The Rooney Record, Part III: The Heretic

Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi takes the House Speaker’s gavel from Republican Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy as the 116th Congress gets underway in January 2019. (Photo: C-Span)

Dec. 3, 2020 by David Silverberg

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?

Early moves

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.

Battling blooms

Rep. Francis Rooney answers media questions at his second, open meeting at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida in May 2019. (Photo: Author)

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.

A protestor outside Rooney’s closed HAB meeting. (Photo: Author)

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

Rooney at Lake Okeechobee on March 29, 2019 thanks Trump for Everglades support. (Image: White House)

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.

It was on that day that he published an article in Politico magazine: “I’m a conservative Republican. Climate change is real.” In it, Rooney fully acknowledged the reality of climate change and called on his fellow Republicans to do the same.

“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

Rep. Francis Rooney is interviewed by CNN’s Poppy Harlow. (Image: CNN)

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.

This was a crack in the solid Republican phalanx protecting Trump in the House and the reaction nationally was volcanic. “REPUBLICANS MUST STICK TOGETHER AND FIGHT!” Trump tweeted hysterically that day. The national political media was full of the story.

The day before, Rooney’s spokesperson had assured NBC2’s Dave Elias that Rooney fully intended to run for a third term, despite low fundraising totals.

But on the 19th, Rooney sat down with Fox News host Leland Vittert.

Rep. Francis Rooney’s interview with Leland Vittert, Oct. 19, 2019. (Image: Fox News)

“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.”

In absentia

Collier County protesters call for Trump’s impeachment. (Photo: Author)

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.

On March 3 Rooney posted some generic coronavirus information on his official House webpage and on March 19 he called for Congress to permit remote voting due to the pandemic. But from Feb. 12 to July 29—5 months and 17 days—Rooney was absent from voting as the House passed one critical COVID-related piece of legislation after another: funding to fight the disease; funding for testing, sick leave and employee protections; an economic stimulus bill; the Paycheck Protection Program; an economic relief and responder support bill; paycheck revisions; and infrastructure support among others.

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 (Image: NBC2)

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.

Rep. Francis Rooney is interviewed by Dave Elias, NBC2 News political reporter, Oct. 30, 2020. (Image: NBC2 News)

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?

Tomorrow: The Legacy

Liberty lives in light

© 2020 by David Silverberg

The Rooney Record, Part II: The Believer

Members of the 115th Congress take the oath of office. (Photo: US House)

Dec. 1, 2020 by David Silverberg

There is no ritual more solemn in Washington, DC, than the taking of an oath of office. It expresses an individual’s deepest, most fundamental commitment to the United States as witnessed before God. It is when those who walk in the footsteps of the Founders pledge their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to their country.

As a new year dawns after an election, the members of the House and Senate take their oaths of office, followed weeks later by the president at his inauguration.

For members of the US House of Representatives, on the first working day of January they gather en masse in the Capitol with grave pomp and, inserting their names, recite: “I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”

The loyalty expressed in the oath is not to a person; it’s to a Constitution and the principles underlying that Constitution. In fact, the US oath is a form of rebellion against the oath used in colonial times, when officeholders swore allegiance to the king.

But Donald Trump saw loyalty differently. In his mind, loyalty could flow only to him and he expressed that view bluntly and directly. “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty,” Trump told James Comey, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, according to Comey’s account—shortly before he was fired. Trump didn’t want just loyalty; like a feudal monarch, he wanted unquestioning fealty and obedience.

On January 3, 2017 members of the 115th Congress may have sworn allegiance to the Constitution of the United States but the Republican members were going to be called upon to demonstrate their personal loyalty to the man who would take office on January 20. Their loyalty was going to be tested to the limits of rationality and reality and morality.

And of those members, none seemed prepared to be a more loyal defender of the man he saw as a national savior than Representative Francis Rooney of the 19th Congressional District of Florida.

Rep. Francis Rooney poses for an oath of office administered by House Speaker Paul Ryan. His wife Kathleen holds the Bible. (Photo: Office of Rep. Rooney)

Defender of the faith

For ordinarily sleepy Southwest Florida, politics were not usually a primary concern. But the election of Donald Trump after his extreme and threatening rhetoric on the campaign trail and his wild actions immediately after taking office alarmed and upset many local residents. A women’s march in Naples the day after the Inaugural attracted well over a thousand participants, much to the astonishment of the organizers.

Rooney launched his first town halls with constituents shortly after he took office and on March 3, 2017 he held two, one in North Naples and the other in Cape Coral.

The town halls drew more people than such events might have in the past and at the North Collier Regional Park the lines to get in were so long and the community room so full that people were turned away. Later that day, the Cape Coral church where the town hall was held was packed.

Constituents line up to get into Rep. Rooney’s first town hall meeting in North Naples on March 3, 2017. (Photo: Author)

Rooney had called for “a civil and constructive dialogue” so that he could hear “your thoughts, concerns, and suggestions.” He really wanted to discuss his efforts to fund Everglades restoration and he clearly hoped the town hall would cover water purity and environmental issues.

But participants had other things on their minds. They wanted to hear where their representative stood on a broad array of Trump-related issues, which had only vaguely been discussed during the campaign.

What they got was Rooney’s pure, unvarnished Trumpism and conservative gospel:

On why the United States did not have universal healthcare like other industrialized nations: “Half the country voted not to do that and I don’t believe America is behind in anything,” Rooney said. “I don’t want to live in France. I’ve lived in Italy but I don’t want to live in a place with 1 percent growth, with no upward mobility where if your father was a baker, that’s what you’re going to be.”

On Obamacare: “It was an experiment that didn’t work” and should be repealed, he argued.

On cutting off federal funds for Planned Parenthood: “I definitely want to de-fund Planned Parenthood. I want to get government out of the abortion business.”

On Trump’s ties to Russia and the stream of lies coming from the administration: Rooney said the House and Senate Intelligence Committees “have superior knowledge and they have access to the classified data.”

On the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): “The EPA needs to be reined in.”

On whether Trump should release his tax returns: “We all have opinions. You didn’t hire me to express my opinions about things I can’t do anything about. I spend my time focusing on something that I can do something about for you.” Angry audience members started chanting “Yes or no! Yes or no!”

On and on it went in both town halls, with the audience getting more angry and agitated with his answers and seeming evasions. There were boos, catcalls and in both meetings audience members jumped up and started to approach the stage, having to be restrained.

It wasn’t good then and it never got better during his first term. Rooney always seemed grim, humorless and tense. It was as though he could not believe the audience wasn’t reading from his own conservative catechism. He would open the meetings trying to explain Everglades restoration and water flow, mounting charts and slides, clearly intending to deliver what was essentially an engineering briefing but the audience would never buy it. The events would quickly go off the rails into chants, shouting and discord. His own supporters were always vastly outnumbered and although his aides made sure to pick at least some softball questions from the cards people submitted in advance, what was clear and palpable was the fear, anxiety and alarm caused by Trump’s words and actions, which Rooney proved unable to address.

To his credit, Rooney continued having town halls. The meetings, he told the Fort Myers News-Press, “are critically important because this is democracy at work. This is what our country is built on.”

But his town halls ended on Feb. 22, 2018 at Marco Island and Fort Myers. It was only eight days after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. People were horrified and frantic about the bloodshed. In his opening remarks in Fort Myers he presented a technical, architectural proposal to screen students entering schools. It didn’t satisfy anyone.

On Marco Island, when asked if he would support a semi-automatic weapons ban, Rooney replied: “How willing are we to throw the Constitution out the window?” The answer elicited angry shouts and catcalls.

In Fort Myers Rooney was confronted by six surviving students of the shooting. Though stating that “irresponsible people” shouldn’t have guns, his opposition to a ban or any other gun control measure led to jeers and angry shouts from the audience.

“Children are…dying at my school!” yelled Michael Weissman, who had graduated from the school the year before. “You are heartless!”

“I’m for making sure that people who are dangerous don’t get guns in their hands,” Rooney said, to a chorus of boos. “I’m not voting to abdicate the Second Amendment.” Students from Naples and Palmetto Ridge high schools chanted: “Tell us Rooney how you dare, to put us all in the cross hairs” and “Close down the NRA; we don’t want it anyway.”

That was Rooney’s last town hall—ever.

Into the DC swamp

Freshmen members in Congress rarely have standing in an institution that reveres seniority and longevity, no matter what their stature back at home. In this Rooney was no exception.

Rooney, who had never spent a day of his life in a public school classroom, landed a position on the House Education and Labor Committee, which was something of a backwater, especially in Republican eyes. There, he supported the Chair, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-5-NC), whom Rooney once characterized as a “super conservative.” She wanted to abolish the Department of Education.

Rooney, working with Foxx, tried to cut national education spending by $2 billion and end scholarships for students intending to go into public service (“You know, you get a special loan if you commit to go into public service after college. It’s like paying people to fight against us,” he told a conservative audience in May 2018.). Rooney also hosted Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos for two tours of inspection of Southwest Florida schools.

In the end, faced with both Democratic and mainstream Republican opposition, none of Rooney’s education efforts amounted to anything.

On the labor part of his committee assignment, Rooney was relentlessly anti-union, sponsoring or cosponsoring bills to reduce union activity and make it more difficult to organize unions and easier to de-certify them. In a 2018 op-ed he specifically attacked the Coalition of Immokalee Workers as well as the idea of “worker centers” that are not unions but educate and assist workers.

Rooney also sat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, an appropriate assignment given his diplomatic experience. There he inveighed against the regimes in Cuba, Venezuela and Iran. Perhaps most memorably, he wrote an op-ed calling on State Department diplomats to at least consider the advantages of recognizing the independence of the Kurds, America’s frontline allies in fighting the Islamic State.

Bizarrely at one point, Rooney turned against legislation he himself had cosponsored and lobbied against it in the Senate. That was the Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act requiring democratic reforms in Nicaragua before American businesses could make investments there. At first Rooney supported it. Then, after it had passed the House and gone to the Senate, he turned against it, infuriating committee Chair and fellow Floridian, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-27-Fla.).

“Why Rooney chose to lobby against a bill that he himself cosponsored and to do so without even giving me the courtesy of a notice, is practically unheard of in this institution,” Ros-Lehtinen complained to the Miami Herald. “And then to take the extra step of being actively involved in lobbying against it, going to the Senate and lobbying senators against a bill he cosponsored? I don’t know what Rooney’s about, but it was not appreciated. It’s just uncool.”

Legislatively, Rooney’s most prominent effort was a quixotic attempt to impose term limits on members of Congress, which he called the Thomas Jefferson Public Service Act, an effort to return to the idea of the citizen-legislator at the dawn of the republic.

Terms of elected service are set by the Constitution and changing the Constitution is an arduous and lengthy process—deliberately so. Rooney wanted congressional representation capped at six terms in the House and two in the Senate (12 years) and he wanted to get this passed immediately. To do this, he proposed a business solution: reduce members’ salaries to $1 after the limits were reached.

The idea was criticized by Southwest Florida Democrats, among others, as being unconstitutional and favoring the wealthy who would be the only ones able to serve beyond the limits. The bill went nowhere, although it did take up a lot of Rooney’s time and attention.

The urge to purge

Rep. Francis Rooney is interviewed by reporter Hallie Jackson on Dec. 26, 2017. (Image: MSNBC)

As Trump’s actions alarmed and enraged much of the public at the national level, Rooney was quick to jump in and defend the president. He said that Trump’s idea for a border wall was a “metaphor for border security” and when Trump promised that Mexico would pay for it, the president was speaking in “an exuberant manner.” The investigation into Russia ties had been “propagated relentlessly by democrat officials in order to discredit the President and the election” and “continues to be debunked,” he stated.

He was open and available to national media of all political persuasions and made frequent appearances to respond to questions and drive home his points.

But one on-air defense stood out from all the others. It came the day after Christmas, December 26, 2017, during what should have been a very slow news day.

Trump had been tweeting fulminations against the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Russia investigation, which he maintained was a hoax. FBI Director James Comey had been fired by Trump in May. Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe had announced his resignation. Trump was putting pressure on the FBI just at the moment former FBI Director Robert Mueller was pressing ahead with his investigation.

Rooney was interviewed by correspondent Hallie Jackson on MSNBC about the tweets and the investigation.

He offered a full-throated defense of Trump and attacked the FBI and Department of Justice (DoJ). “I’m very concerned that DoJ and the FBI are off the rails,” he told Jackson. “I think the American people have very high standards…”

“Are those agencies not living up to those standards?” asked Jackson.

“Those aforementioned examples are really nerve-wracking to me and undermine my confidence that the agencies don’t respect the Constitution and will put the ends before the means.”

“That’s a pretty broad brush you’re painting with,” responded Jackson.

“Yeah, but we’ve seen a lot of ends before the means culture both in the Obama administration, out of Hillary Clinton, 4 million dollars of potentially illegal campaign contributions, the Clinton Foundation, Uranium One. We’ve got to have good, clean government.”

“Do you think we don’t have a good, clean government?” asked Jackson. “There are those who look at remarks like you are making and say that Republicans are trying to discredit the Department of Justice and thus the Russia investigation. Is that not what you’re doing?”

“No, I’m not trying to discredit them,” responded Rooney. “I would like to see the directors of those agencies purged and say, ‘We’ve got a lot of great agents, a lot of great lawyers here.’ Those are the people that I want the American people to see good works being done, not these people who are kind of a deep state.”

Jackson’s eyes widened: “Language like that, congressman? Purge? Purge the Department of Justice?”

“Well, I think Mr. Strozyk could be purged, sure,” he said, referring to Peter Strozyk, the FBI’s Russia expert, who had been critical of Trump in private text messages.

If Rooney was seeking national attention he certainly got it. His call for a purge was covered by major news networks and outlets across the country. It was denounced by commentators and pundits. His Democratic opponents in the District regarded it as a Christmas gift to their campaign. And non-Trump Republicans were horrified as well.

“This is rhetoric of the extreme right wing of the Republican Party,” said Richard Painter, former White House ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, interviewed on CNN. “We don’t have purges in the United States of America! That’s Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany. That’s not the type of rhetoric we use in the United States of America and that man does not belong in Congress and I sure as heck don’t want him in my party.”

Rooney never backed off or retreated from his statement. Over time, in fact, a purge did take place: Attorney General Jeff Sessions resigned; Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein resigned; Comey had been fired; McCabe was terminated the day before he qualified for his pension. Trump succeeded in eliminating nearly all the high-level federal law enforcement officers who threatened him.

Through it all Rooney established his position on the front lines of Trumpism, standing out as a vocal defender of the President and his program, taking all the heat the “deep state” and mainstream media could muster.

Climatic matters

Rep. Francis Rooney bags a Burmese python in the Everglades on Aug. 10, 2017. (Photo: Office of Rep. Rooney)

Rooney was genuinely concerned about the purity of Southwest Florida’s water and restoration of the Everglades, which was his top priority. He plainly understood that human habitation in the area depended on its water and the Everglades were a critical and delicate resource that protected the towns of the coast.

Accordingly, Rooney was very active in lobbying for full Everglades funding and doing what he could to enhance water quality. Familiar with construction planning, he dove into details of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan and pushed to get its projects moving. He brought key officials and congressional leaders to Florida to so they could see the river of grass for themselves. He took the opportunity of a private dinner with Trump to raise these issues directly.

On Aug. 10, 2017 Rooney even waded out into the swamp itself to hunt down invasive Burmese pythons—and bagged five, winning local and national publicity.

But as Rooney showed concern for the local environment, he was caught in a contradiction by his support for Donald Trump, who was not just indifferent to the natural environment but seemed actively hostile to it. When it came to Southwest Florida, for example, Trump cut $1 billion from the Army Corps of Engineers budget, which included money that would have gone to repairing the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee, essential infrastructure for water management.

While mildly expressing hope that Trump would increase funding, Rooney otherwise went along with the whole Trump program: in addition to calling for reining in the EPA, he supported Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement and he repeatedly denied the reality of climate change at his town hall meetings.

“The climate has been changing forever,” he said at one town hall. Did he believe in global warming? “I think that there is very complex issues surrounding global warming. Sea levels have been rising since the ice age,” he replied.

When asked specifically about sea level rise at a Bonita Springs town hall on May 31, 2017 he was vague: “We definitely need to learn all we can about why these sea levels are rising. I’m just not sure how much is man-made and how much is not.” Again he used his ice age line: “The sea level has been rising since the ice age.”

While Rooney and many Southwest Floridians might deny climate change, they could not deny the climate itself and Mother Nature had dramatic ways of making her presence known.

On Sept. 10, 2017 Hurricane Irma, then a Category 4 storm, rampaged ashore at Marco Island.

The storm’s arrival followed days of warnings, mandatory evacuations, supply-buying and frantic efforts to secure homes, businesses and effects. Irma may not have been as devastating as some of her bigger cousins but she did do considerable damage, knocking out power, flinging debris and harming numerous structures.

Rooney was in Washington, DC during the entire run-up and arrival of the storm. On his official website he posted standard warnings and suggestions and links to various agencies. He returned to Southwest Florida days after the storm’s impact, touring local sites and getting briefings.

Trump and Gov. Rick Scott (R) briefly visited the area on Sept. 14, when the president handed out sandwiches and bananas for a photo-op in East Naples. He also approved disaster relief for the state, a standard federal procedure after disasters. Rooney subsequently led the Florida congressional delegation in sending a letter to the president applauding his “swift” action.

At least Hurricane Irma had a beginning, middle and end. The next disaster was more complex and sneakier.

Beginning in October 2017 red tide began forming off the coast of Southwest Florida. A natural phenomenon caused by the growth of toxic algae, at first it wasn’t considered significant. But this red tide persisted. To make things worse, a different kind of blue-green algae began blooming in the Caloosahatchee River running through Fort Myers.

By the summer of 2018, the two algal blooms were destroying aquatic life, poisoning beaches and local waters and infecting the air. People coughed and choked and gasped as they breathed in the algal toxins. The red tide expanded up the Gulf shore and around Florida to the southern Atlantic coast. The blue-green algae fed on polluted runoff from Lake Okeechobee. It was a slow-motion disaster made worse by the fact that it took a long time for authorities to recognize it as a disaster.

(Terminology note:For the purposes of this article, the two blooms will be referred to here simply as the Big Bloom of 2018. You read it here first.)

When people looked to their public officials to do something to cope with the crisis, they were met with what seemed like a thundering silence. Rooney did request the Small Business Administration to assist affected Southwest Florida businesses but it seemed a relatively feeble gesture.

In fact, there was little that public officials could do about the bloom itself. In many ways, though, they didn’t even try to offer victims solace or comfort–or even concern. In an appearance in Venice, Florida in September, Rick Scott, then campaigning for a Senate seat, was so besieged by angry protesters that he retreated into his campaign bus and fled the scene and canceled a scheduled stop in Naples.

Rep. Francis Rooney and Gov. Rick Scott in Venice, Fla., moments before they fled red tide protesters. (Image: WINK News)

In August and early September, Rooney was nowhere to be found as Big Bloom concerns mounted, an absence exploited by his Democratic challenger. In fact, Rooney’s first public appearance amidst the bloom was in Rick Scott’s entourage as Scott retreated back aboard his bus.

It was not until November that the Big Bloom dissipated. Even the most obtuse Floridian could see that something was amiss and that nature was out of kilter. The big question was: would Southwest Floridians register their unhappiness at the ballot box in November?

The oil war

As a boater, a waterfront property owner and a member of the oil industry, Rooney was intimately concerned about another environmental issue: the possibility of offshore oil drilling.

Florida is an oil-bearing state and there may be oil reserves immediately off its coast. However, the cost of extraction has never made full-scale exploitation worthwhile for the industry. Nonetheless, the possibility that the azure Gulf waters could see a forest of oil rigs has mobilized Floridians of all political persuasions.

A moratorium on offshore oil drilling was in place until 2022 but in one of his earliest acts, in April 2017, Trump issued an executive order opening up American waters to oil exploitation.

Rooney’s loyalty to Trump was at odds with the interests of his district, his state and his own desires. He wanted to make the oil moratorium permanent and started working legislatively to do so.

But Rooney was up against virtually every force that could be mustered against him. He thought, at the outset of his term, that he had a commitment from House Speaker Rep. Paul Ryan (R-1-Wis.) to bring forward legislation to make the moratorium permanent. But that commitment never materialized. Instead, in addition to the oil industry, Rooney faced opposition in the person of Rep. Steve Scalise (R-1-La.), the Republican Whip, who hailed from a state almost completely owned by the offshore oil industry. Scalise consistently outranked and outflanked Rooney on this issue. Rooney even confronted him directly in a conversation on the floor of the House.

“You’re telling me that the industry won’t go for protecting the Eastern Gulf in Florida?” Rooney told Scalise. “What industry are you talking about?  I’m talking about tourism. I’m talking about why we’re all here, okay? Just because Louisiana is a pit, doesn’t mean we want to become a pit. Okay?”

It didn’t make a difference.

Rooney was also up against the Trump administration’s Department of the Interior, which was notoriously corrupt, subservient to industry and committed to drilling everywhere it could. He had dinner with Secretary Ryan Zinke to press his case but it didn’t seem to have an effect.

Lastly, he was up against the President who wanted to exploit every natural resource without any regard for environmental degradation.

Rooney’s only ally was the Defense Department, which used the eastern Gulf of Mexico to train its pilots and didn’t want any oil rigs in the way.

In his first term Rooney made no headway. Southwest Florida’s shores looked ripe for squeezing.

“He’s brutal”

President Donald Trump at the moment he praised Rooney for defending him, Oct. 31, 2018. The people behind Trump (including businessman Alfie Oakes on the left) are looking toward Rooney. (Image: C-SPAN)

As the 2018 midterm elections rolled around, Rooney was facing a Democratic challenger, financial advisor David Holden, and local Democrats were more energized than ever.

In a standard rite of democracy, the Collier County League of Women Voters invited both Rooney and Holden to a debate on Sept. 17, 2018. Holden accepted immediately. Rooney sent a letter saying that he had “no availability” on that date and “no future availability.” In short, he would never debate. Just to twist the knife, he said later that he didn’t have to debate “because everyone knows my positions.”

Holden protested. He very publicly sent a letter to Rooney challenging him to debate anywhere or any time. There was no response and Holden’s protests got little coverage except one time on the local Fox4 news channel.

From a tactical standpoint, Rooney’s refusal to debate made sense since he might face the same kind of outrage he faced at his town halls at an in-person debate. He was not alone in his reluctance; avoiding debates is a common tactic for candidates who feel they’re comfortably ahead, don’t want to jeopardize their leads and can absorb the negative fallout from their refusals.

Southwest Florida’s local media and civic organizations, which traditionally serve as the watchdogs of the democratic process and inform voters, stayed mute and unmoved in the face of Rooney’s disdain. Seemingly indifferent or averse to covering politics, this passive and supine media establishment, especially in print, simply accepted Rooney’s pronouncement. He suffered no adverse reaction and from a campaign standpoint it counted as a success. His record and positions were never examined or challenged.

The losers in this process were the voters of the 19th Congressional District, who lost any opportunity to evaluate the relative merits of the candidates on a side-by-side basis.

Rooney did no campaigning in 2018. While Holden was the first local Democratic candidate to place broadcast advertisements in the local market, the Rooney campaign remained dark. Rooney addressed no large gatherings. He did no canvassing and any in-person events were small and invitation-only.

But Rooney did shine brightly and his long-time efforts were recognized on one special night, Oct. 31, Halloween, when Donald Trump came to the Hertz Arena in Estero to do a rally.

The arena was packed as a relaxed and expansive Trump spoke, boasting of his accomplishments and excoriating Democrats, liberals, immigrants, the media, his enemies and the whole, standard Trumpist litany. He told the audience to make sure they went out and voted and then he asked: “Who voted? Who voted?” Nearly every hand went up.

“Oh wow! Everyone voted already? Then what the hell am I doing here tonight? Good bye…” He made as though he was going to leave the stage and the crowd laughed and cheered. “That’s like 100 percent of the people in this room voted!” he said, amazed. “All right. Let’s just enjoy ourselves, OK?”

Then he began a standard part of his speeches, his shout-outs to local politicians.

“We are honored to be joined tonight by many great Florida Republicans including a man who is so great to me on television. This guy is special. He was a great businessman. Now he’s a great congressman. Francis Rooney. Where’s Francis?”

Trump scanned the crowd and had to turn around to find Rooney sitting behind him. When Trump located Rooney, the crowd cheered.

“I love him when he defends me. He’s brutal. He gets the job done. Right, Francis? Thank you, thank you.”

There was no higher accolade in Trumpworld. The crowd loved it.

Coming Thursday: The Heretic

Coming Friday: The Legacy

Liberty lives in light

© 2020 by David Silverberg

The Rooney Record, Part I: The Man

Candidate Francis Rooney addresses a rally for Donald Trump at the Collier County Fairgrounds, Oct. 23, 2016. (Image: C-SPAN)

Nov. 29, 2020 by David Silverberg

It was the day before early voting began. The Florida October sun shone warmly on the Collier County Fairgrounds as hundreds of supporters of candidate Donald Trump packed onto the dusty field and filled the bleachers.

As with all Trump rallies, the atmosphere was part carnival, part circus, an eruption of exuberant excitement for what all knew was a doomed candidate who was nonetheless going into the last days of battle full of defiant energy.

But before the candidate spoke there was a lineup of other personalities and politicians. Among them was the Republican candidate for Congress for the 19th Congressional District of Florida, businessman Francis Rooney.

“Once again, for the second time, we get to welcome our Republican nominee for president who may be our savior: Donald Trump,” Rooney said in his Oklahoma twang. A slight figure in rolled-up shirtsleeves, he stood amidst a sea of Trump signs and “Make America Great Again” hats.

After reminding the crowd to vote, he went on: “Now our nominee, Donald Trump, is the only thing standing between us and Hillary Clinton. It’s a thin red line between us and Hillary Clinton.”

The crowd erupted in chants: “Lock her up! Lock her up!” Rooney laughed and shouted, “Yes, lock her up!”

The crowd reacts at the Collier County Trump rally, Oct. 23, 2016. (Photo: Author)

Trump, said Rooney, was the only thing protecting them from “three or four horrible Supreme Court nominees who are going to plague us, plague our kids and plague our grandkids for the rest of our lives.” He was also the only barrier against “invasive, oppressive regulations” and “a bunch of taxes that are going to make it impossible for people to start businesses and raise families and prosper like we’ve all been able to do since the Reagan revolution.”

He continued: “We’ve had eight years of nonstop trampling on our Constitution, an abuse of executive power. Hillary Clinton buys into every word of the Obama deal. He’s mocked, he’s mocked our traditional American values and sneered at conservative God-fearing Americans. He’s stealing our rights—right before our eyes!”

Then he yelled, emphatically, desperately, “We are at the breaking point! We’ve got to take our country back!” The crowd roared.

At stake, he continued, was whether the United States would remain an exceptional nation of opportunity and freedom “or are we going to go the way of Europe: slow growth, big government pessimism, no people have kids because they’re pessimistic or even worse. Are we going to go the way of authoritarianism?”

Southwest Florida, he said, is God’s country and “could change the game. We’re the redder than red region” and could deliver the state to the Republican Party and Donald Trump. Then he urged everyone to vote.

He finished the speech to boisterous cheers.

That speech occurred on Oct. 23, 2016.

Rooney went on to win his congressional race and Donald Trump astounded the world—and himself—by being elected the 45th President of the United States.

Exactly four years later, Rooney was still in Congress. But now he was a heretic and a pariah, remote and removed from constituents, retiring amidst recrimination and accusation and in Congress disgraced and exiled from a key Party position.

Most of all, he had publicly renounced Donald Trump as his savior. He had questioned the creed and the doctrine and the infallibility of the man he’d once praised as the only protection for American freedom.

And when Donald Trump was defeated, Rooney, alone of all his fellow local Republicans, reached out to Joe Biden, the victor, and congratulated him. “All Americans need to come together in supporting President-elect Biden,” he wrote on social media. “Our nation will only be successful if the new administration is.” This was praise for the man who was once at the top of the Obama administration that Rooney charged was bringing authoritarianism.

Francis Rooney’s journey from believer to heretic is a great story of American politics.

But there is more, because Rooney was an active member of Congress who did change some things in Southwest Florida and in the nation’s capital. What he achieved and what he attempted to achieve need to be objectively evaluated and assessed so that the good can be a foundation and the bad can be healed.

In this four-part series, The Paradise Progressive will examine Francis Rooney’s two terms in Congress and the legacy he leaves. It is not only a story of one man’s odyssey, it also illustrates the extent and limitations of what a member of Congress from Southwest Florida can and cannot do. It illuminates the enduring issues that face the region. Lastly, it is important that Southwest Florida have a detailed history of the man who held the region’s highest elected federal position and his actions during his two terms in office.

(In a spirit of full disclosure, be aware that this author served as the communications director for Rooney’s 2018 Democratic opponent, David Holden and as such conducted and collected opposition research, helped formulate strategy and messaging and worked very hard to oust Rooney from his seat.

But this current series is meant as an evaluation, not a settling of scores. It is intended to be rigorously, factually accurate and as dispassionate in its analysis as possible, while coming from a liberal, progressive political perspective.

As part of the author’s due diligence and in a spirit of fairness, he reached out to Rep. Rooney’s office with over 30 questions seeking his input, reactions and insights and to give him the opportunity to present his viewpoint. No acknowledgement or response was received. All reporting was done from public sources.)

Oklahoma origins

It is a long way from Muscogee, Oklahoma to Naples, Florida but that dusty Oklahoma town is where Francis Rooney began his journey on Dec. 4, 1953.

Rooney was the eldest of Laurence Francis and Lucy Turner Rooney’s six children.

The young Rooney was raised in a devoutly Catholic family and embarked on an education that most remarkably stayed entirely within Washington, DC’s Jesuit Georgetown school system, starting with Georgetown Preparatory School, Georgetown University (Bachelor of Arts, 1975) and Georgetown University Law Center (Juris Doctor, 1978).

The Phoenix Building in Muscogee, Okla.,
the first office of the Manhattan Construction Co.

Rooney had the good fortune to be born into a fourth-generation construction business, the Manhattan Construction Company, which was founded by Laurence Rooney in 1896 when Oklahoma was still a territory.

Manhattan Construction grew with Oklahoma, building schools, courthouses and, after Oklahoma became a state in 1907, constructing two capitol buildings as the state’s capital moved. When it was a territory Oklahoma was already producing more oil than anywhere else in the United States. Once it became a state and automobiles came into common use the oil industry boomed, ancillary business exploded and Manhattan Construction thrived and expanded.

As eldest son, Rooney took the helm of Manhattan Construction and in 1984 founded Rooney Holdings in Naples, Fla. The company formally purchased Manhattan Construction as a subsidiary and expanded into other businesses like investments, real estate, electronics and insurance. In addition to bread and butter work on bridges, buildings, stadiums and oil pipelines, the construction company won major, prestigious contracts for the presidential libraries of George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush and the Capitol Visitors Center, an enormous underground facility that provides screening and security while guiding visitors into the US Capitol.

The President George W. Bush Library (Photo: Jeff Buehnery)
The President George H.W. Bush Library
The Rooney home in Port Royal, Naples. (Photo: Zillow)

All this made Rooney very, very rich. In 2018, the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call estimated his personal net worth at $22.6 million but other estimates range much higher. The website estimated it as $74.3 million in 2017. Whatever its exact figure, it was enough to enable him to build a massive mansion, currently estimated to be worth $29 million, on the water in Naples’ swanky Port Royal neighborhood. There he lived with his wife Kathleen, two sons, Larry and Michael, and daughter Kathleen.

In addition to a variety of charities, Rooney was a major contributor to Republican causes, giving $1 million to Restore Our Future, the super political action committee (PAC) of Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and over $2 million to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s super PAC and numerous other candidates and committees. He served other political causes, mainly in a fundraising capacity. In another expression of his political conservatism, his company built the headquarters of the Koch brothers-funded Cato Institute think tank in Washington, DC.

Ambassador Francis Rooney, in full diplomatic regalia, joins other diplomats to the Holy See for the Pope’s annual “state of the world” speech in the Vatican on Jan. 9, 2005. (Photo: Pool)

In 2005, Rooney was appointed ambassador to the Holy See, the diplomatic arm of the Vatican, by President George W. Bush. Not only did the appointment make sense given Rooney’s education, faith and prodigious political donations, but Rooney had some experience of international relations given his extensive international business dealings in Mexico, the Bahamas and Central America, where he was on the advisory board of the Panama Canal Authority.

From all accounts his three years as ambassador were successful—there were no major bilateral crises between the United States and the Vatican during his tenure—and he wrote a book about it and Vatican foreign policy called The Global Vatican.

After returning to the United States in 2008, Rooney could have easily lived extremely well in Naples, tended to his businesses, donated to his charities, grown richer and remained a private citizen. But in 2016 came an opening for a seat in the United States Congress and Rooney decided to grab it.

Into the arena

A Francis Rooney campaign ad from the 2016 Republican primary. (Image: Rooney for Congress campaign)

When Republican Rep. Curt Clawson decided to step down after one term in Congress representing Florida’s 19th Congressional District, three men leapt into the breach: Chauncey Goss, the son of former Rep. Porter Goss, who had represented Southwest Florida in Congress from 1993 to 2004; Dan Bongino, a conservative commentator; and Rooney.

The contest took place against the backdrop of the rise of Donald Trump, the angry, racist, demagogue and proud outsider, who kept smashing Republican establishment figures in primary after primary in his quest for the nomination.

In many ways, the 2016 Republican primary in Southwest Florida mirrored the national contest: an establishment scion of an entrenched family—Goss—was running against a populist, outsider businessman who proudly pointed out that he had no prior elected experience. (Rooney conveniently downplayed his previous diplomatic service, his establishment academic credentials and the fact that he’d given generously to centrist Republicans being felled by Donald Trump, like Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney.)

Rooney poured an estimated $4 million into the race, running television ads that touted his business prowess, lack of political baggage and commitment to “conservative values.”

In the end, it paid off. Rooney won the Aug. 30 primary with 52.7 percent of the vote against Goss’ 29.9 percent and Bongino’s 17.4 percent.

Rooney closely allied himself with Donald Trump’s candidacy and attitudes. It was during his run for the general election that he shared the stage with Trump at the Collier County fairgrounds, praised him as a savior and called for Hillary Clinton to be locked up. (Also sharing the stage at that rally—and immediately preceding Rooney as a speaker—was Byron Donalds, who was running for Florida state House District 80.)

Rooney sailed on to a general election victory against Democrat Robert Neeld with 65.9 percent of the vote to Neeld’s 34.1 percent, a result reflective of the 19th Congressional District’s party registrations.

It was a smashing victory for all concerned, both locally and nationally. Against all expectations, Donald Trump had beaten the odds and become President. Republicans took the House of Representatives and the US Senate. Rooney would be going to the nation’s capital on behalf of Southwest Florida.

The world seemed the Republicans’ oyster. What kind of a pearl would it produce?

  • Coming Tuesday: The Believer
  • Coming Thursday: The Heretic
  • Coming Friday: The Legacy

Liberty lives in light

©2020 by David Silverberg

Rep. Rooney congratulates Biden, calls for supporting the President-Elect and coming together

Nov. 7, 2020 by David Silverberg

Rep. Francis Rooney

Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.), is the first Southwest Florida Republican to congratulate President-Elect Joe Biden on his electoral victory, issuing the following statement on his Facebook page at 5:39 pm:

“Congratulations to President-elect Biden on a successful and hard fought campaign. All Americans need to come together in supporting President- elect Biden. 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.”

Liberty lives in light

(c) 2020 by David Silverberg

Roundup: COVID, masks and Byron Donalds; a ‘no’ to stimulus and QAnon; and a loud silence

Maskless State Rep. Byron Donalds and President Donald Trump in the Oval Office on Sept. 23. (Photo: White House by Joyce N. Boghasian)

Oct. 4, 2020 by David Silverberg

On Saturday, Oct. 3, in the wake of President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis and quarantine, Cindy Banyai, Democratic congressional candidate in the 19th Congressional District called on her opponent, Republican state Rep. Byron Donalds (R-80-Immokalee), to quarantine himself, having met with the president.

“Given the current skyrocketing rate of infection among White House staff and event attendees, and considering Mr. Donalds is still in the potential incubation period of 14 days, I think it would be in the best interest of our community if he quarantined until that window has passed,” she said in a statement. “He should also get tested for COVID-19 and release the results, so anyone he may have exposed to the virus in the interim can have the best information possible to take care of themselves and their loved ones. This is especially important because of Mr. Donalds’ stance against mask wearing, which is effective in reducing transmission rates of the virus.”

Donalds met with the president in Washington, DC on Sept. 23, where he was photographed in the Oval Office. He told the Fort Myers News-Press that he had been tested for the virus on Friday, Oct. 2, and the results were negative. He said he had also tested negative prior to his meeting with Trump.

“After you’ve had two negative tests within 10 days, that’s sufficient,” he told reporter Amy Bennett Williams. “I have no symptoms … That puts it to rest. I’m fine.”

“I was disappointed to see Mr. Donalds attend indoor events without social distancing or masks in Southwest Florida over the past week, including events after the announcement of the president testing positive for COVID19,” stated Banyai. “It seems like he is not taking the risk seriously and doesn’t care about the people in our community.”

Donalds has vociferously opposed mask mandates by local governments, arguing that mask wearing should be an individual decision. He appeared at the Cape Coral City Council to oppose masking when that body debated a mandate on July 6.

“You have no authority to mandate what people can put on their body. The fear people are having doesn’t justify it,” Donalds said at the time. “As a council, you have the solemn duty to vote this down and get back to common sense.”

On July 14, when the Collier County Commission first debated a mask mandate, Donalds argued it would put “extensive burdens” on local law enforcement.

“How are you going to have them enforce such a mandate?” he asked commissioners. “Who are they going to decide to enforce it on and who are they not going to enforce it on? There are major issues with such an order.” The commission ultimately voted in a mask mandate.

Donalds repeated his positions during his televised debate with Banyai on Sept. 28 at the studio of WGCU.

Donalds has not worn a mask at public events he has attended.

There is no indication that Donalds has changed his position on mask mandates given the president’s diagnosis and the spread of COVID-19 among high-level officials and presidential intimates.

On Oct. 2, The Paradise Progressive sent the following questions to the Byron Donalds for Congress campaign:

1. In light of the president’s contracting coronavirus, have you changed or altered your position against government mask mandates?

A. If you have made any changes, please state your current policy position.

2. What is your position on wearing masks in general?

No answer has been received to date.

President Donald Trump leaves the White House wearing a mask on is way to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Oct. 2.

No on stimulus, yes on QAnon

Southwest Florida congressional representatives, Reps. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.), Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) and Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.) all voted against a second stimulus package in Congress last week.

Called the HEROES Act (House Resolution 925), the bill passed late Thursday, Oct. 1, by a vote of 214 to 207.

The bill provides $2.2 trillion in relief to people, businesses, states and local governments hard hit by the pandemic. It is a follow-on to a previous $3.4 trillion HEROES Act passed in May that propped up a badly damaged economy.

Passage of the bill occurred following a stalemate in talks between House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. The administration had proposed a $1.6 trillion package and the two were unable to resolve their differences, so Pelosi proceeded with the House version.

None of the Southwest Florida congressmen issued statements explaining their votes.

The bill is not expected to make any progress in the Senate.

The same day, the House of Representatives passed House Resolution 1154, “Condemning QAnon and rejecting the conspiracy theories it promotes.”

While not a law, the bill explicitly condemned the online QAnon conspiracy theory as well as “all other groups and ideologies, from the far left to the far right, that contribute to the spread of unfounded conspiracy theories and that encourage Americans to destroy public and private property and attack law enforcement officers.” It called on federal agencies and the intelligence community to investigate and “uncover any foreign support, assistance, or online amplification QAnon receives.”

This bill passed by an overwhelming vote of 371 to 18.

Of Southwest Florida’s representatives, Diaz-Balart and Steube voted for it. Rooney was absent.

No endorsement here

On Sept. 29 the News-Press and on Oct. 4 the Naples Daily News published an op-ed by Rep. Francis Rooney and Michael Whittaker, a conservation activist, titled, “Climate is on the ballot in Florida this November.”

It argued that voters should elect environmental champions this November given the urgency of climate issues facing Southwest Florida. It made the case that political conservatives have to take the lead in devising market-based solutions to environmental threats.

“As constituents of Southwest Florida, when we head to the ballot box this fall, we need to remain vigilant and strong to ensure that our principles are upheld and our environment is protected,” they wrote.

Politically, what was most interesting about the op-ed was what it didn’t say: it didn’t endorse any candidates running and most especially did not mention Byron Daniels, whom Rooney might have been expected to anoint as a fellow Republican seeking to fill his seat. Rooney has not made any endorsements of any candidates to date.

Liberty lives in light

©2020 by David Silverberg

US House votes to keep government open; SWFL Reps. Rooney, Steube oppose, Diaz-Balart approves

The US House vote to keep govenrment open. (Image:C-SPAN)

Sept. 23, 2020, by David Silverberg

By an overwhelming majority, the US House of Representatives voted last night to keep the government operating until Dec. 11.

The bill, House Resolution 8337, known as a Continuing Resolution (CR) continues to fund the government at existing levels past the Oct. 1 start of the new 2021 federal fiscal year at roughly $1.4 trillion.

The vote in the House was 359 to 57, with one member, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-14-NY), voting “present.”

Of Southwest Florida’s representatives, Reps. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) and Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.) voted against the bill. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) voted in favor.

The bill was the subject of long and contentious negotiations, with the White House insisting on including aid to farmers through the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC). Democrats were concerned the farm aid would actually be used by the administration to assist the oil and energy industry and also feared that President Donald Trump would use the CCC funds as what some termed a “slush fund” to buy votes with aid to farmers hurt by his trade wars.

The final agreement reached between House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Republicans added safeguards against abuse of CCC funding and added $8 billion in nutrition assistance for needy families and schoolchildren.

“To help the millions of families struggling to keep food on the table during the pandemic, Democrats have renewed the vital, expiring lifeline of Pandemic EBT [Electronic Benefits Transfer] for a full year and enabled our fellow Americans in the territories to receive this critical nutrition assistance,” Pelosi said in a statement.

In a brief statement, Rooney explained his opposition vote:

“This continuing resolution contains an excessive amount of spending which far exceeds what we need for Covid relief at a time when the government is already trillions in debt. Congress has not passed a budget for three years.  This abject lack of fiscal responsibility has pushed our country to the brink, with over $26 trillion in debt. Our children and grandchildren will suffer from our profligate spending. We have corrupted the ethic upon which our country was built; this wasteful spending must stop.

“I have continually fought against the irresponsible, excessive and injudicious appropriations from both parties. I have voted against legislation like this in the past and will continue to vote against it in the future. We simply cannot afford to be increasing government spending when we should be making cuts to reduce the deficit.”

Neither Diaz-Balart nor Steube issued statements explaining their votes.

The government shut down for 35 days in January 2019 following a similar budget standoff. At that time, Trump was insisting on funding for his border wall.

In Southwest Florida the government shutdown also meant a shutdown of national parks and preserves like Everglades National Park and a halt to US Coast Guard operations in local waters. It was also responsible for an estimated $11 billion in costs to the US economy, of which $3 billion was permanent.

This year, among its many other effects, a shutdown had the potential to disrupt federal monitoring of conditions leading to harmful algal blooms in Southwest Florida.

The bill has gone to the Senate, where it is considered likely to pass, given its overwhelming approval in the House and the desire of members to avoid a government shutdown on the eve of the election. Trump is expected to sign it.

Liberty lives in light

© 2020 by David Silverberg

For the record: SWFL Democrats, Republicans, react to Ruth Bader Ginsburg passing

The late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (Photo: SCOTUS)

Sept. 19, 2020 by David Silverberg

In a rare show of common sentiment, Southwest Florida Democrats and Republicans expressed respect and admiration for Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on her passing on Friday, Sept. 18.

Immediate reactions to the news of Ginsburg’s death, which was released around 7:00 pm, went out on social media.

“Complete shock and sadness to learn of the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Sending my condolences to her family. We are so fortunate to have had her leadership. Thank you RBG. Now it’s our turn to pick up the fight,” tweeted Cindy Banyai, Democratic congressional candidate in the 19th Congressional District.

“Tonight, as we mourn the passing of one of the most effective Supreme Court Justices in history, we remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s work as critically important in the way that many Americans are able to live their lives in freedom,” stated Annisa Karim, Collier County Democratic Party chair on Facebook. “Not only did she blaze a path for equality for women, she was a staunch defender of everyone’s civil liberties. She used her immense talent to do her work to the best of her ability. The freedoms we have won through her hard work and determination can just as easily be reversed with the appointment of Supreme Court Justices bent on returning the Country to a place of liberty and justice for the privileged few. Her legacy is in our hands now and we must work to protect it because when we succeed in that, we succeed in procuring liberty and justice for all.”

State Rep. Byron Donalds (R-80-Immokalee), Banyai’s Republican opponent in the 19th Congressional District tweeted: “Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a pioneer and a tenacious fighter for what she believed in. May she rest in peace, and may God comfort her children and grandchildren at this time.”

Among Republican members of Congress, Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) tweeted: “It is a sad day for our nation. Kathleen & I offer our deepest sympathies on the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. The passing of Justice Ginsberg is a great loss for our highest court, and for America. She was a champion of women’s rights and had a love of our country that was unchallenged. Her passion and opinions will remain with us throughout history. May she rest in peace.”

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) tweeted: “Saddened to hear of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing. She was the second woman ever appointed to the Supreme Court. Her legacy and public service to our nation will not be forgotten. My condolences to her family and colleagues. May she Rest In Peace.”

The tweet of Rep. Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.) took a Biblical turn: “May the Lord be with the family of Justice Ginsburg during this difficult time. Despite our different perspectives, she had an immense impact on generations of women lawyers across our country. Rev. 21:4.” The reference is to Revelations Chapter 21, verse 4 in the New Testament: “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.”

Florida’s two Republican senators, who will vote on confirming Ginsburg’s replacement, both praised her service on the court.

“Even those who disagreed with many of her decisions recognize Justice Ginsburg was a woman of extraordinary intellect & an American who had a historic impact on the court & the nation. May she Rest In Peace,” tweeted Sen. Marco Rubio.

“Ann and I send our thoughts and prayers to the family of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg during this time,” tweeted Sen. Rick Scott. “She was a trailblazer with a distinguished record of service to her country.”

Scott has since called for a vote on Ginsburg’s replacement before Election Day, Nov. 3.

Liberty lives in light

© 2020 by David Silverberg

Byron Donalds and the war against America’s schools

Collier County public school teachers call for better pay and state support at a Naples demonstration on March 4, 2019, in solidarity with teachers throughout Florida. Maintaining funding for public schools in Florida and around the nation has been a key issue in the face of competition from charter and non-public schools. (Photo: author)

Sept. 16, 2020 by David Silverberg

If you’ve enjoyed Betsy DeVos, you’re going to love Byron and Erika Donalds.

Betsy DeVos, of course, is the US Secretary of Education. Byron is state Rep. Byron Donalds (R-80-Immokalee) and Republican candidate for Congress in the 19th Congressional District of Florida, the coastal area from Cape Coral to Marco Island. Erika, his wife and a public figure in her own right, is a former Collier County School Board member and served as the board’s vice chair, and is a relentless advocate for charter schools and non-public education.

Of DeVos, the National Education Association has stated, “As President Donald Trump’s secretary of education, Betsy DeVos has made it her mission to dismantle public education. She promotes the privatization of public schools through vouchers, continually calls for deep cuts to federal funding, rolls back protections for vulnerable children, and completely disregards their safety and the safety of educators during a global pandemic.”

Erika has praised DeVos in the past and like her has pushed for the privatization of education and promoted the charter school industry through lobbying, legislation and consulting as well as investing in specific charter schools. Byron during his time in the Florida legislature introduced a number of measures that would have reduced the authority of local school boards and harmed public education.

Whether labeled as such or not, both have pursued a DeVosian agenda.

Now, by running for Congress, Byron is seeking a national platform where he will have the influence to implement DeVos’ agenda whether DeVos is present or not. And Erika will have a similar national platform to lobby for the changes she has long sought in Florida—changes fiercely resisted by elected school boards and teachers, as expressed through their associations.

The education of America’s schoolchildren may not be high on the campaign agendas of Byron Donalds and his opponent Democrat Cindy Banyai, although Banyai has a well-thought out education agenda. Remarkably, though, Byron doesn’t even mention education as an issue on his campaign website.

However, given Byron and Erika’s pasts, education is the issue where they have been the most active, the most prominent and in many ways the most damaging to public schooling.

What are the education issues in this race and how did they evolve to this point? What are Byron and Erika’s backgrounds and records? Just how much influence on public education policy would Byron have if he were elected to Congress? And what is the potential impact of this local race on the future of America’s public education?

These are the questions this article will address.

(Terminology note: Advocates of non-public schools prefer to call their movement “school choice” in the sense that it gives parents a choice of schools. However, in this author’s view, the real dividing line between the types of institutions at issue is best described as “public” or “non-public” since they include charters, which can be quasi-public. Therefore, this article will refer to “non-public schools” to include all forms of schools outside the public school system.)

(Terminology note: Because we are dealing with two Donalds here, we will be using first names instead of the usual practice of using just the last name on second reference.)

A brief history of public and non-public schooling

From the very beginning of the United States, founders realized that an active citizenry engaged in running the country required universal literacy and an educated population.

Thomas Jefferson, founder of the University of Virginia, in advocating for a 1784 bill for universal education in Virginia, noted that “The general objects of this law are to provide an education adapted to the years, to the capacity, and the condition of every one, and directed to their freedom and happiness.” (Emphasis ours.)

While universal public education was not enacted in the United States immediately on its founding, the idea of equally accessible, publicly-funded education gained ground throughout US history as states implemented public school systems and universal education over time.

Private schools were initially religious schools, primarily Catholic, and predate the American Revolution. Their acceptance by mainstream America has waxed and waned. In addition to parochial schools, there were also elite institutions to educate the sons of the upper classes. However, all these private schools were self-funded and never impinged on public education. (For a full account, see: “What is private school? History of private schools in the United States.”)

With public schools being criticized for a spectrum of shortcomings in recent years, some parents have turned to a variety of non-public alternatives like home schooling. Private schools were also boosted when public school systems were racially integrated in the 1960s and some white parents in the South responded by starting their own private schools to maintain segregation.

Beginning in 1974 professor Ray Budde proposed “charter” schools that would be free of public school restrictions on curriculum, allowing teachers to innovate, while being open to all students but funded at a lower level than public schools. Initially considered small schools-within-schools and aimed to encourage innovation and attention to students with particular needs, the movement grew and spread. Charters went from a small experiment to for-profit academies independent of existing school systems.

Increasingly, the government at both the national and state levels—and both Republicans and Democrats—provided grants and other forms of support to charter schools and other forms of private schooling. But critics are now sounding the alarm that this support in fact takes money and other support away from public schools.

No one has put the divide between public and non-public schools into greater relief than the present Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. An heiress with virtually no training or knowledge of educational issues whose family built its fortune on the privatization movement, she is a forceful advocate for non-public schools and has taken actions harmful to public education to the point where critics feared she was trying to end public education altogether.

The Florida situation

Florida opened its first charter school in 1996. The movement caught hold and expanded rapidly, with support from the Republican-dominated legislature. As in the rest of the country, the charters went from schools-within-schools, to non-profit schools to for-profit schools.

“The original intent of sharing innovative methods to others in the public-school system was replaced by permitting private corporations to siphon off tax dollars appropriated for education,” wrote Paula Dockery, a former Republican state legislator, in a February, 2020 article: “Florida charter schools: from innovators to pariahs.”

According to Dockery, there are 658 charter schools in Florida, of which about half are for-profit.

Their expansion notwithstanding, Florida charter schools have an abysmal business record. Since 1998, 409 have closed, mostly for financial reasons, and Florida ranks second in the nation for charter school failures. In 2014 the Naples Daily News did a four-part series called “Shuttered: Florida’s Failed Charter Schools.”

In 2018, Integrity Florida, a non-profit, anti-corruption research institute, released a thorough and comprehensive study of the impact of charter schools on public education in Florida called The Hidden Costs of Charter School Choice: Privatizing Public Education in Florida. It found that charter schools failed to deliver the promised educational innovation, were badly mismanaged due to lax regulation and that local school boards had been unable to manage charter schools.  What is more, the movement led to a very well-funded lobbying industry and conflicts of interest as state lawmakers invested and ran charter schools while serving in the legislature.

Despite all these known problems, charters are receiving more state money than public schools for facilities: $150 million compared to $50 million for the public schools that educate 90 percent of Florida’s students, according to Dockery.

The record of charter schools in Southwest Florida accords with the state experience. Lee County has 18 charter schools in operation. However, the Lee County School District records 10 charter schools that have closed and eight proposed schools that failed to open. Collier County currently has three charter schools but doesn’t post past closures.

There is also an ideological aspect to the Florida privatization movement, as best demonstrated by the Florida Citizens’ Alliance, a grassroots organization working and advocating for non-public educational alternatives.

“We work to unleash the learning potential of every one of Florida’s 2.8 million students so they can become productive and fulfilled citizens in our constitutional republic,” states the organization’s website.

However, a more frank explanation of the organization’s views was given at a meeting at the Alamo gun range and store in Naples on May 30, 2018. Then, the Florida Citizens’ Alliance hosted Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) who sat on the House Education Committee.

A 2018 Florida Citizens’ Alliance brochure blaming education for the youth vote in the 2016 election.

“You look at what’s going on in our schools with the indoctrination indoctrinating our kids on socialism,” said Keith Flaugh, the organization’s managing director. “They are indoctrinating our kids against religious values. It’s kind of a mixed metaphor; it’s a kind of mixed messaging. They are very secularism-oriented in what they’re teaching but they’re also teaching Islam. So it’s kind of a dual-edged sword. They are denigrating our constitutional values.”

Referring to a brochure that showed the numerous states where 18 to 24 year olds voted Democratic in the 2016 election, Flaugh said: “When you look at this map, that’s your First Amendment, that’s your Second Amendment, that’s your Constitution; because these kids, the vast majority of them are being indoctrinated to think that government is their nanny. And if we don’t stop that, we won’t have a constitutional republic. So that’s what we spend our time on.”

At this juncture between the public and non-public worlds stand Byron and Erika Donalds.

Enter the Donalds

The Donalds family with Byron and Erika, center, and their sons Damon, Darin, and Mason. (Photo: Byron Donalds for Congress campaign.)

Born in 1978, Byron Donalds grew up in Brooklyn, New York, raised with his two sisters by a single mother who stressed the importance of education.

He attended parochial religious schools, an all-black elementary school, a private Quaker middle school called Brooklyn Friends, and Nazareth Regional High School, a predominately black Catholic school, according to a 2012 Florida Weekly profile.  He enrolled in a five-year Master of Business Administration program at Florida A&M University in 1996 and transferred to Florida State University (FSU) in his third year, graduating in 2002 with dual bachelor’s degrees in finance and marketing. He began working as a financial advisor at Wells Fargo Advisors.

In 1997 at the age of 19 he was arrested for drug possession, an arrest he has acknowledged in his campaign media. The case was put into pre-trial diversion and Leon County court records show he paid a $150 fee.

He and Erika met at FSU, where they both belonged to the Delta Sigma Pi business fraternity. She received her degree in accounting.

Byron ran for Congress in the 2012 Republican primary but was defeated by Trey Radel. Though he filed campaign finance reports to run for Congress in 2014 after Radel’s cocaine possession conviction, he never filed as a candidate.

In 2016 he ran for Florida House Representative in District 80, which encompasses eastern Collier County including the town of Immokalee and Hendry County.

During that race he was accused by his primary opponent, Joe Davidow, of lying about his criminal record in an application to serve on the board of trustees of Florida Southwestern State College (then Edison College). Byron’s application was initially held up by concerns among Florida senators but was ultimately approved.

“Davidow said Donalds falsified information on his confirmation questionnaire, responding ‘no’ to a question about whether he had ever been ‘arrested, charged, or indicted’ of federal, state, or local law. By not disclosing the incidents, Davidow said Donalds lied under oath about his record,” according to Florida Politics. Davidow even created a website called Lyin’ Byron (since deleted).

Byron said he’d been thoroughly examined by the governor and Senate and still approved for the board.

He won the seat.

Erika worked as a certified public accountant and starting in 2002 was chief compliance officer and partner at DGHM, an investment management firm.

The Donalds’ first child attended public school. However, when their second child had difficulties at school, Erika decided to put him in a private school. She subsequently discovered plans to open a charter school where he could attend tuition-free.

Realizing that there was a demand for non-public schooling, she helped found Parents ROCK (Parents Right of Choice for Kids), a non-profit advocacy group for non-public schooling in Collier County.

In 2014 she ran and won a seat on the Collier County School Board, where she continued her fight for charter schools.

“I ran to be a parent voice,” she told Florida Politics reporter Jacob Ogles, “and in hopes traditional public schools would become more responsive to parent feedback and students’ needs. My vision was (that) students would not need to leave public schools.”

However, when the Florida School Boards Association (FSBA) resisted state vouchers and sought to limit the number of charter schools in the state, she began a battle to enlarge the scope and nature of charter schools. She fought the requirement that members of school boards join the FSBA and helped found a rival organization, the Florida Coalition of School Board Members and served as its first president.

Her advocacy made her a leading voice for the non-public schooling movement in Florida and led to clashes with fellow members of the Collier County School Board where she came to serve as vice chair.

The big year

Byron Donalds addresses a Trump campaign rally at the Collier County Fairgrounds on Oct. 23, 2016. (Image: C-Span)

2016 was a big year for the nation, education and the Donalds—all of them.

Byron endorsed candidate Donald Trump and appeared with him at a rally on the Collier County Fairgrounds.

When Donald Trump won he appointed Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary, an appointment so controversial given her lack of knowledge and credentials that it took the intervention of Vice President Mike Pence to cast the deciding vote in the Senate to confirm her.

In Collier County, Erika celebrated the appointment. “It’s an encouraging step in the right direction for our country,” she told the Naples Daily News. “I like seeing an outsider in the position who will evaluate educational programs on their merit alone.”

Nor was she concerned by DeVos’ lack of public school experience: “I don’t have experience in the classroom either, and I’m certainly capable of serving in a governance role when it comes to overseeing a large operation,” she said.

Both Byron and Erika got to work promoting non-public schools.

In the legislature, Donalds was named to the Education Committee, among his other committee assignments, where he rose to vice chair of the Pre-K Appropriations Subcommittee.

Among the bills he introduced were a number favoring non-public schools or weakening public education. One, House Bill 7061, would have dropped a state requirement that teacher applicants take a “general knowledge” examination determining their fundamental grasp of the world. Byron argued that dropping the requirement would save teachers from losing their jobs. However, a practicing teacher argued it would open the door to unqualified or ignorant teachers.

Another required that textbooks “provide a non-inflammatory, objective, and balanced viewpoint on issues,” be “free of pornography” and be age-appropriate—a bill drafted by Keith Flaugh of the Florida Citizens’ Alliance.

“Since some people find the teaching of evolution and climate change ‘inflammatory’ and ‘unbalanced’ it would allow anyone who pays tax on a cup of coffee while visiting Florida to advocate teaching creationism and that climate change isn’t caused by humans,” argued Brandon Haught, a high school teacher and founding member of Florida Citizens for Science.

(Throughout his House tenure Donalds also consistently received an “F” rating from the People First Report Card, a project of Progress Florida, a progressive non-profit advocacy organization, for voting against measures that would help Floridians.)  

With Byron in the legislature, Erika was very active on the non-public school front.

In November 2017 she founded the Optima Foundation, where she currently serves as chief executive officer. A non-profit 501c3 that takes tax deductible contributions, the foundation provides nuts and bolts business advice to start-up charter schools or, as the Foundation puts it, provides: “a model of efficiency, effectiveness, and results-driven processes” to charter schools.

The same year she was appointed to Florida’s Constitution Revision Commission and was named chair of its Local Government Committee. It was in that capacity that she proposed Amendment 8 to the Florida state Constitution.

Amendment 8 proposed three measures. It would have established eight-year term limits for local school board members. It would have also taken the authority to regulate charter schools from locally-elected school boards and given it to state authorities. Lastly, it would have promoted “civic literacy” in public education, requiring the legislature to pass laws to “ensure that students enrolled in public education understand and are prepared to exercise their rights and responsibilities as citizens of a constitutional republic”—a “constitutional republic” being the conservative movement’s phrase for its vision of the United States.

The amendment sparked immediate and vehement opposition.

“Suddenly, the Legislature could allow any person or group or corporation, public or private, to set up charter schools or the like. And those schools would be free of oversight by the school board. This is so misleading you have to wonder if the deception was deliberate,” editorialized the Palm Beach Post

“If Amendment 8 remains on the ballot, there is no way that voters will realize that a yes vote could allow unaccountable political appointees or even private organizations to control where and when charter schools can be established in their county,” argued Patricia Brigham, president of the Florida League of Women Voters.

The Polk County School Board was particularly outraged by the proposal, unanimously passing a resolution stating that the amendment “is not necessary, is not fair, is not desirable, and is not clearly understandable.”

So threatening was Amendment 8 that the League of Women Voters, working with the Southern Poverty Law Center, sued to stop it, saying it was misleading and violated a rule requiring that amendments deal only with single subjects.

On Aug. 20, 2018 Judge John Cooper of the Second Judicial Circuit in Leon County ruled that Amendment 8 “fails to inform voters of the chief purpose and effect of this proposal” and could not appear on the ballot in November. The state appealed the ruling but it was confirmed by the State Supreme Court on Sept. 7.

Amendment 8 never appeared on the 2018 ballot.

In addition to their legislative and advocacy activities, in 2019 Byron and Erika were involved in a bitter and convoluted fight over ownership and management of Mason Classical Academy, a charter school in Naples. One of the founders, Kelly Lichter, who had crossed swords with Erika before, alleged that Erika, the Optima Foundation and other parties were engaged in a hostile takeover of the school. Erika and other parties for their part alleged mismanagement and improprieties in the school’s management and proceeded to found the Naples Classical Academy, scheduled to open this month.

In January 2019 Erika founded yet another organization to promote and lobby for non-public schools, the School Choice Movement, which pursued the objectives of Amendment 8 in the Florida state legislature.

The Donalds’ involvement in the non-public school movement, including their commercial activities opening charter schools, has proven politically problematic for Byron.

In 2018 when Byron was running for re-election to the Florida House in District 80 he met with the Naples Daily News editorial board along with all the other candidates running that year.

Of all the many candidates running, the Naples Daily News endorsed only one Democrat that year; Byron’s opponent, microbiologist Jennifer Boddicker. In addition to praising her strengths and abilities, the board had interesting things to say about Byron:

“There’s a common denominator in much of the education policy Boddicker correctly cited as problematic. Her Nov. 6 Republican opponent, incumbent Byron Donalds, often had a hand in it.

“On multiple occasions, Donalds advocated for school choice legislation, raising questions because of his direct family connections to opening a Collier charter school and his wife now planning another on Florida’s east coast.

“Voters should elect state lawmakers to advance the interests of their constituents at large, not a specific subgroup or personal passions.

“Donalds was graded F-minus in open government policy by the First Amendment Foundation. He crafted a terrible bill that would have gutted the state’s signature Sunshine Law by allowing two officials of the same elected board to have private conversations about issues. Then, in his recent meeting with our editorial board, he again defended it by pointing to two examples — both involving his Collier School Board member wife.”

Naples Daily News

The battle for the future of America’s children

Teachers call for state support for education in Tallahassee in January 2020 at the start of the legislative session. (Photo: Florida Education Association via Twitter)

The issue of public and non-public education has not been a front-burner issue in this year’s political campaigns on any level; there’s so much more going on. But it is in the background.

In 2016, President Donald Trump campaigned in favor of non-public schools, saying he would fix failing inner city schools and calling the issue “the great civil rights issue of our time.” He proposed the idea of a $20 billion school voucher program—which faced Republican opposition and went nowhere in Congress once he was in office.

Nonetheless, Trump continued his verbal support for non-public education and appointed Betsy DeVos education secretary to pursue it.

When former Vice President Joe Biden declared his candidacy in May 2019, his first policy proposal affirmed his support for public schools.

“Educators deserve a partner in the White House,” said his initial statement. “With President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden, they’ll get two. Dr. Biden has worked as an educator for more than 30 years. She and Joe understand that, for educators, their profession isn’t just what they do; it is who they are.”

The initial Biden plan called for tripling Title I funding, which goes toward school districts with a high proportion of children from low-income backgrounds. He promised to overhaul the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program to help public school teachers pay off their student loan debt. He called for doubling the number of school psychologists, guidance counselors, nurses and other health professionals in schools; ensuring federal funding for children with disabilities; and supported universal prekindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds. To keep schoolchildren safe, he called for a ban on military-style weapons and high-capacity magazines.

He also came out against public funding of non-public schools.

In the May 2019 town hall with the American Federation of Teachers where he unveiled his education proposals, Biden said that while some charter schools succeed, federal money should not be spent on private, for-profit schools.

When it comes to vouchers and other such schemes, he said, “The bottom line is, it siphons off money for our public schools, which are already in enough trouble.”

Biden has since expanded his education proposals, calling for increasing teacher pay; investing in schools; ensuring that all students have a path to success and are educated equally regardless of location, income, race or disability.

In Southwest Florida, Democratic congressional candidate Cindy Banyai has detailed education proposals, starting with a vision that: “All children in the US have access to high-quality education, preschool through post-secondary, leading to a prepared, qualified, and advanced workforce filled with successful individuals.”

This is followed by eight very specific ideas for improving American education. When she’s elected she has a plan to introduce a “Workforce of Tomorrow” bill to implement them and find the funding mechanisms to make it happen.

“”I’m a big proponent of public schools because I understand their value. My kids go to public school,” Banyai told The Paradise Progressive. “I want the best for them and all our kids. We must invest more in public schools and not allow those public dollars to go into the hands of private corporations through private charter schools and vouchers. Teachers need good salaries that make it possible to live sustainably in our community. During the COVID-19 pandemic teachers have become front-line workers and deserve recognition and respect. Our public school teachers and students can count on my help in Congress.”

Astonishingly, for all the work he’s done on education issues and his involvement over the years, as of this writing, of eight policy positions he’s taken, Byron doesn’t mention education at all on his campaign website.

On Sept. 14, The Paradise Progressive e-mailed the Byron Donalds campaign the following questions:

1. In summary, what is your position on public education in the United States?

2. As a member of Congress, what specific actions do you intend to take regarding US education policy?

3. Do you approve of the policies and actions of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos?

The same day, The Paradise Progressive separately e-mailed the following questions to Erika Donalds:

1. If Mr. Donalds is elected and goes to Washington, will you go with him or stay in Florida?

2. Do you anticipate lobbying Congress regarding school choice and do you anticipate registering as a lobbyist?

3. If Mr. Donalds is elected, do you intend to divest yourself of all assets, financial interests, and investments in school or education-related businesses, entities or clients whether for profit or non-profit?

4. Can you summarize your view of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ policies, agenda and actions regarding public education to date?

5. How would you characterize your view of the state of public education today?

As of this posting, no response has been received from either party.

The impact of one congressman

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos during a visit to Southwest Florida schools arranged by Rep. Francis Rooney in November, 2017. (Image: WINK News)

If anyone doesn’t believe that an individual member of Congress can have an impact on national education policy, one need only examine the first term of Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.), a man whose entire education, from kindergarten to post-graduate school, was spent in the parochial, Catholic schools of the Georgetown Jesuit school system.

When he first arrived in Washington, Rooney sat on the House Education Committee.

Rooney revealed the real nature of his education policy activities when he addressed the Florida Citizens Alliance program at the Alamo in 2018.

“We’re in the fight of our lives,” he said, endorsing the Alliance’s critique of public education. “It’s the education system which is brainwashing these kids, it’s Hollywood, it’s videogames and no one wants to talk about the real drivers.”

In Congress he tried to eliminate what he called “40 stupid little programs that have crept into the Higher Education Act since 1965” through what was called the PROSPER Act (Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform) Act. A Republican bill, it never went anywhere.

The bill tried to cut $2 billion out of education, including programs that rewarded students who went into public service after college. As Rooney characterized it, the PROSPER Act “eliminated this freebee if you go into public service, which is driving the liberals nuts. You know, you get a special loan if you commit to go into public service after college. It’s like paying people to fight against us”—meaning that service to the United States made a person an enemy of conservatives.

Rooney also brought DeVos to Southwest Florida twice in 2017 to tour the area’s schools, once after Hurricane Irma and once to visit local high schools and colleges.

The thrust of Rooney’s activities was to reshape American education in the DeVos mold. And what was that mold? As he put it at the Alamo: “We don’t need to become a nation of philosophers, okay? We need to become a nation of doers”—meaning that there was virtually no need to support education that wasn’t technical or trade-oriented.   

Rooney and his fellow educational conservatives were unable to enact their program despite a completely Republican Congress with a president who agreed with their views. But their efforts to cut, shortchange and eliminate programs that benefit students regardless of their stations in life or income level were a warning of just how much damage a single congressman hostile to public education can do.

Analysis: The Donalds and the war on America’s schools

In their choice of who to send to Congress to represent them, Southwest Florida voters, parents and teachers should be aware of what they would get with Byron Donalds.

Donalds has not demonstrated any support for public education during his legislative career or in his political activities. On the contrary, he and his wife Erika have done all they possibly could to advance non-public education and personally profit from it.

There is nothing inherently wrong with non-public education. Parents and students who want religious schooling or alternative schooling are welcome to have it. But that educational alternative should not come at the expense of public schools or the teachers who serve them, the taxpayers who fund them, the employees who run them, the parents who rely on them, or the students who learn from them.

The charter school movement, of which they are advocates, is neither benign nor cost-free to public schools and taxpayers. From an experimental, innovative educational alternative, the charter school movement has metastasized into a for-profit gold rush, complete with shoddy products, questionable financing and unreliable outcomes.

In particular, Erika Donalds’ efforts have been directed at reducing or diluting the authority of local, elected school boards and weakening the public education infrastructure in the state of Florida and doing this sometimes in seemingly deceptive ways, as demonstrated by Amendment 8.

If Byron Donalds goes to Congress, those efforts will have a national platform and the potential authority of the United States Congress.

Indeed, if Donald Trump is re-elected, it may genuinely mean the end of the public school system in this country. The federal government may de-fund public education entirely and the Department of Education may be disestablished. If the department still exists, Betsy DeVos may have another four years in office. However, should she decide not to serve in a second Trump administration, it is conceivable that Erika could be a candidate to succeed her as Secretary of Education.

On the other hand, it is very possible that if Donald Trump is defeated and Betsy DeVos is no longer Education Secretary but Byron is elected, Erika Donalds will become a leading advocate on the national stage for the DeVos approach to public education, with Byron providing the legislative heft to advance the agenda.

Of course, if Cindy Banyai is elected along with Joe Biden and the rest of the Democratic ticket, all these questions become moot.

It is worth remembering the importance of public education for the continuation of democracy. To make the American experiment work, it had to rely on an educated, literate, informed electorate. Public education provided the basic knowledge of citizenship and history to everyone; it was a widely accepted government service that taxpayers maintained and it provided the common language and frame of reference for civic engagement.

The fragmentation and destruction of public education risks breaking and dividing a literate, engaged citizenry. Instead of a common education that treats all students as equally as possible, it risks lapsing into the situation of past societies where an educated, literate class of masters ruled over an ignorant, uneducated class of servants.

There is another risk: that the alternative, non-public educational alternative will teach a form of government that is ideologically anti-democratic and inimical to the continuation of this government in its current, constitutional form.

This may seem like a great deal to hang on the outcome of a local congressional race in an obscure corner of Florida but, like the flapping of a butterfly’s wings causing a hurricane, of such small motions are great events made.

As is abundantly clear, on the outcome of the 2020 election hangs the question of whether America will remain a democracy or fall into dictatorship. And on the future of its education system hangs the question of whether a weedlike cult of personality will implant its roots into the future or whether democracy will bloom in all the seasons to come.

Liberty lives in light

©2020 by David Silverberg

Rooney slams Trump tax scheme–again

President Donald Trump signs an executive order deferring payroll tax withholdings for federal employees on Aug. 8. (Photo: AFP)

Sept. 15, 2020 by David Silverberg

Rep. Francis Rooney

Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) has again criticized President Donald Trump’s plan to defer payroll tax withholdings for federal employees until next year.

In a formal statement issued yesterday, Sept. 14, Rooney stated:

“I appreciate the administration’s attempt to bring financial relief to hardworking Americans during this difficult time, but this payroll tax deferral is not a good solution. It presents a short-term remedy that will engender long-term problems beyond the pandemic and could end up disrupting the historical employee-employer cost sharing for payroll taxes.

“It is impractical to expect that these deferred amounts could be paid by employees next April. The highest likelihood is that the government reimburses them, or worse, that employers are required to pay the employees’ part as well as their own.

“This order is not an appropriate means of repairing our damaged economy because however these deferred payments might be resolved, there will be serious damage to the employee – employer relationship at the very time when we need to strengthen it to provide economic opportunity for more Americans.”

Rooney initially tweeted his opposition to the President’s executive order deferring the withholdings on Sept. 3. The new statement formalizes and emphasizes Rooney’s objections.

On Aug. 8, Trump issued a memorandum to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin deferring the taxes for 1.3 million federal employees, which he has the authority to do. However, while the withholding is deferred for 2020, the taxes will have to be paid by the employees next year and would result in smaller paychecks.

To date there has been no public White House response or response from any other Republicans to Rooney’s criticism.

Liberty lives in light

© 2020 by David Silverberg

Roundup: Signs of unity; Dems team up; Rep. Rooney denounces Trump tax order

Video of a racist sign vandal fleeing the Seed to Table parking lot. (Image: WINK News)

Sept. 4, 2020 by David Silverberg

It is a rare moment nowadays when Democrats and Republicans can agree on anything–but it has actually happened in Collier County.

Yesterday, Sept. 3, the chairs of the Collier County Democratic Party and Collier County Republicans issued a joint statement “condemning the vandalism and theft of political signs. Not only is it unlawful, it is disrespectful and anti-democratic.”

The statement is signed by Annisa Karim, the county Democratic chairwoman and Russell Tuff, the Republican chairman.

“As the election gets closer, many of us become more passionate about the candidates we support,” says the statement. “That’s true for us, and it’s true for our neighbors. The beauty of the First Amendment to our Constitution is that it protects everyone’s right to free speech—theirs and ours!”

Reports of lawn sign theft, removal and vandalism appeared throughout the month of August.

The signs of Jim Molenaar, county candidate for clerk of the court, were defaced and when he personally confronted the vandal in a parking lot, the vandal fled.

Rep. Byron Donalds (R-80-Immokalee), Republican congressional candidate in the 19th Congressional District, had his signs in the parking lot of the Seed to Table market defaced with racial slurs; Donalds is African American. In his case an arrest was made of Jeffrey Rouse, 40, after Rouse went on a racist rant against an African American woman in a video that went viral. Arrested following a 100 mile-per-hour chase by police, Rouse was suspected of defacing of Donalds’ signs.

Drew-Montez Clark, also African-American and a Republican candidate for Donalds’ Florida House seat, also had his signs vandalized with racial slurs.

Individuals have also reported sign thefts and disappearances in letters to the editors of local newspapers.

The sign vandalism and thefts mostly occurred during the primary races but passions are expected to rise as the general election approaches.

The joint Democratic and Republican Collier County party statement concludes: “Let’s decide the election at the ballot box!”

Mutual endorsements in the 19th and 17th

Two Democratic congressional candidates have endorsed each other and are planning mutually supportive activities.

Cindy Banyai, the Democratic congressional candidate in the 19th Congressional District and Allen Ellison in the 17th District issued their mutual endorsements yesterday, Sept. 3.

Banyai is facing Byron Donalds. Ellison is taking on incumbent Rep. Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.), a vocal and strident supporter of President Donald Trump.

While the endorsement announcement did not list any actions the candidates would be taking together, they are discussing mutual events and activities, according to Banyai.

Rooney dissents from Trump payroll tax order

Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.), yesterday, Sept. 3, issued a two-tweet thread opposing Trump’s executive order deferring payroll taxes for federal employees. Trump’s opposition to the payroll tax threatens the Social Security program.

“The employee portion payroll tax deferral is a reckless idea that will put many employees in jeopardy for the deferred liability when it becomes due, since they will have already spent the deferred amounts,” Rooney stated in his first tweet. “This is truly an unworkable idea and can only result in more disastrous policy. Deferred amounts will either be forgiven or reimbursed by the federal government or worse, employers will be required to pay them,” he added in the second.

Trump has called for a national payroll tax cut or deferment of 6.2 percent. The action would severely impact the Social Security program, which is funded through the tax.

Congress, including many Republican members, is unwilling to pass the cut and many businesses are reluctant to implement it. With negotiations on a larger stimulus package deadlocked, Trump chose to act on his own.

On Aug. 8, Trump issued a memorandum to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin deferring the taxes for 1.3 million federal employees, which he has the authority to do. However, while the withholding is deferred for 2020, the taxes will have to be paid by the employees next year and would result in smaller paychecks.

 Everett Kelley, the national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, has called the Trump action “a scam that leaves workers with a substantial tax bill right after the holiday season. Workers will have to pay double their regular payroll tax rate during the first four months of 2021, and if they cannot do so, they will have to pay interest and penalties on amounts still owed if they’re not paid back by May 1, 2021,” 

Liberty lives in light

© 2020 by David Silverberg