Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) has announced that he has reintroduced the Harmful Algal Bloom Essential Forecasting Act in the current Congress.
The bill ensures that federal agencies continue monitoring harmful algal blooms (HABs) like red tide even if there is a government shutdown. These agencies include the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science.
In its look at the year ahead, The Paradise Progressive strongly urged that the measure be introduced this year before any kind of government shutdown takes place.
The bill is particularly important to Southwest Florida, which has been plagued with outbreaks of the naturally occurring red tide, which is fed by pollution.
“This bill utilizes federal resources for tackling the environmental and economic challenges brought on by HABs in Southwest Florida and throughout America,” Donalds announced in a Jan. 12 statement. “Over the last 60 years, these events have increased substantially––impacting local economies, our nation’s ecosystems, and the American people’s health.
It continued: “Safeguarding public health and our coastal ecosystems requires the collective collaboration of federal, state, and local governments. This necessary legislation bolsters the federal government’s role in combating HABs throughout the United States.”
The bill amends the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act of 1998.
The operative paragraph states: “Any services by an officer or employee under this chapter relating to web services and server processing for the Harmful Algal Bloom Operational Forecast System of the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shall be deemed, for purposes of Section 1342 of Title 31, United States Code, services for emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property.”
The bill is especially important given the increased possibility of government shutdowns by the Republican House of Representatives.
The bill was first introduced in June 2019 by Rep. Francis Rooney who had organized a conclave of federal, state and local officials concerned about HABs, made more urgent by an acute and prolonged toxic bloom in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caloosahatchee River in 2018. (For a fuller account of the issue, see: “Water warning: The politics of red tide, algae and lessons from the Big Bloom.”)
That bill received bipartisan support, with 16 cosponsors, 11 Democrats and 5 Republicans. The Democrats included Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-13-Mich.) and then-Rep. Charlie Crist (D-13-Fla.). Republicans included Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-1-Fla.) and Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.). It advanced past the subcommittee stage to consideration by the full Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, in addition to the Committee on Natural Resources. However, it made no further progress.
Donalds reintroduced it in the 117th Congress following his 2020 election. At that time it garnered 9 cosponsors, 5 Republicans and 4 Democrats. However, it did not advance past the subcommittee stage.
Analysis: Looking ahead
Can Donalds actually shepherd this bill from subcommittee to full committee, to full House approval, to Senate consideration, to final approval by President Joe Biden?
Monitoring, preventing and coping with HABs is a vital issue for the health and wellbeing of Southwest Floridians, especially in the wake of Hurricane Ian. This measure is a small action that will nonetheless contribute to more advanced warnings of harmful blooms, even if there’s a government shutdown.
The handling of this legislation will demonstrate Donalds’ legislative capabilities to Southwest Floridians and the rest of Congress. It needs to be watched closely.
This summer Southwest Florida seems headed for a Big Bloom on the order of 2018’s disastrous summer.
Blue-green algae is flowing down the Caloosahatchee River as a result of Lake Okeechobee water releases.
Red tide is blooming in the Gulf of Mexico. This year there’s the added threat of blooms as a result of the dumping of millions of gallons of polluted water to relieve pressure on the Piney Point wastewater pond, or “stack” near Tampa. This has likely fed blooms in that area that could drift southward.
People living along the Caloosahatchee are already breathing the toxins and smelling the stench. Red tide alerts have been issued along the beaches.
All disasters—and harmful algal blooms (HABs) are disasters just as much as hurricanes—have political implications. What will be the political impact if there’s a big bloom this year? Were any lessons learned from 2018 and are they being applied? How will Southwest Florida’s politicians react this time around? And can anything be done differently—and better?
In 2018 Southwest Florida experienced an extremely heavy concentration of river algae and Gulf red tide at the same time. It went on for roughly a year, first appearing in October 2017 and then intensifying and peaking in the summer of 2018, finally breaking up in the late fall.
Red tide is naturally occurring in the Gulf and had appeared and broken up before without any major impact on the region. River algal blooms had been minor inconveniences. This was not expected to be any different.
But these blooms lingered and intensified. In contrast to 2017, which had seen Hurricane Irma and lesser storms in the region, there were no major storms in 2018, which may have allowed the blooms to fester. The extremely heavy rainfall of 2017 may have been a contributing factor. The precise relationship between tropical storms and algal blooms remains unclear.
The Big Bloom didn’t just ruin a few peoples’ beach time or boat trips; it was significantly damaging to the area’s economy. It became a national story that dampened tourism and reduced hotel occupancy. Based on surveys filled out by area businesses, 152 or 92 percent of surveyed business owners stated they had lost business due to the red tide in the Gulf. Of them, 126 or 76 percent stated they had lost $500,000 or more. Others estimated losses between $20,000 and $2,000.
The bloom was also a serious health hazard to those who lived along waterways and had no means of escape.
Authorities at all levels were slow to recognize the blooms as a disaster or their magnitude and respond in any way. In addition, it was an election year, so elected officials were distracted by their need to campaign.
At the federal level, Donald Trump was president so environmental issues were ignored or had a low priority.
Then-Gov. Rick Scott (R) was running for the Senate. He had been a strenuous denier of climate change and avoided dealing with environmental questions. Scott banished the term “climate change” from the official vocabulary in Florida state government.
Then-Rep. Francis Rooney, representing the area from Cape Coral to Marco Island in Congress, was largely engaged in supporting Scott while running his own re-election campaign, so he was distracted as well.
Furthermore, the area’s elected officials, media and a good portion of the politically active population simply denied or ignored the impact of overall climate change on the region and its possible role in the disaster.
While the bloom was at its worst in the summer and early fall of 2018, officials were largely helpless. No official edict or action could stop the bloom. While the voters would not allow the incumbent candidates to completely ignore it, candidates did their best to minimize it or distract voters away from it. Late in the crisis Scott declared an emergency and made a paltry $13 million available to the affected businesses.
After the election was over, Rooney took the lead in attempting some kind of response. In May 2019 he pulled together a conference of all the affected region’s elected officials and four relevant federal agencies to attempt a discussion of the HABs and future response. It was briefly attended by the new governor, Ron DeSantis (R), who in contrast to Scott, made environmental issues a priority.
Unfortunately, the conference, held at the Emergent Technologies Institute of Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU), was closed to the public, so the full extent of its discussions, conclusions and decisions will never be known publicly.
Rooney did report out some of the discussion in an op-ed that ran in local newspapers under different titles.
After establishing that federal response to HABs was inadequate and uncoordinated with local authorities, participants concluded that the relevant federal agencies needed to be more aware of HABs as potential disasters and keep local jurisdictions informed of their formation and potential impacts. In addition to agencies that have direct, line responsibility in the event of a HAB like the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), other agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Small Business Administration and the Department of Housing and Urban Development had roles to play.
For his part Rooney introduced two pieces of legislation: one to classify HABs as major national disasters so that local businesses and residents would get disaster relief, and another to ensure that HAB monitoring and response were not interrupted by government shutdowns. Neither bill passed into law during the 116th Congress.
He also introduced changes to help with HABs to the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), the massive, comprehensive congressional bill that covers all water infrastructure, which was signed into law at the very end of 2020.
What’s different in 2021
There has been considerable change on many fronts since the Big Bloom of 2018 that may help with the response if there’s a big bloom this year.
Monitoring, reporting and information
A major, obvious change from 2018 is the amount of information available to the public on the state of algal blooms in general, which also translates into more information about local blooms. This is a vast improvement over 2018 when such information was either unavailable or fragmentary.
Government agencies and jurisdictions established websites on HABs after 2018.
(A full list of public links regarding Southwest Florida HABs is at the end of this article.)
This year there are also mechanisms for local jurisdictions to share information with federal agencies, enabling much better monitoring of HAB outbreaks and providing a much more comprehensive view of both national and local situations than was available in 2018.
Gubernatorial and state involvement
In 2018 then-Gov. Rick Scott’s hostility to environmental issues and solutions was infamous and came back to bite him during the Big Bloom.
Gov. Ron DeSantis got off to an early and very popular start when he took office in 2019. He dropped the hostility to science, creating the position of Chief Science Officer. He boosted funding for Everglades restoration and dismissed the South Florida Water Management District Board for a sweetheart lease with the sugar industry. He also dropped Scott’s prohibition on using the term “climate change.”
The DeSantis administration also established Protecting Florida Together, a Web portal for monitoring and communicating environmental and water quality information to the public. While heavily promoting the governor, it provides useful and presumably accurate data on the state of algal blooms and red tide.
This alteration in gubernatorial attitude is a sea change from 2018. Simply having a state administration that is aware of environmental issues can provide some public confidence that solutions are being sought, which was not previously the case.
Another sea change was the transition from Donald Trump to Joe Biden, who ran a campaign that took environmentally-friendly positions on major issues. Since his inauguration Biden has made major efforts to boost environmentally-friendly policies and combat climate change.
Biden’s climate team is particularly expert in water issues. Michael Regan, the current EPA administrator, is especially familiar with HABs, having confronted a major bloom in North Carolina, where he served as secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality. In July 2019 he canoed the state’s rivers to see the bloom for himself.
If this year’s algal bloom rises to the level of EPA administrator for action, Southwest Florida officials will be working with an EPA head who intimately knows and understands the problem.
Upgrading and modernizing US drinking, wastewater and stormwater systems is a major aspect of Biden’s infrastructure proposal, the American Jobs Plan. While it may not directly impact this year’s blooms, over the longer term it will address the underlying conditions that lead to the blooms, hopefully mitigating or eliminating them. However, it is still in negotiation between the White House and congressional Republicans.
Locally, Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) has already attacked the plan as simply being the Green New Deal in disguise and for proposing new taxes on corporations and the extremely wealthy to pay for it.
It is on the legislative front that there has been the least amount of progress in coping with HABs in general or this year’s potential bloom in particular.
Rooney’s bill went nowhere during his term in office and there is no renewal in the offing.
The second proposal was the Harmful Algal Bloom Essential Forecasting Act, which would ensure that HAB monitoring by federal agencies would continue despite any government shutdowns, a situation less urgent than under Donald Trump. That bill too went nowhere during Rooney’s tenure. It was reintroduced by Donalds on March 17 as House Resolution 1954 and as of today it remains in committee awaiting consideration.
Legislation can’t stop a bloom while it’s happening—but it can mitigate the harm from one and protect people from indirect effects in the future. However, there has been no progress on this front to date and Southwest Florida will go into a 2021 bloom as unprotected legislatively as in 2018.
Analysis: Progress and challenges
Make no mistake: there has been progress on coping with algal blooms since 2018.
There’s been much more research into the nature and causes of blooms and efforts to mitigate their causes, like Lake Okeechobee pollution and phosphates flowing into local waterways.
A big step forward was the founding of the Water School at FGCU on March 22, 2019. This is a major addition to the university, dedicated to researching and examining all aspects of water. While still being developed it’s in a position to make a major contribution to fighting the blooms this year, providing timely and detailed information to officials at all levels and the public at large
In addition to the governmental and legislative measures, localities have been experimenting with technological fixes to contain or eliminate river algae. Public health authorities are far more aware of the health impacts of algal toxins and their dangers.
Even if this year’s bloom blossoms into a crisis on the order of 2018’s, politicians now have precedents to inform their behavior, unlike the example of Rick Scott, who as governor and a Senate candidate fled from red tide protesters in Venice during a campaign swing.
But the lessons of the past don’t just apply to political campaigning and the quest for higher office; they also have to assist in managing the disaster itself.
As a general rule, disasters favor incumbents. A sitting governor, mayor or public official can be seen as vigorous and commanding if he or she appears to take charge. But an official also has to deliver real results. People may not remember a good disaster response but they never forget a bad one.
For businesses, that means being assisted with disaster recovery funding, which is why amending the Stafford Act is so important.
And perhaps the greatest lessons to be taken away from the 2018 Big Bloom are the intangible ones: that big blooms are dangerous; they’re damaging; they really hurt people and businesses; they can be economically devastating; they need to be taken as seriously as any hurricane; they need to be monitored and, to as great an extent as possible, countered early; and all jurisdictions have to coordinate and cooperate in their responses.
Also, algal blooms, like the pandemic, don’t discriminate between political parties or persuasions. Algal toxins and their consequences affect everyone equally.
So Southwest Florida is somewhat better prepared and knowledgeable than it was in 2018 if there’s a big bloom this year.
But as always with disaster management, there’s still a long way to go.
While Lee County has a red tide and algae bloom status website, it is badly out of date—in fact, it seems to have frozen in 2018 and refers to Rick Scott as governor. Nonetheless, for the record, it is at: https://www.leegov.com/waterqualityinfo.
Did Francis Rooney, representative of the 19th Congressional District and Southwest Florida in the United States Congress, make a difference during his four years in elected office?
Based on Rooney’s own evaluation, he did what he set out to do: increase funding for Everglades restoration and promote the purity of the region’s waters.
But when he ran in 2016 he hardly campaigned on such a narrow platform. He proclaimed that he was battling socialism and promoting conservative values. He characterized Donald Trump as possibly the nation’s savior and advanced Trump’s electoral victory.
So Rooney’s tenure should be evaluated on a broader spectrum than his own criteria.
What changes that Rooney made or promoted are most likely to live on after him? Will these be beneficial to Southwest Florida and the nation? Did he do any damage and can it be repaired? And lastly: what needs to be done in the future to build on what he did?
Acknowledging the obvious
In the future, if the planet doesn’t burn to a cinder, if objective history is still written, and if historians bother to look at Southwest Florida, they will be amazed that as late as 2019 denial of climate change was still firmly entrenched in many Southwest Floridians’ heads. It will seem as though a primitive tribe living in the region was cut off from civilization and still believed the earth was flat.
Francis Rooney acknowledged climate change as a fact and broke the Republican, conservative taboo against admitting its reality—and by admitting that reality made realistic measures to cope with it possible.
For a region where human habitation and what is known as the “built environment” is a thin and fragile layer imposed on a primeval wilderness, climate change is a huge threat. This flat, coastal area is extremely vulnerable to hurricanes, erosion and sea-level rise. The fresh water that makes human life possible in this erstwhile swamp, while abundant during its wet season, is constantly threatened by pollution, algal toxicity and salt water intrusion. The habitability of this tropical environment and the health of its plants, animals and people is completely dependent on the wet and dry seasons coming predictably in their turns, at their expected times and with anticipated intensity.
As scientists detailed the data and warned of the dangers of unpredictable climatic changes driven by human activity, the response in Florida, and especially Southwest Florida, was simply denial. Before 2019 climate change was never mentioned in local media. As the local television meteorologists reported ever higher temperatures and worsening storms they never discussed climate change as a possible cause. To this day they still steer clear of it no matter how dramatic and compelling the weather they’re reporting.
Politically, discussing climate change was taboo because of the fear that conservative Republican voters would potentially react to the subject with vehement denials and retaliate at the polls. The most extreme manifestation of this came under Republican Gov. Rick Scott (2011 to 2019), who avoided meeting with scientists to hear about the data for as long as he could and informally banned state employees from using the words “climate change.” (To see a telling illustration of this, take note of the 2015 video of Brian Koon, Florida’s emergency management director, trying not to use the phrase during questioning by state senators.)
Then, on top of local resistance, in 2016 President Donald Trump was elected to office after calling climate change “a Chinese hoax” and withdrawing the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement. Internationally, it made the United States a global pariah as the rest of the world’s countries tried to deal with the crisis. Domestically, it enshrined climate change denial as a pillar of the Trumpist credo.
Rooney’s evolution was reflective of these currents. In his first term he denied and evaded acknowledging climate change. Then, in his second term, as a member of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, he followed a common Republican tactic of admitting deleterious climatic impacts like sea-level rise while avoiding naming their prime cause.
In this Rooney and local Republicans were actually lagging behind the thinking of the local public, which began to change after Hurricane Irma in 2017. This change in attitude was extensively documented in February 2019 by a carefully conducted survey commissioned by the Conservancy of Southwest Florida (“The Southwest Florida Climate Metrics Survey”), which found that 75 percent of local respondents believed that climate change was real and 76 percent believed they had observed it themselves.
Rooney’s Sept. 11, 2019 Politico article had multifaceted significance: It declared that climate change was real and called on Republicans to acknowledge it, face it and deal with it. Politically, it blessed realistic assessments of environmental changes and dangers, which in turn made possible real planning and countermeasures.
While die-hard deniers and ever-Trumpers will reject the notion of climate change until their bitter ends, they are now outside the mainstream dialogue on regional environmental matters. Rooney’s manifesto gave Southwest Florida a real chance. If his call is heeded by sensible Republicans nationally, it will advance the conservationist tradition of the Party.
Essentially, in his own District, Rooney was able to act as Galileo to Southwest Florida Republicans’ Inquisition, although without suffering house arrest. On this matter, with his help, science was able to succeed.
Following the Big Bloom of 2018 Rooney pulled together the disparate threads of response to harmful algal blooms (HABs) and established the momentum for local jurisdictions and federal agencies to work together to monitor, alert and respond.
This was no small achievement. Prior to the Big Bloom, HABs were not recognized as disasters and response was fragmented and uncoordinated. As the Big Bloom showed, HABs could seriously adversely affect the livability and economy of Southwest Florida.
The momentum of this effort should be continued and nurtured; there’s too much at stake not to pursue it.
A key element that Rooney began and needs to be continued was called the Protecting Local Communities from Harmful Algal Blooms Act (House Resolution (HR) 414), which consisted of a three-word amendment to the Stafford Act.
The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act provides the legal framework for disaster response. The change would add “or algal blooms” as major disasters subject to federal action. If the change was made and a bloom occurred again in Southwest Florida, the region would be eligible for a disaster declaration and various forms of support and assistance from the federal government.
Rooney introduced the bill on Jan. 10, 2019 and it never made it out of committee. It’s a small, unglamorous, easily overlooked piece of legislation that was unremarked and unrewarded in the District but it could be of major importance in the event of another HAB. It needs to be reintroduced in the 117th Congress and brought to enactment. It will have a much better chance of approval under President Joe Biden.
The shore and the Everglades
None of the legislation that Rooney introduced in Congress over his four year tenure made it into law. Actually, this is not that unusual. There are members of Congress who go through entire, lengthy careers without passing a piece of legislation. Rooney had only two terms.
The bill that got furthest was the Florida Coastal Protection Act, HR 205, which made an oil drilling moratorium in the eastern Gulf permanent. This bill made it all the way through the House—no small achievement. Of course, it never came up in the Senate and never arrived on Trump’s desk. Florida’s two senators never promoted it, other than in its initial introduction in that body, and it was opposed by the oil industry.
On September 8, 2020 Trump told a rally in Jupiter, Fla., that he would be issuing an executive order extending the offshore drilling moratorium for 10 years to 2032. The announcement was clearly intended to help Trump win the state of Florida. Had he been re-elected there is no telling whether the order would have stayed in force. (The Arctic was not so lucky; there, Trump rushed through an auction of leases on federal lands to facilitate drilling.)
Southwest Florida received a double benefit because during the campaign, Biden pledged not to allow new offshore oil drilling. Between the Biden pledge and the Trump executive order, Florida’s shores would seem to be safe.
Regardless of these statements, if the Florida Coastal Protection Act passed in the new Congress it would be enshrined in law and Southwest Florida would be that much safer from the possibility of offshore oil exploitation.
In addition to all these bills and measures, Rooney did help maintain the funding for Everglades restoration and provided momentum to get the many stalled projects of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan moving. He worked hard to persuade his fellow members of Congress and the administration to advance the region’s interests.
Presuming that these projects and this plan will help the natural environment of Southwest Florida to recover and thrive (and it’s worth remembering that past human interventions were all intended as improvements as well), Rooney made a significant contribution to both human habitability and the balance of nature by advancing them. It is to be remembered, however, that he was part of a large effort that took many individuals and lawmakers of all political persuasions to succeed.
Nonetheless, both his efforts and the bipartisanship of his second term deserve recognition and emulation in the future. It’s a worthwhile legacy.
The Trump shadow
Rooney’s time in Congress coincided with Donald Trump’s time in the presidency and Trump loomed over all that Rooney said and did.
Historians will likely look back at the Trump years as a sad, sick and savage interlude, a time that, far from making America great again, began what is likely to be a long decline. Rather than American exceptionalism, Trump put America on track to follow all the great empires of history toward diminution and decrepitude. Like a toddler with a new toy, he broke America.
Francis Rooney was one of the many millions of Americans who were willingly deceived by Trump. Especially egregious was his 2016 hailing of Trump as a “savior”—with that word’s full gravity and implications. From the day in 2015 that Trump descended the escalator in his building and delivered his first speech he made no secret of what he was: a bigot, a racist, an ignoramus, an autocrat and a pathologically narcissistic and selfish egomaniac. Those who supported him knew what they were getting.
Once in Congress, as a member of the governing class Rooney encouraged, enabled and emboldened Trump’s worst behavior. And Rooney bears special responsibility as Trump’s very visible, vocal and “brutal” defender during some of Trump’s worst excesses.
As such, Rooney will forever bear his share of the responsibility for the damage Trump did to America and the world, damage that seems likely to continue after he’s left the White House.
It also bears mentioning that Rooney’s conservatism was of the harshest and most unsympathetic kind when it came to healthcare, education, labor, women’s choices, disaster relief and most of all, the pandemic.
That said, Rooney ultimately summoned the courage to fully break with Trump, to assert his own thinking and perceptions and to make his views public. He opened his mind to the evidence of Trump’s impeachable crimes. He finally recognized Trump’s delusions as delusions and refused to parrot or obey them—and these delusions have killed hundreds of thousands of Americans and seem set to kill hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, more. And when Trump lost the election, Rooney was the first Southwest Florida Republican to acknowledge it, congratulate Biden and call for a smooth and cooperative transition for the sake of the country.
It was a late awakening but it was an awakening nonetheless. Regrettably, Rooney did not take the logical steps that his awareness should have led him to take: vote to impeach Trump and formally endorse Biden.
However, he did make his conclusions public and he paid the price in ostracism and condemnation from his Party and constituents. More importantly, though, he ultimately remained true to his oath of office to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” That was much more than many of his colleagues did.
This year marks the beginning of the post-Census redistricting process. The Republican legislature will carve up the state’s congressional districts. Whether the 19th will remain the 19th and what its boundaries will be remains to be seen. But it is a fair bet that it will be gerrymandered to favor Republican dominance into the indefinite future.
No matter what shape their boundaries take, the people of the Southwest Florida coast will need to be represented in the Congress of the United States and their vital interests advanced.
What will future representatives bring with them from Francis Rooney? To distil the best of what he leaves to its simplest, most basic essence, three things stand out:
Environmentalism: To protect, advance and conserve the natural environment that makes human habitation in the region possible and do it in a way that maintains a balance between human needs and natural processes.
Bipartisanship: To work with others of different ideas and persuasions to meet common needs, be open to their cares and concerns and cooperate to promote the general welfare.
And there’s the hope for Conscience: To fulfill the oath of office and serve the nation, the region and the common good despite party dictates or ideology or popular delusion, according to America’s best values and principles.
If these are the things that future officials take away from the service of Francis Rooney, who today marks the 67th anniversary of his arrival on earth, Southwest Florida and America will be well served.
It’s the least that we the people should expect from those whom we entrust with public office.
On Nov. 6, 2018 Francis Rooney cruised to an easy victory in his reelection bid.
He won 62 percent of the vote to David Holden’s 37 percent and while Holden had increased the Democratic percentage by 2 points from 2016, he didn’t come close to winning.
Republicans had a very good night that night in Florida: Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-6-Fla.) would now be addressed as Governor, having squeaked out a 32,463 vote win over Tallahassee Democratic Mayor Andrew Gillum. Having been plucked out of obscurity by President Donald Trump, DeSantis was entirely indebted to Trump for his success. Term-limited Republican Gov. Rick Scott defeated Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson to ascend to the US Senate. Florida was looking redder than ever.
But nationally, the news was not so good: Democrats had gained 41 seats in the House of Representatives, meaning that Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.) would reclaim the gavel as the next Speaker of the House.
Nancy Pelosi! Short of Hillary Clinton herself, there was no more menacing she-Devil in Republican demonology. To Donald Trump she was “Crazy Nancy,” “MS-13 Lover Nancy,” “Nervous Nancy,” “Nancy Antoinette.” Republicans had been condemning, flaying and cursing her throughout her 32-year congressional career.
That she also happened to be a brilliant legislative tactician, a persevering partisan, a fruitful fundraiser and perhaps the nation’s canniest politician also did not endear her to them, either.
When Francis Rooney went back to Washington after his re-election he would be in the minority, in a House where, unlike the Senate, the minority is largely powerless.
How could a vocal conservative who had voted 95 percent of the time with Donald Trump in the 115th Congress possibly function in a House run by Nancy Pelosi and what Trump viewed as her army of ranting, raving, radical Democrats?
Rooney hit the ground running on the very first day, Jan. 3, after the oath-taking and ceremony when he introduced a bill to prevent oil and gas leasing in the eastern Gulf of Mexico where the military conducted its exercises.
This simply continued his crusade against offshore oil drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. But five days later the new reality was apparent when he signed on as a cosponsor to a different bill that accomplished the same thing—only this bill was introduced by his Democratic colleague up the coast, Rep. Kathy Castor (D-14-Fla.), who represented the Tampa area. Castor was also the newly-named co-chair of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, which gave her additional heft.
Her bill, the Florida Coastal Protection Act, would make the offshore oil drilling moratorium permanent. It would be given the number House Resolution (HR) 205. It was a promising sign of bipartisan cooperation and, in fact, the two had cooperated in the previous Congress to draft an amendment to the Defense authorization bill that did the same thing. That effort was quashed by the House Republican leadership, which didn’t allow it to come to a vote.
This time they were introducing a stand-alone bill into a new Congress and they were doing it together, reaching across the aisle in deeply divisive times. It was the kind of cooperation people so often said they wanted to see. Perhaps the stars would align better than in the past.
But this promising start was overshadowed by a government shutdown triggered by Trump’s obstinate insistence on getting funding for his border wall. Despite having promised that Mexico would pay for it, he now wanted $5.7 billion American taxpayer dollars for its construction. Democrats refused. The shutdown began at midnight on Dec. 22, 2018 and despite frantic efforts to head it off, it was still underway when the new Congress convened.
As the shutdown ground on, Rooney supported Trump’s position and the wall, helping prolong the crisis by voting 100 percent in agreement with the president. He missed votes on four measures that would have ended the impasse and then voted against one that would have resolved the battle.
Ultimately, the shutdown ended on Jan. 25 after 35 days, when Trump agreed to a stopgap funding measure. It was the longest such government shutdown in American history and it did enormous damage to the United States, costing the economy $11 billion, according to an estimate by the Congressional Budget Office.
While supporting Trump on the shutdown, on Feb. 26, Rooney took a startling position.
Having lost the shutdown battle, Trump tried to circumvent Congress by declaring a national emergency at the southern border and getting the money for the wall that way.
Rooney voted with Democrats and 12 other Republicans to end Trump’s state of emergency.
“I voted for the resolution because I believe in the rule of law and strict adherence to our Constitution,” he stated at the time. “We are, as John Adams said, ‘A nation of laws, not men.’ The ends cannot justify the means; that is exactly what the socialists want.”
Rooney may have couched his dissent in constitutional, anti-socialist, strict immigration control terms but the fact of the dissent was unmistakable. He was opposing a Trump position on a significant issue. It was a first chink in the policy bonds between them.
Protecting Southwest Florida’s fragile environment had always been Rooney’s priority and as the new Congress dawned he had a priority within this priority: dealing with what were technically called Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs).
Determined not to have a repeat of 2018’s Big Bloom, Rooney began the process of pulling together all the threads that would prevent or warn of a recurrence.
Shortly after the new Congress convened and in the midst of the government shutdown, Rooney introduced legislation to make HABs major disasters so that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) could intervene. He asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to study the health impacts of toxic algae. And he asked the Army Corps of Engineers to coordinate with state agencies to monitor fertilizer pollution that could lead to blooms.
But to really make the warning, monitoring and response to HABs effective, Rooney felt he needed to convene a grand meeting that would include all Southwest Florida’s elected executives as well as experts from relevant federal agencies: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.
He managed to pull them all together and proudly announced to the press and public that they would be meeting at Florida Gulf Coast University’s Emergent Technologies Institute on May 7, 2019—and then he closed the meeting to the public, saying it was “private.”
Rooney’s abrupt closure of the meeting full of public officials seemed of a piece with the Trump administration’s increasing secrecy and opacity. In Washington, Attorney General William Barr was deceptively summarizing the findings of Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling and the president was continuing to hide his tax returns. Bit by bit and piece by piece what had once been open and public in government was becoming dark and secluded. Now, on a local level Southwest Florida’s congressman was drawing the curtain on a matter of vital interest to residents. Rooney obliquely indicated that it was CDC officials who had insisted on secrecy in order to attend, but it didn’t make any difference.
Despite protests both verbal and physical and a letter from WINK-TV’s attorney charging violations of Florida’s Sunshine Law, Rooney, the experts, and local and state elected officials including DeSantis held their meeting, comparing notes on HAB warning signs, monitoring, alerts, local responses and funding.
As a sop to the press and public, Rooney held a second meeting at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida in Naples three days later where local conservation groups were allowed to vent and the press was permitted to attend. But at this meeting Rooney was the only elected official present and no decisions were made.
Despite the difficulties, the meeting and Rooney’s work did provide momentum for further progress on HABs by the agencies and jurisdictions involved.
Rooney advanced this further by introducing a bill in June to ensure that the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science could continue to monitor HABs even during a government shutdown—the kind of shutdown he had voted to prolong earlier in the year.
Funding the River of Grass
Despite praise lavished on Trump for his care and concern for Southwest Florida issues, Trump repeatedly shortchanged the state on Everglades restoration funding. In March, the budget he put out for fiscal year 2020 was no exception. Instead of requesting from Congress the $200 million that Florida was due, Trump requested a measly $63 million.
Rooney joined both Florida senators and Rep. Brian Mast (R-18-Fla.) in protesting the budget request, calling it “incredibly short-sighted” and saying that it was time for the administration to meet its commitments.
With Florida a crucial element of Trump’s re-election strategy, the president agreed to come to Lake Okeechobee to see the Hoover Dike for himself. He did so on March 29, which provided an opportunity for every Republican officeholder to be present in a kind of Florida mini-convention. Trump used the occasion to denounce immigrant caravans and call on the Army Corps of Engineers to build the border wall.
The Florida officeholders used the opportunity to lavishly thank the president and flatter and stroke his ego. Sen. Marco Rubio told Trump: “you have a chance, Mr. President, and your administration, to go down in history as the Everglades President — as the person who helped save and restore the Everglades.” Rooney weighed in as well: “Mr. President, I just want to thank you for this and for a lot of other things you’ve done to show when a businessperson gets involved in government, good things can happen. And you are going to save the Everglades. We’re doing as much in three years, because of you, than we’ve done in the preceding 13 years. So thank you, Mr. President.”
It took a reporter to bring Trump back to the topic of Everglades funding, asking when and how much money he would request from Congress. Responded Trump: “Soon. A lot. More than you would ever believe.”
Ultimately, in December, when Trump signed the new budget it contained $200 million for Everglades restoration. But that did not happen before Trump boasted in a tweet in May that he was “fighting” for the money.
The greening of Francis Rooney
It appeared in the first half of 2019 that Rooney was planning to run for a third term and to do so as a “green” Republican.
In addition to his work on offshore oil drilling and Everglades funding, he championed a tax to bring down carbon emissions. After the 2018 election he signed on as cosponsor to a proposal from fellow Floridian Rep. Ted Deutch (D-22-Fla.), which would progressively tax the carbon content of fuels. Although that bill died when the 115th Congress adjourned, he sponsored another, more business-friendly, version in the next Congress. This act was barely noted in the District but it violated the Republican anti-tax orthodoxy and brought down the wrath of the fiercely anti-tax Americans for Tax Reform.
Ultimately, 58 members signed on as co-sponsors to the legislation. Rooney was the only Republican.
Another aspect of Rooney’s environmentalism came in July when his committee assignment was changed from the Committee on Education and the Workforce to the Committee on Science, Space and Technology. This put him in a much better position to affect environmental policy.
A September to remember
September 11 is, of course, the anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, DC. But Sept. 11, 2019 was a very special day for Francis Rooney.
“If we want to show America that we’re the party of the future, then it’s time for all Republicans to return to their roots as champions of our environment,” he wrote.
It’s hard to overstate the magnitude of what amounted to an environmental manifesto. After nearly three years of publicly evading or downplaying questions about climate change, Rooney was fully recognizing it and doing so while Donald Trump was still dismissing it as a “Chinese hoax.” Many congressional Republicans and Southwest Floridians shared Trump’s opinion.
The very same day, HR 205, the Florida Coastal Protection Act making the offshore oil drilling moratorium permanent, passed the entire House by a vote of 248 to 180. Rooney was now listed as the legislation’s chief sponsor.
How had it passed? Rooney did his own shout-out in the statement announcing the passage: “Thanks to the support of Speaker Pelosi, Majority Leader Hoyer and Natural Resources Chairman Grijalva, the House of Representatives has done its job to protect Florida.” Pelosi, Reps. Steny Hoyer (D-5-Md.) and Raul Grijalva (D-3-Ariz.) were all Democrats, as was his chief cosponsor, Kathy Castor.
Rooney had learned to play well with others.
There was more good news in September when on Sept. 16 he was formally welcomed as a member of the Environmental Subcommittee of the House Science Committee, the key body that would deal with environmental policy. It was the perfect subcommittee assignment for further work on Southwest Florida’s environment.
Rooney was now positioned as the leading “green” Republican, he had proven that he could operate effectively in a Democratic House, he had collaborated successfully with Pelosi to the District’s benefit, he had taken a giant step toward protecting Southwest Florida’s coastline, he had begun a movement toward coping with toxic algae, he had increased Everglades appropriations, he was in a strong position in the District and his election to a third term seemed absolutely assured.
As the sun set on the month of September 2019, Rooney appeared to have attained that highest of all political ambitions—he was a winner.
What could possibly go wrong?
A ‘perfect’ phone call
On July 25, 2019 President Donald Trump had a phone call with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine. They discussed military cooperation and then Trump said, “I would like you to do us a favor, though… .” He wanted information damaging to former Vice President Joe Biden, his likely rival in the upcoming 2020 election.
That phone call, which Trump later characterized as “perfect,” set off a chain of events that led to the third presidential impeachment in American history.
Day after day the tension built as witnesses testified before Congress, new elements of Trump actions came to light and controversy grew.
In a polarized nation this led to even more extreme polarization. The more he was attacked and the more information emerged about his malfeasance the more Trump insisted on his near-papal infallibility and demanded absolute loyalty.
A key element of Trump’s defense was that there had never been a quid pro quo asked of Zelensky. However, on Oct. 17, Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s White House chief of staff, admitted to reporters that there had indeed been a quid pro quo when Trump froze aid to Ukraine unless he got the public accusations he wanted against Biden’s son, Hunter.
An open mind is a terrible thing to have
After weeks of denying the quid pro quo, Mulvaney’s admission shocked Rooney.
Over the months since Trump’s praise for Rooney on Halloween night 2018 rifts had grown between the president and his defender.
In addition to Rooney’s first vote against Trump’s state of emergency declaration over the border wall, Rooney had voted against the president yet again on the same issue.
The House had voted against the emergency declaration. So had the Senate. Trump vetoed the bill and then the House tried to override Trump’s veto. Rooney, sticking to his original position, voted with the Democratic majority and 13 other Republicans to override. Although the override failed, Rooney had bucked the president and his Party, even while denying his vote had anything to do with Trump and everything to do with the Constitution.
Then there was a matter of foreign policy. Rooney, a former ambassador who was passionate about foreign affairs, began expressing disapproval of some of Trump’s diplomatic moves, one in particular.
On Oct. 6, following a telephone conversation between Trump and Turkish President Recep Erdogan, the White House announced that it wouldn’t oppose a Turkish incursion into northern Syria, which was aimed against an autonomous Kurdish enclave there. The Kurds had fought shoulder-to-shoulder with American troops against the Islamic State, bravely facing the terrorist group’s cruelty and ruthlessness. Now American troops would abandon them. Trump’s decision amounted to the darkest betrayal of a close ally in United States history.
Rooney had repeatedly supported the Kurds in op-eds and statements. He now issued a statement urging Trump to reconsider. “The administration’s decision to remove our remaining troops from Syria is strategically short-sighted, erodes our credibility amongst our regional partners and fortifies Russia’s position in the conflict,” stated Rooney. Like so many statements made at that moment it was ignored and what followed was a genocidal assault against the Kurds that undid years of American effort.
So when Rooney agreed to an interview with CNN’s Poppy Harlow the morning of Oct. 18 after Mulvaney’s statement, he was perhaps not in as much of a mood to defend the president as he had been in the past.
“Whatever might have been gray and unclear before is certainly clear right now, that the actions were related to getting someone in the Ukraine to do these things [the quid pro quo],” Rooney said, noting that political power was not to be used for personal gain.
Were the president’s actions grounds for impeachment? Harlow asked. “I don’t know. I want to study it [the president’s statements] more,” Rooney said. “I want to hear the next set of testimony next week from a couple more ambassadors. But it’s certainly very, very serious and troubling.”
Rooney made a politically dangerous comparison to Richard Nixon’s situation after Watergate. “I don’t think this is as much as Richard Nixon did,” he said of Trump’s actions. “But I’m very mindful of the fact that back during Watergate everybody said it’s a witch hunt to get Nixon. Turns out it wasn’t a witch hunt but it was absolutely correct.”
He also said that Pelosi “had a point” when she told Trump in a meeting that “with you all roads lead to Putin.”
“I was skeptical of it, like most Republicans,” he noted of Pelosi’s remarks. But he was also led to ask: “Are we trying to exculpate Russia, who all our trained intelligence officials have consistently corroborated that Russia was behind the election meddling, not the Ukraine?”
Harlow kept pressing Rooney to say that the president’s actions constituted impeachable offenses. Rooney very carefully resisted. He said he wanted more information and he wasn’t an authority on impeachment.
Then Harlow changed tack: “I think you are saying that you are not ruling out that this was an impeachable offense for the President,” she said.
“I don’t think you can rule anything out until you know all the facts,” responded Rooney.
Ostensibly a reasonable and obvious observation reflecting an open mind, in Trumpworld, this was Rooney’s moment of high heresy. It stabbed at the heart of Trump’s own doctrine of absolute innocence and infallibility.
In that interview and in a follow-up interview with Politico, Rooney repeated that he was open to considering the evidence being gathered for impeachment. When Mulvaney tried to walk back his statement, Rooney was scornful: “What is a walk-back? I mean, I tell you what, I’ve drilled some oil wells I’d like to walk back — dry holes,” he told Politico.
“I did what I came to do and I want to be a model for term limits,” he said. He announced that he was not going to run for a third term.
Rooney said that he was “shocked” by Mulvaney’s remarks that there had been a quid pro quo and disgusted by the “rump, non-professional diplomatic channel” of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Energy Secretary Rick Perry who had been negotiating on Trump’s behalf with Ukraine outside normal channels.
Rooney said he felt “like I was a bit on an island for some time” among his Republican colleagues, with whom he disagreed on many issues. He said he didn’t really think he wanted a third term. His aim, he said, had been to get the money for the Everglades and stop offshore drilling. He said he’d gotten the Everglades projects going and increased its funding by ten times and the projects were under way. He had thought that might take three terms but now he felt it was accomplished.
When Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan welched on his commitment to stop offshore drilling, Rooney had worked with Pelosi and achieved his goal, he explained.
“I came to do what I came to do,” he said. “I believe in public service, not public life. I thought that you came and did your public service and you left.” Now, “I’m really tired of the intense partisanship and I’m ready to leave.”
Asked if he was like other Republicans who were tired of defending President Trump, he said no, “I just call ‘em as I see ‘em.”
Did his retirement announcement free him up a little bit? asked Vittert. “No,” said Rooney. “It’s just like we tell our kids and our employees: just try to do the right thing at all times.”
Rooney may have announced his retirement but he still had a year of his term to go and coming up was one of the most momentous congressional votes in American history.
For two months after his Fox News interview, Rooney appeared to be the only Republican member of the House undecided on whether or not to send articles of impeachment to the Senate. As such he was the subject of intense speculation and suasion.
Finally, on Dec. 18 the world received its answer when Rooney joined 196 other House Republicans in voting against the first article of impeachment, abuse of power, and 197 on the second article, obstruction of Congress.
“Based on the limited evidence provided to the House of Representatives, the President’s behavior, while inappropriate, was neither criminal, nor does it rise to the level of justifying impeachment,” he announced.
The Republican votes notwithstanding, the majority of the House voted to impeach the president. The articles were sent to the Senate for trial where Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) refused to allow witnesses to be called and the president was acquitted.
Although he had voted the Party line on impeachment, Rooney was still a heretic according to the Trump credo. His heretical status was confirmed in later votes as well.
In January Rooney confirmed his apostasy when he defied Trump and party discipline and voted to restrict Trump’s ability to go to war with Iran. This followed the US assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and an Iranian missile retaliation against US forces. In this he was joined—incredibly—by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-1-Fla.), perhaps Trump’s most histrionic defender in Congress. Rooney explained his vote as being in keeping with Congress’ authority to declare war.
In the District public focus shifted to a raucous and wild Republican primary to succeed Rooney, with ten Republican candidates at one point vying to gain his seat.
Behold a pale horse
When the year 2020 dawned the biggest expected disruption to normal everyday life was what was sure to be a passionate and hard-fought re-election campaign. But at the beginning of December, 2019, the most disruptive and destructive event in a century had its origins in a “wet market” half a world away in Wuhan, China.
As the coronavirus, COVID-19, swept through the world and became a confirmed pandemic, Trump kept assuring the public that “like a miracle, it will disappear” and did no planning, organizing or preparation while the plague mounted and began taking lives in the United States.
There was little that Congress could do about the virus itself. But it could provide relief to hard-hit American families, bolster business and try to provide the financial resources to keep the country working.
What followed were a series of House initiatives to cope with the effects of the pandemic, marshaled by House Speaker Pelosi in the absence of leadership from the President.
Each had to be approved by the Congress. And in every one, Rooney was absent.
It was as though, having announced that he would retire at the end of the 116th Congress, Rooney had actually decided to retire immediately.
Rooney did take some actions: he signed a Republican letter calling for the resignation of the head of the World Health Organization and made a variety of announcements. But he took no legislative actions.
At the end of June, Rooney’s absence and his willingness to use proxy voting, which Democrats were promoting because of the pandemic but which congressional Republicans opposed, led sophomore Republicans to vote him off the Republican Steering Committee. A little-known but powerful panel, this was the body that made committee assignments. He was replaced with a Texas congressman.
Finally, at the end of July, Rooney denied that he’d been absent from the work of Congress.
“I am working right along, every day, on issues important to Southwest Florida: Everglades appropriations, dredging in Collier County, estuary renourishment, pushing the administration to support the offshore drilling ban that I sponsored in the House, and a host of other issues,” he stated in response to questions from The Paradise Progressive.
As for all the missed coronavirus votes, he stated: “Voting on things that are preordained to pass, otherwise the Speaker would not bring them forward, has not seemed to be worth the COVID risk to me.” He had refrained from voting by proxy at the behest of the Republican leadership while they challenged the practice in court. Once the challenge was heard in court, he proceeded to participate again and cast his first, post-absence ballot on July 29.
Rooney did make headlines again in June when he told The New York Times that he might support the Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, because “Trump is driving us all crazy.”
Of Biden, Rooney said: “What he’s always been is not scary. A lot of people that voted for President Trump did so because they did not like Hillary Clinton. I don’t see that happening with Joe Biden — how can you not like Joe Biden?” Still, he was not formally endorsing the Democrat because he wanted to make sure he did not veer off to the extreme left of the political spectrum.
Rooney also did not make an endorsement as nine Republicans battled and battered each other for the nomination to replace him.
That might have remained a statesmanlike position before the Aug. 18 Republican primary but after local Republicans selected state Rep. Byron Donalds (R-80-Immokalee) to be their standard bearer for Congress, Rooney still did not make an endorsement.
Donalds won his race anyway, with the dependable 62 percent Republican majority in the District.
However, as the presidential race was called for Joe Biden and Donald Trump resisted the voters’ verdict, Rooney went rogue yet again.
Republicans nationally and locally were either following Trump’s lead and alleging widespread fraud or withholding their recognition of Biden’s victory.
But Rooney, alone of local Republicans, extended congratulations to the President-Elect on Nov. 7.
“All Americans need to come together in supporting President- elect Biden,” he posted on Twitter and Facebook. “Our nation will only be successful if the new administration is. We must work together to enact bipartisan legislation and solve the problems which our country faces – that is how our system of government works. We have more that unite us than divide us, and now that the heat of battle has drawn to a close we must come together for the betterment of all our citizens.”
He followed that up with a longer, more expansive look at presidential transitions in an op-ed in The Hill newspaper on Nov. 15. Titled “Time to concede: The peaceful transition of power is an American tradition.” It again put forward his earlier conclusion: “President Trump should concede the election immediately after all long-shot court challenges have been disposed of. The best interests of our nation and our party demand that we acknowledge the winner of this vigorous contest. The American People have made their choice. It is the American way to recognize and honor that choice.”
Rooney was predictably denounced by die-hard ever-Trumpers.
Doris Cortese, vice-chair of the Lee County Republican Executive Committee and the “godmother” of Lee County Republican politics, was livid.
“For him to call himself a Republican and then call for our Republican president to concede, I think is beyond terrible,” she told Amy Bennett Williams of the News-Press on Nov. 17. “He has betrayed our president, he’s betrayed our party, he’s betrayed the people who trusted him and voted for him and worked for him, and he’s betraying our country by not letting our election process work itself out.”
Byron Donalds agreed: “Let’s just let the process work,” he told Williams. “When we see what the numbers look like after that’s done, then I think it’s time to start (making) those decisions and having those conversations.”
So Rooney was ending his congressional career as an outcast and heretic, about as far as possible from where he had stood on that warm October afternoon in 2016, when as a believing Trumper he praised the man as a potential savior from the twin menaces of Hillary Clinton and socialism.
On Oct. 30, just before the election and almost exactly two years to the day since Trump had praised him before the crowd in Hertz Arena as a “great congressman,” Rooney was interviewed by Dave Elias, NBC2’s political reporter, in what was promoted as an “exit interview.”
“How will history remember Republican Congressman Francis Rooney of the 19th District?” asked Elias.
“I hope they remember he did the things he ran to accomplish and got them done even if they never agreed with everything. I did what I thought was the right thing and I was intellectually honest about it at all times,” responded Rooney.
Would that in fact be the way Southwest Florida would remember Francis Rooney?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”