule anything out until you know all the facts,” responded Rooney.
Ostensibly a reasonable and obvious observation reflecting an open mind, in Trumpworld, this was Rooney’s moment of high heresy. It stabbed at the heart of Trump’s own doctrine of absolute innocence and infallibility.
In that interview and in a follow-up interview with Politico, Rooney repeated that he was open to considering the evidence being gathered for impeachment. When Mulvaney tried to walk back his statement, Rooney was scornful: “What is a walk-back? I mean, I tell you what, I’ve drilled some oil wells I’d like to walk back — dry holes,” he told Politico.
“I did what I came to do and I want to be a model for term limits,” he said. He announced that he was not going to run for a third term.
Rooney said that he was “shocked” by Mulvaney’s remarks that there had been a quid pro quo and disgusted by the “rump, non-professional diplomatic channel” of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Energy Secretary Rick Perry who had been negotiating on Trump’s behalf with Ukraine outside normal channels.
Rooney said he felt “like I was a bit on an island for some time” among his Republican colleagues, with whom he disagreed on many issues. He said he didn’t really think he wanted a third term. His aim, he said, had been to get the money for the Everglades and stop offshore drilling. He said he’d gotten the Everglades projects going and increased its funding by ten times and the projects were under way. He had thought that might take three terms but now he felt it was accomplished.
When Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan welched on his commitment to stop offshore drilling, Rooney had worked with Pelosi and achieved his goal, he explained.
“I came to do what I came to do,” he said. “I believe in public service, not public life. I thought that you came and did your public service and you left.” Now, “I’m really tired of the intense partisanship and I’m ready to leave.”
Asked if he was like other Republicans who were tired of defending President Trump, he said no, “I just call ‘em as I see ‘em.”
Did his retirement announcement free him up a little bit? asked Vittert. “No,” said Rooney. “It’s just like we tell our kids and our employees: just try to do the right thing at all times.”
Rooney may have announced his retirement but he still had a year of his term to go and coming up was one of the most momentous congressional votes in American history.
For two months after his Fox News interview, Rooney appeared to be the only Republican member of the House undecided on whether or not to send articles of impeachment to the Senate. As such he was the subject of intense speculation and suasion.
Finally, on Dec. 18 the world received its answer when Rooney joined 196 other House Republicans in voting against the first article of impeachment, abuse of power, and 197 on the second article, obstruction of Congress.
“Based on the limited evidence provided to the House of Representatives, the President’s behavior, while inappropriate, was neither criminal, nor does it rise to the level of justifying impeachment,” he announced.
The Republican votes notwithstanding, the majority of the House voted to impeach the president. The articles were sent to the Senate for trial where Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) refused to allow witnesses to be called and the president was acquitted.
Although he had voted the Party line on impeachment, Rooney was still a heretic according to the Trump credo. His heretical status was confirmed in later votes as well.
In January Rooney confirmed his apostasy when he defied Trump and party discipline and voted to restrict Trump’s ability to go to war with Iran. This followed the US assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and an Iranian missile retaliation against US forces. In this he was joined—incredibly—by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-1-Fla.), perhaps Trump’s most histrionic defender in Congress. Rooney explained his vote as being in keeping with Congress’ authority to declare war.
In the District public focus shifted to a raucous and wild Republican primary to succeed Rooney, with ten Republican candidates at one point vying to gain his seat.
Behold a pale horse
When the year 2020 dawned the biggest expected disruption to normal everyday life was what was sure to be a passionate and hard-fought re-election campaign. But at the beginning of December, 2019, the most disruptive and destructive event in a century had its origins in a “wet market” half a world away in Wuhan, China.
As the coronavirus, COVID-19, swept through the world and became a confirmed pandemic, Trump kept assuring the public that “like a miracle, it will disappear” and did no planning, organizing or preparation while the plague mounted and began taking lives in the United States.
There was little that Congress could do about the virus itself. But it could provide relief to hard-hit American families, bolster business and try to provide the financial resources to keep the country working.
What followed were a series of House initiatives to cope with the effects of the pandemic, marshaled by House Speaker Pelosi in the absence of leadership from the President.
Each had to be approved by the Congress. And in every one, Rooney was absent.
It was as though, having announced that he would retire at the end of the 116th Congress, Rooney had actually decided to retire immediately.
Rooney did take some actions: he signed a Republican letter calling for the resignation of the head of the World Health Organization and made a variety of announcements. But he took no legislative actions.
At the end of June, Rooney’s absence and his willingness to use proxy voting, which Democrats were promoting because of the pandemic but which congressional Republicans opposed, led sophomore Republicans to vote him off the Republican Steering Committee. A little-known but powerful panel, this was the body that made committee assignments. He was replaced with a Texas congressman.
Finally, at the end of July, Rooney denied that he’d been absent from the work of Congress.
“I am working right along, every day, on issues important to Southwest Florida: Everglades appropriations, dredging in Collier County, estuary renourishment, pushing the administration to support the offshore drilling ban that I sponsored in the House, and a host of other issues,” he stated in response to questions from The Paradise Progressive.
As for all the missed coronavirus votes, he stated: “Voting on things that are preordained to pass, otherwise the Speaker would not bring them forward, has not seemed to be worth the COVID risk to me.” He had refrained from voting by proxy at the behest of the Republican leadership while they challenged the practice in court. Once the challenge was heard in court, he proceeded to participate again and cast his first, post-absence ballot on July 29.
Rooney did make headlines again in June when he told The New York Times that he might support the Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, because “Trump is driving us all crazy.”
Of Biden, Rooney said: “What he’s always been is not scary. A lot of people that voted for President Trump did so because they did not like Hillary Clinton. I don’t see that happening with Joe Biden — how can you not like Joe Biden?” Still, he was not formally endorsing the Democrat because he wanted to make sure he did not veer off to the extreme left of the political spectrum.
Rooney also did not make an endorsement as nine Republicans battled and battered each other for the nomination to replace him.
That might have remained a statesmanlike position before the Aug. 18 Republican primary but after local Republicans selected state Rep. Byron Donalds (R-80-Immokalee) to be their standard bearer for Congress, Rooney still did not make an endorsement.
Donalds won his race anyway, with the dependable 62 percent Republican majority in the District.
However, as the presidential race was called for Joe Biden and Donald Trump resisted the voters’ verdict, Rooney went rogue yet again.
Republicans nationally and locally were either following Trump’s lead and alleging widespread fraud or withholding their recognition of Biden’s victory.
But Rooney, alone of local Republicans, extended congratulations to the President-Elect on Nov. 7.
“All Americans need to come together in supporting President- elect Biden,” he posted on Twitter and Facebook. “Our nation will only be successful if the new administration is. We must work together to enact bipartisan legislation and solve the problems which our country faces – that is how our system of government works. We have more that unite us than divide us, and now that the heat of battle has drawn to a close we must come together for the betterment of all our citizens.”
He followed that up with a longer, more expansive look at presidential transitions in an op-ed in The Hill newspaper on Nov. 15. Titled “Time to concede: The peaceful transition of power is an American tradition.” It again put forward his earlier conclusion: “President Trump should concede the election immediately after all long-shot court challenges have been disposed of. The best interests of our nation and our party demand that we acknowledge the winner of this vigorous contest. The American People have made their choice. It is the American way to recognize and honor that choice.”
Rooney was predictably denounced by die-hard ever-Trumpers.
Doris Cortese, vice-chair of the Lee County Republican Executive Committee and the “godmother” of Lee County Republican politics, was livid.
“For him to call himself a Republican and then call for our Republican president to concede, I think is beyond terrible,” she told Amy Bennett Williams of the News-Press on Nov. 17. “He has betrayed our president, he’s betrayed our party, he’s betrayed the people who trusted him and voted for him and worked for him, and he’s betraying our country by not letting our election process work itself out.”
Byron Donalds agreed: “Let’s just let the process work,” he told Williams. “When we see what the numbers look like after that’s done, then I think it’s time to start (making) those decisions and having those conversations.”
So Rooney was ending his congressional career as an outcast and heretic, about as far as possible from where he had stood on that warm October afternoon in 2016, when as a believing Trumper he praised the man as a potential savior from the twin menaces of Hillary Clinton and socialism.
On Oct. 30, just before the election and almost exactly two years to the day since Trump had praised him before the crowd in Hertz Arena as a “great congressman,” Rooney was interviewed by Dave Elias, NBC2’s political reporter, in what was promoted as an “exit interview.”
“How will history remember Republican Congressman Francis Rooney of the 19th District?” asked Elias.
“I hope they remember he did the things he ran to accomplish and got them done even if they never agreed with everything. I did what I thought was the right thing and I was intellectually honest about it at all times,” responded Rooney.
Would that in fact be the way Southwest Florida would remember Francis Rooney?