The Donalds Dossier: PACs and the race for re-election

Part 2: A deep dive into the PACs behind Rep. Byron Donalds

Rep. Byron Donalds speaks while Rep. Steve Scalise looks on. (Photo: Office of Rep. Donalds)

June 23, 2021 by David Silverberg

“The PACs didn’t get me elected,” Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) said during a March 30 interview at Alfie Oakes’ Seed to Table market.

That statement is not true; political action committees (PACs) were very heavily involved in getting Donalds elected in 2020, as demonstrated in Part 1 of this deep dive into Donalds’ PAC support. Ideological super PACs played an especially big role in his 2020 primary victory.

What is more, they and other PACs are already making contributions to his 2022 re-election campaign—and by so doing shaping the nature of the midterm election as conducted in Southwest Florida’s 19th Congressional District, the coastal area from Cape Coral to Marco Island.

Some of Donalds’ 2022 PAC contributors were contributors in 2020. Their contributions bear scrutiny because they both illuminate Donalds’ corporate and ideological backing and explain his policy positions even if he himself said that he ignores the concerns of his PAC backers.

Nonetheless, some of the PAC contributions stand out in different ways.

The PAC spending reported in this article was, to the best of this author’s ability to determine, legal and compliant with existing law. This article is based on public information. No criminality or impropriety is alleged or implied. The full 2021-22 PAC list can be seen and downloaded on the Federal Election Commission (FEC) website.

Water, oil and Scalise

Politicians form their own PACs and donate to each other’s campaigns. This helps build bonds and relationships that serve them well once they’re elected. These networks help them pass legislation or advance in the party leadership ranks.

These kinds of donations were especially important during Donalds’ 2020 primary campaign when he was in a tight and uncertain race against well-funded opponents.

One primary contributor of particular significance was Rep. Steve Scalise (R-1-La.).

Scalise was significant on a number of levels: He was (and remains) House Minority Whip, the second highest leadership position in the Republican caucus. A contribution from him was a vote of confidence and a boost from the official Republican House establishment.

But Scalise had a particular connection to Southwest Florida. During Francis Rooney’s 2016 to 2020 service in Congress, Scalise posed a particular obstacle to Rooney’s efforts to prevent oil exploration and exploitation off Florida’s Gulf shore. Like the Paradise Coast, Scalise’s Louisiana district is dominated by shoreline and wetlands—but unlike Florida, it is home to an extensive offshore oil exploration and exploitation industry.

This has led Scalise to be such a spokesman for the oil industry that one trade publication was led to ask if he was the “oil industry’s best friend in Congress.”

It also led to a memorable exchange between Rooney and Scalise when they were on the House floor together and Scalise told Rooney that the oil industry would object to his efforts to keep the eastern Gulf off-limits to exploration. In an address to a private group at the Alamo gun range and store in Naples on May 30, 2018, Rooney related what happened next:

“I was on the House floor with Steve Scalise and I got in his face and I said, ‘You’re telling me that the industry won’t go for protecting the Eastern Gulf in Florida?  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?’” 

In the 116th Congress, neither man got what he wanted: Scalise never opened the eastern Gulf and Rooney never closed it.

But Rooney retired in 2020 and Scalise stayed in Congress—and got another shot with Byron Donalds.

That second shot came in the form of two Scalise-related committees contributing to Donalds’ primary campaign: Scalise for Congress and his Eye of the Tiger PAC. In 2020, Scalise for Congress contributed $4,000 to Donalds so he could retire some of his primary election campaign debt and Eye of the Tiger PAC contributed $10,000.

The issue of oil drilling in the eastern Gulf is now largely moot. President Joe Biden campaigned against new offshore drilling and implemented that promise through an executive order issued a week after he took office. He even stopped the sale of oil leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that President Donald Trump had permitted. Even Trump retreated from Gulf oil exploitation during the election campaign, issuing an executive order on Sept. 8, 2020 putting Florida waters off limits for 10 years.

So the issue of eastern Gulf oil exploitation is off the table for the moment and will likely stay that way for the rest of Biden’s term and possibly beyond.

But that has not dampened Scalise’s support for Donalds. Already in the first quarter of 2021 Scalise for Congress contributed $2,000 to Donalds’ re-election campaign and Eye of the Tiger PAC contributed $5,000.

Those totals will undoubtedly rise in the days leading to the mid-term election, intended to buy Donalds’ loyalty both to the oil industry and to Scalise personally.

Big sugar

The sugar industry, or “big sugar” as it’s widely known in Southwest Florida, has vital interests in federal actions. Its cane fields are in the Everglades Agricultural Area south of Lake Okeechobee, and much of the harvest is processed there. Issues of pollution, runoff and water management are fundamental to its operations—and the source of considerable environmental criticism.

Management of Lake Okeechobee falls to the US Army Corps of Engineers and there is constant debate and contention regarding water quality and responsibility for maintaining it. This deeply affects not only the Everglades, which protect the inhabited areas of the Paradise Coast and the 19th Congressional District and affects the area’s supply of drinking water. It also determines pollution and algae levels in the Caloosahatchee River that runs through Fort Myers and past Cape Coral. On the cleanliness of these waters rests its tourism industry and the health of everyone living along the river and the Gulf. (To the east it also similarly affects the communities along the St. Lucie River.)

In 2020, Donalds received $5,000 each from the American Crystal Sugar Company PAC and the United States Sugar Corporation Employee Stock Ownership Plan PAC.

For the 2022 election, Donalds has already received $5,000 for his primary race from the American Crystal Sugar Company PAC.

This year a new sugar donor entered the fray: the sugar industry’s American Sugar Cane League PAC, consisting largely of sugar cane farmers, which has contributed $1,000 to his primary race.

In an effort to show concern for water purity efforts, Donalds has been making visits to Lake O and attending various briefings, providing photo ops.

A different kind of insurance

The insurance industry is investing extensively in Donalds. As a heavily regulated industry with numerous interests in a wide variety of legislation and regulation, insurance companies and lobbies have long been very active politically, donating to a wide variety of lawmakers at all levels and in all states. In the 2020 election the industry spent $152 million to influence legislation, according to OpenSecrets.org.

Donalds sits on House subcommittees that have a direct impact on insurance issues. One is the House Oversight and Reform Committee where he sits on the economic and consumer policy subcommittee. But his other assignment may have even more of an insurance industry impact. On the House Small Business Committee, he sits on the Economic Growth, Tax, and Capital Access Subcommittee, and the Oversight, Investigations, and Regulations Subcommittee—and the key word in that title is “regulations.” Also, he has been a vocal and vociferous opponent of the Affordable Care Act

It explains the insurance industry PAC investment in his campaign.

  • CIGNA Corporation Political Action Committee: $1,000

Cigna Corp. is a major health insurance provider. It was ranked the 13th largest US corporation in the 2020 Fortune 500 list by total revenue, which was estimated to be $38.5 billion that year.

Insurance trade PACS include:

  • Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America, Inc. Political Action Committee: $5,000
  • National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies PAC: $1,000
  • The Council of Insurance Agents & Brokers Political Action Committee: $1,000

Prepping for 2022

Other PACs contributing to Donalds in 2021 are, in addition to those already mentioned:

Ideological PACs

Founded in 1994, this PAC states on its website it is “on a mission to expose the Liberal Lies [sic] to minority voters all across America. With your help, Black America’s PAC will reclaim Black voters to the Republican Party by electing minority Republicans to national office and destroying the Liberal Lies that keep minorities voting for Democrats who do NOT share their values.”

The PAC was founded and is headed by Alvin Williams who worked on the George H.W. Bush campaign in 1987. He later worked at the Republican National Committee and advised candidates on African-American issues for a variety of campaigns.

In the 2020 election, this PAC contributed $1,500 to Donalds’ campaign.

This is an ideological PAC that attempts to elect conservative Republicans. This is the first time it has contributed to a Donalds campaign.

Other politicians

  • Building America’s Republican Representation PAC: $2,500

This is a PAC affiliated with Rep. Andy Barr (R-6-Ky.)

  • Building Leadership and Inspiring New Enterprise PAC: $2,000

This is a PAC affiliated with Rep. Blaine Leutkemeyer (R-3-Mo.). Leutkemeyer, like Donalds, voted to decertify the results of the 2020 election.

  • Jason Smith for Congress: $2,000

This is a committee affiliated with Rep. Jason Smith (R-8-Mo.). Smith is the ranking member of the House Budget Committee, on which Donalds serves. Like Donalds, Smith voted to decertify the 2020 election. Of particular note, while on the House floor on Jan. 17, 2019, when Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-29-Calif.) was presiding, Smith shouted “Go back to Puerto Rico!” at House Democratic members.

Corporate PACs

  • CGCN PAC: $1,000

This is the PAC of CGCN Group, a conservative Washington, DC-based lobbying firm that provides “outreach to key policymakers,” gathers “strategic intelligence” and offers “a full suite of tools for media and grassroots communication to influence the policies that affect our clients.” One indication of its orientation: Most recently it made Peter Ventimiglia a partner after he worked seven years at Koch Industries where he was a primary architect of its communications strategy.

  • JM Family Enterprises, Inc. PAC: $1,000

JM Family Enterprises is a diversified automotive company. As its website puts it: “Our principal businesses focus on vehicle distribution and processing, finance and insurance and retail vehicle sales.” The company was launched in 1968 when the founder, Jim Moran, became Toyota distributor in five southeastern US states, including Florida. Its PAC contributed to Donalds’ 2020 campaign.

  • National Association of Realtors Political Action Committee: $1,000

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg

The Donalds Dossier: Martyr or mere minion? Clashing with the Congressional Black Caucus

Rep. Byron Donalds reaffirms his support for Donald Trump on Trump’s 75th birthday, June 14. (Photo: Office of Rep. Byron Donalds)

June 18, 2021 by David Silverberg

Is Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) a martyr—or a mere minion of the Republican Party and Donald Trump?

That’s the decision the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) has been facing when considering Donalds’ application to join the 56-member congressional caucus.

Donalds first applied to join the group when he took office in January. Since then his application has been pending, with no word on its fate.

Kadia Goba (Photo: BuzzFeed)

Then on June 9, reporter Kadia Goba of BuzzFeed News reported that Donalds was being blocked from joining the group in the article: “The Congressional Black Caucus Is Blocking A Black Republican From Joining The Group.”

Donalds has been exploiting the snub to charge that the CBC is anti-Republican.

“The Congressional Black Caucus has a stated commitment to ensuring Black Americans have the opportunity to achieve the American Dream. As a newly elected Black Member of Congress, my political party should not exempt me from a seat at the table dedicated to achieving this goal,” Donalds told NBC News.

But the CBC answered with a statement of its own: “The Congressional Black Caucus remains committed to fighting for issues that support Black communities, including the police accountability bill, protecting voting rights, and a jobs bill that helps our communities,’ stated an unnamed spokesperson, who did not mention Donalds by name. “We will work with those who share our values and priorities for the constituents we serve.”

So is Donalds a martyr as he claims? Or is this alleged snub just a result of the positions he’s taken and the values he holds?

A CBC primer

An outgrowth of the civil rights movement and the election of Black representatives in the 1960s, the Congressional Black Caucus was founded in 1971 with 13 members, according to its official history.

It was embattled from the beginning. President Richard Nixon refused to meet with the group and so they boycotted his 1971 State of the Union address, generating national headlines. When he relented and met with them in March of that year, they presented him with 61 recommendations to eradicate racism and assist the Black community. Unbeknownst to them, members of the group were on Nixon’s “enemies list.” Following the breaking of the Watergate scandal, CBC members were among the first representatives to call for Nixon’s impeachment in 1974.

President Richard Nixon meets with members of the Congressional Black Caucus in the Cabinet Room on March 25, 1971. Nixon is seated at the center left of the table. (Photo: National Archives)

Throughout its history the CBC fought for civil rights, voting equity and against apartheid in South Africa. Its members included Barack Obama, then the Democratic senator from Illinois.

“On the challenges of our times…on the threats of our time…members of the CBC have been leaders moving America forward,” Obama said at a 2015 CBC dinner. “Whatever I’ve accomplished, the CBC has been there. I was proud to be a CBC member when I was in the Senate… .”

In the current 117th Congress, the CBC has 56 members, all Democrats.

In addition to Donalds, there are two other Black Republicans in Congress: Rep. Burgess Owens (R-4-Utah) and Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC). Neither is a member of the CBC.

Clashing positions

On its website, the CBC lists a variety of policy priorities for the 117th Congress. Three are very broad: fostering constructive dialogue, informing citizens of the impact of federal policies and mobilizing the next generation of black leadership.

But when it comes to more specific priorities, Donalds has taken directly contrary positions:

  • The CBC is fighting to expand voter access. Donalds has vigorously defended voter suppression laws in Georgia and Florida, calling the For the People Act (House Resolution 1) “the radical takeover of our elections.”
  • The CBC has championed criminal justice and policing reform. Donalds voted against the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.
  • The CBC is committed to “investing in and defending the public education system.” Donalds has attacked public education and, along with his wife, has a long history of championing non-public education initiatives. He argued in a tweet during Biden’s State of the Union speech: “You don’t improve the quality of education (or anything) by making it free. You improve quality through competition.”
  • The CBC favors the Affordable Care Act, stating it is necessary “to ensure millions of Americans retain access to affordable, quality healthcare, and retaining investments in minority health clinics to combat health disparities.” Donalds has long attacked it, saying during his campaign that: “Obamacare is a thinly veiled attempt at a government takeover of the health insurance delivery system, ultimately leading to a single-payer socialist system.” 

The CBC also favors a variety of reforms that are part of President Joe Biden’s plans for jobs, families and recovery from the pandemic. This includes increasing tax rates on corporations and the wealthiest Americans, improving infrastructure and increasing the minimum wage. Donalds has opposed all of these both verbally and with votes.

Additionally, the CBC hailed President Joe Biden’s election after it was informally declared on Nov. 7, 2020. “We show up every election season because to us there is nothing more important than leading this nation to its highest ideals: liberty and justice for all. Today’s victory is a testament to this,” it stated in a press release.

Donalds voted to invalidate that election and has never publicly accepted Biden as president. He continues to pay homage to Trump, most recently by playing golf with Trump and celebrating his 75th birthday on June 14.

Donalds argues that he simply has different ideas and that, as “steel sharpens steel,” his presence in the CBC would make it stronger. As its statement made clear, however, the CBC doesn’t agree.


Sidebar: Love and cash from Mia Love

Mia Love in 2017. (Photo: James McNellis/Wikimedia)

Donalds is certainly not the first Black Republican to clash with the CBC—and he has been financially supported by one who once vowed to dismantle it.

In 2012 Mia Love, a Black Utah Republican running for Congress, told the Deseret News: “Yes, yes. I would join the Congressional Black Caucus and try to take that thing apart from the inside out.

“It’s demagoguery,” she said. “They sit there and ignite emotions and ignite racism when there isn’t. They use their positions to instill fear. Hope and change is turned into fear and blame. Fear that everybody is going lose everything and blaming Congress for everything instead of taking responsibility.”

Love, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, had served as mayor of the Utah town of Saratoga Springs. She lost her bid for Congress in 2012, then won in 2014 and represented Utah’s 4th Congressional District.

When she entered Congress, Love softened her rhetoric and joined the CBC, saying that “change must come from the inside out.”

However, although she was a conservative Republican, Love couldn’t bring inside change to the Republican Party under Donald Trump. In 2016 she called on him to withdraw from the race after the Access Hollywood tape was released and refused to support him in the election. Once he was elected, she opposed his steel and aluminum tariffs and criticized his anti-immigration stands.

In the 2018 election, Love lost to Democrat Ben Adams by 694 votes. Trump gloated in a speech: “Mia Love gave me no love, and she lost. Too bad. Sorry about that, Mia.”

She hit back at him and Republicans in a scathing concession speech. “The President’s behavior towards me made me wonder: What did he have to gain by saying such a thing about a fellow Republican? It was not really about asking him to do more, was it? Or was it something else? Well Mr. President, we’ll have to chat about that.”

She also observed: “Because Republicans never take minority communities into their home and citizens into their homes and into their hearts, they stay with Democrats and bureaucrats in Washington because they do take them home – or at least make them feel like they have a home.”

In 2020, Love’s political action committee, Friends of Mia Love, gave Donalds $5,000 for his primary run and $5,000 for his general election campaign, according to Federal Election Committee records.

Whether Love’s support continues, given Donalds’ fealty to Trump, remains to be seen.


Analysis: Color and convenience

When Donalds ran for Congress in his 85 percent white district he barely mentioned race and emphasized his undying and fanatical Trumpism. He had to get his voters to look past the color of his skin and he did. It was an undeniable accomplishment but perhaps less surprising in a post-Obama era than it would have been before.

Donalds went to Congress as a proudly “politically incorrect” extreme rightwing ideologue, deliberately defying expectations of a Black politician. In Congress he has worked to advance Trumpism, the Republican agenda and hewed closely to the conservative catechism.

So it seems a bit disingenuous, at the very least, for him to suddenly profess outrage at his exclusion from an organization that has race at its core, which is unanimously Democratic and is overwhelmingly liberal. Why should he want to be part of a club that stands for everything he’s been bashing his entire political career?

In fact, it seems as though Donalds’ application to join the CBC was something both sides forgot about until reminded by BuzzFeed.

Donalds is clearly exploiting the CBC’s obvious snub and using it to challenge the legitimacy of the CBC and bash Democrats. He’s made the rounds of right-wing media with his complaint and finally broken into some mainstream national coverage by portraying himself as the injured party.

In the past the CBC hasn’t discriminated against Black Republicans so much as it has shunned members of Congress who opposed its positions—all of whom happened to be Republicans.

In fact, based on their political positions, Donalds has more in common with the so-called “sedition caucus” of members who voted to decertify the election than he does with members of the Congressional Black Caucus. And it would be extremely naïve to believe that the CBC would soften his stances on its key priorities or that he could change them from inside. This is not a debate about values; this is Donalds pushing for prominence on behalf of his ideology and serving the Republican Party and leadership.

On one point and one point alone, Donalds has a legitimate complaint: He should not be snubbed. His application should be considered and voted up or down and the reasons for the final vote publicly explained, whether it is approval or rejection.

Of course, if he can’t join that congressional club he could join the club at Mar-a-Lago—if Trump is in a mood to receive him.

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg

FGCU wetlands expert Bill Mitsch hails Biden rollback of Trump water rule

Eminent scholar says SWFL waters to benefit from EPA, US Army rewrite

Eminent scholar Bill Mitsch is praising a new definition of US waters that will protect Southwest Florida waters and wetlands against pollution. (Photo: Facebook)

June 14, 2021 by David Silverberg

In an act directly benefiting Southwest Florida and its waters, President Joe Biden’s administration is rolling back a Trump-era rule allowing unregulated pollution of streams and rivers.

Bill Mitsch, eminent scholar and director of the Everglades Wetland Research Park at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU), hailed the announcement, made last Wednesday, June 9.

“It’s a good move,” Mitsch told The Paradise Progressive in an interview. “I’m happy because it’s the right direction.”

In January 2020, Mitsch vehemently denounced a rule under President Donald Trump that relaxed restrictions on water pollution, calling it “a horrible setback for wetland protection in the USA” and saying its imposition was “the darkest day for Federal protection of wetlands since it first started 45 years ago.”

Michael Regan, EPA administrator, announces rollback of the Trump water rule . (Photo: AP)

Last week’s rollback announcement was made by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the US Army, which oversees the US Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps plays an outsized role in Southwest Florida water management.

“I’m delighted both agencies have stepped forward,” said Mitsch. “This, in my view, is a good turn for Southwest Florida and especially the Everglades.”

The EPA and Army will be revising the definition of waters of the United States (WOTUS) to “better protect our nation’s vital water resources that support public health, environmental protection, agricultural activity, and economic growth,” according to the announcement.

Under the Trump administration, WOTUS was redefined under the Navigable Waters Protection Rule to hold that the Clean Water Act did not apply to waters like streams, creeks and rivers that were not navigable or not adjacent to navigable waters.

Put another way, these waters could be subject to unregulated pollution and exploitation. This affected tens of thousands of waters throughout the United States. It was particularly harsh on Southwest Florida with its innumerable wetlands and arid regions like the Southwest United States.

“After reviewing the Navigable Waters Protection Rule as directed by President Biden, the EPA and Department of the Army have determined that this rule is leading to significant environmental degradation,” Michael Regan, the EPA administrator, stated in the press release announcing the rule change. “We are committed to establishing a durable definition of ‘waters of the United States’ based on Supreme Court precedent and drawing from the lessons learned from the current and previous regulations, as well as input from a wide array of stakeholders, so we can better protect our nation’s waters, foster economic growth, and support thriving communities.”

The EPA and Army will now start a process of remanding the Trump rule and redefining WOTUS, while restoring the water protections that existed prior to 2016. It will try to keep waters clean, use the latest scientific and climate change data, take into consideration practical needs and build on the experiences and input of water purity stakeholders.

From feds to Florida and the challenges ahead

Mitsch warned that while the Trump rule rollback was a major step in the right direction, it did not end the challenges to water purity, especially in Florida.

Mitsch has long experience with WOTUS and definitions of “wetlands” and “waters.” In the 1990s he worked with the federal government’s scientific bodies to define “wetlands” properly only to run up against Vice President Dan Quayle, who wanted the definition to favor builders and developers.

“This is déjà vu all over again for me,” said Mitsch. “It’s the same issue that keeps coming back. It’s quite contentious.”

“Waters” and “wetlands” have been officially defined twice before, according to Mitsch.

“I hope they don’t get on a third definition that’s political and not scientific. I hope they have the stamina to go through with it,” he said of current efforts. “There is no such thing as a [legitimate] political definition of a ‘wetland’—otherwise we might as well throw out all our scientific books.”

Mitsch is especially concerned that the state of Florida’s takeover of wetland permitting and environmental protection from the federal government will result in a degradation of Florida’s wetlands and waters. Authority for wetland permitting was transferred from the US EPA to Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection in December 2020 in one of the last official acts of the Trump administration.

“I’m very much afraid of Florida taking wetland management away from the feds. What the feds are doing is great but I’ve seen it before,” he said.  “There’s no question why [the state] wanted to take over water regulation, it was for development.” While he said he was discouraged that “the train is out of the station in Florida, I hope the momentum of this [new federal rule] spills into Florida somehow.”

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg

‘Sanctuary city for the unborn’ movement threatens Naples, Fla., economic recovery

Demonstrators calling for Naples to become a ‘sanctuary city for the unborn’ gather on April 21 in front of the Naples City Council. (Image: WINK News)

June 10, 2021 by David Silverberg

A group agitating for the city of Naples, Fla., to declare itself a “sanctuary city for the unborn” could threaten the city’s tourism and hospitality-based economic recovery.

Naples experienced “an amazing April” in tourism recovery, Anne Wittine, the director of data analysis for Research Data Services, told Collier County’s Tourist Development Council on May 24, according to The Naples Daily News. Visitors and spending in the city were up over 1,000 percent over the year before and room nights and hotel occupancy increased over 900 percent.

Clearly, Naples is roaring back from its pandemic shutdowns. But all that recovery is threatened if it becomes the focal point of an unneeded controversy centered around a fringe movement out of Texas, which is seeking to ban all abortions within the city limits.

The new sanctuary cities movement

The anti-abortion “sanctuary cities” movement is the brainchild of Mark Lee Dickson, an itinerant preacher and self-professed 35-year-old virgin from White Oak, a small town in east Texas that sits an hour’s drive from the Louisiana border.

Mark Lee Dickson in his signature backwards baseball cap. (Photo: Ilana Panich-Linsman/HuffPost)

Dickson began preaching against abortion outside a women’s clinic in Shreveport, La., in 2012 and made the anti-abortion cause his own. He traveled rural Texas towns to preach his message. In 2019 he broached the idea of a “sanctuary city for the unborn” in tiny Waskom, Texas, population 2,189. He told Britain’s The Guardian newspaper that he wanted to forestall Waskom from having a clinic like nearby Shreveport’s across the state line.

“When I reached out to them it was all about protecting Waskom,” Dickson told The Guardian. “I didn’t have any other city in mind.”

The City Council of Waskom unanimously voted in a sanctuary city ordinance on June 11, 2019. The ordinance simply outlawed abortions within city limits.

From there, Dickson’s efforts led 23 other Texas towns and one town each in Nebraska and Ohio to pass anti-abortion ordinances.

The largest city to vote itself an anti-abortion sanctuary city is Lubbock, Texas, with a population of 278,831. Initially, the Lubbock City Council rejected the ordinance but it was then voted in by referendum on May 1.

It was immediately challenged in court by Planned Parenthood, which had opened a clinic there last year, and the American Civil Liberties Union, whose lawyers argued that the ordinance was unconstitutional. On Tuesday, June 1, a federal judge ruled that he did not have jurisdiction in the case and dismissed it, pointing out that because it would be enforced by private citizens through lawsuits rather than state or local authorities, he could not limit the right of private citizens to sue.

It was the same day the ordinance took effect. While the sanctuary cities movement counted it as a victory, the Planned Parenthood clinic continues to operate.

“We will continue to stand up for [our patients] with all of our resources,” Ken Lambrecht, president of Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, told The Texas Tribune.

In Florida

Naples, a city of roughly 22,000 and known as politically very conservative, is a test case for this movement in Florida.

Dickson visited the North Naples Seed to Table market owned by extreme conservative Alfie Oakes, to preach in July 2020.

“I did not draw Naples, Florida out of a hat,” Dickson told WINK News at the time. “The people of Naples, we’ve had hundreds and hundreds of people reach out to me and others saying they want their city to outlaw abortion. They don’t want babies to be murdered in the city.”

To date, 260 people claiming Naples residence have signed a petition supporting passage of the ordinance, although their actual residence in the city cannot be independently verified. (A complete list of the names of petitioners from those giving Naples as their residence can be read on the movement’s website here.)

On March 15 at the Naples City Council regular meeting, William Oppenheimer, a local lawyer and head of the anti-abortion organization Act for Life, proposed putting an anti-abortion ordinance on the Council agenda. Councilmembers rejected it by a vote of 4 to 3, with Paul Perry, Mike McCabe, Ray Christman, and Gary Price opposed and Mayor Theresa Heitman, Vice Mayor Terry Hutchinson and Ted Blankenship voting in favor.

At an April 19 working session, Mark Lee Dickson came to Naples and organized a demonstration of about 25 people favoring the ordinance but did not make comments to the Council.  Five people spoke against the ordinance during the public comment period.

At the Council’s April 21 regular meeting abortion opponents held a demonstration and some spoke to the Council during the public comments period. At that time Oppenheimer vowed in an interview with WINK-TV that demonstrators would be back to protest at every city council meeting.

Annisa Karim, chair of the Collier County Democratic Party, told WINK News at the time: “I don’t believe that that is appropriate for a local municipality to be ruling on. I think it is government overreach at this level.”

The Naples City Council will convene this coming Monday, June 14 for a working meeting and on Wednesday, June 16 for a regular meeting. Demonstrators may be present. A “sanctuary city” ordinance is not on the agenda for either meeting.

Commentary: Civics and common sense

Any sensible person with even a passing knowledge of basic American civics can see that the proposal for a local ordinance of this nature is unconstitutional on its face. At the federal level, the issue of women’s choice is working its way up to the Supreme Court in a number of cases and will be decided there. That decision will apply to the entire country.

On a state level, declaring Naples—or any other Florida city—a “sanctuary city” may well be illegal, running afoul of the state’s anti-sanctuary city law. While that law may have been driven by an enmity against immigrants, it nonetheless may have banned the entire concept of sanctuary cities when the legislature passed it and the governor signed it.

And beyond the argument whether women have a right to make their own decisions regarding their health, from a local, municipal standpoint, the City Council of Naples would be doing itself and the city a deep disservice if it even considers this proposed ordinance.

This is a solution that Naples simply doesn’t need in search of a problem it simply doesn’t have. It’s not as though Naples is a hotbed of the kind of women’s health services that the sanctuary city people are trying to outlaw, nor is it something that vast numbers of actual city residents are demanding. Instead, a small group is trying to impose its will for no other purpose than to prove a point and meet its larger goals.

For a city that is attempting to emerge from the economic damage of a pandemic, a drop in tourism and hospitality business and which may be facing the additional blow of a red tide summer, a completely unnecessary, divisive controversy is the last thing it needs. As a Florida test case the ordinance debate would focus unfavorable national attention on the town, hurting its reputation as a welcoming and open vacation spot for everyone around the world.

Given its unconstitutionality, even considering whether to consider the ordinance is already consuming too much time that is much better spent on more pressing needs. If such an ordinance were to pass, it would impose expenses in litigation on a city that needs every penny it can get to meet its existing municipal responsibilities and obligations.

And from a purely parochial standpoint, this seems like another outlandish Texas idea that some extremist Texans are trying to foist on the rest of the country—like seceding from the union or creating an independent power grid that can’t withstand a winter storm.

So if the towns of Texas want to go their own way in this matter, they can certainly try. But for a Florida city that’s finally open for tourism and has a more welcoming and cosmopolitan view of the world, adhering to the US Constitution and following plain common sense seems like a much better bet.


To reach the members of the Naples City Council, contact:

The Naples City Council meets at 735 8th Street South, Naples, Florida, 34102

To see scheduled meetings and agendas of the Naples City Council, or watch streaming videos of Council proceedings, click here.

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg

The Donalds Dossier: Firing Fauci, supporting suppression, bashing the border

Rep. Lauren Boebert (left) and Rep. Byron Donalds listen to a briefing during a trip to the southwest border. (Photo: Office of Rep. Byron Donalds)

151 days (5 months) that Byron Donalds has been in Congress

June 3, 2021 by David Silverberg

The five-month anniversary of Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) taking office might have been a fairly innocuous milestone, except that yesterday, June 2, he decided to issue a gratuitous and unnecessary attack on—of all people—Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases.

Dr. Anthony Fauci (NSIAID)

And not just Dr. Fauci, either. In true Trumpist fashion he decided to go after the media as well.

“Fake news media outlets like @CNN continue to praise Dr. Fauci as the hero of COVID-19. When has the media or Dr. Fauci ever been right? Read the emails and #FireFauci,” Donalds tweeted.

What prompted this was the release under a Freedom of Information Act request of thousands of Fauci’s e-mails during the height of the pandemic.

It’s not clear which CNN report on the e-mails aroused Donalds’ ire, since there have been a number of them. But one CNN commentary by Dr. Megan Ranney, an associate professor of emergency medicine and a CNN medical analyst, praised the doctor.

“Throughout [the e-mails], his on-paper voice sounds just like his television voice,” stated Ranney. “He is humble, curious and committed. My takeaway? He is just like us—or, at least, he’s how most of us like to imagine ourselves to be, on our best days.”

That would be in stark contrast to Donalds’ idol, Donald Trump, for whom the words “humble, curious and committed” could never apply.

But Donalds saying that Fauci has never been right is pretty rich coming from a man who contracted COVID last October. It was a failing in the eyes of Trump that prompted him to ignore Donalds’ existence when Trump passed through Fort Myers in October 2020.

Donalds, a vehement anti-masker at home, in the halls of the Capitol and in the council rooms of Southwest Florida who to date has not revealed whether he’s received any vaccine or will be getting any, was lucky to recover without too much damage. The same cannot be said for the 1,046 people in Lee County and 571 in Collier County who have died from this scourge (based on Rebekah Jones’ figures).

What’s most surprising about Donalds’ tweet is that it was completely unnecessary, brought him no political capital or advantage with the possible exception of COVID-deniers like Alfie Oakes, and puts him on the side of lunatic fringe for whom Donald Trump is always right and people who rely on facts and data, like Fauci, must always be wrong.

But then again, that’s where he was anyway.

Out of the bubble, into The Times

Astead Herndon (NYT)

On May 22, Donalds finally stepped out of the right-wing media bubble he’d carefully inhabited. The New York Times published an interview conducted by reporter Astead Herndon, in which Donalds insistently defended Florida and Georgia’s voter suppression laws.

Donalds said that one of the best aspects of Florida’s new law was getting rid of “ballot harvesting,” collecting other peoples’ ballots to cast them.

“You know, I think the process we have now going forward in our state is actually a good one,” said Donalds. “Everybody’s free to request their ballot. They prove who they are, that’s a good thing. They receive their ballot, they vote. It’s all about security.”

“Ballot harvesting was already outlawed in parts of the state,” pointed out Herndon. “And new lawsuits claim that the real impact of the identification measures will be another barrier suppressing Black and Latino voters. What’s your response to that?”

“I don’t pay any attention to those claims,” responded Donalds, who went on to say that he believed the state law would be upheld in court.

A reader can sense Herndon’s mounting frustration and growing skepticism as the questioning went on but Donalds remained adamant. As any experienced interviewer knows, sometimes short of grabbing a subject by the lapels and screaming “you’re wrong!” there’s not much an objective journalist can do to shake the truth out of an obdurate subject. Being a reporter for a credible, objective newspaper, Herndon wasn’t about to do that.

At least Donalds’ opinions are now on the record somewhere beyond the Trumpisphere, regardless of what Donalds thinks of the real media’s credibility.

Grassroots, water and the border

Beyond these events, Donalds was careful during the past month to tend to the grassroots in his district. Apparently sensitive to criticism that he was neglecting Southwest Florida in his quest for publicity and ideological prominence and sacrificing local concerns in favor of endless bashing of President Joe Biden’s attempts to help Americans and end the pandemic, he made some efforts toward reaching out to local groups who would give him a favorable reception.

Southwest Florida is facing a summer water crisis and Donalds duly visited Lake Okeechobee with other Republican lawmakers during the past month. However, when water advocates gathered at Moore Haven to advocate for a particular water release plan by the Army Corps of Engineers, Donalds sent a surrogate.

However, he himself headed to the Southwest US border with Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-3-Colo.), another extremist member of Congress, to denounce Biden border policy, as part of the general and ongoing Republican offensive.

Legislatively, Donalds’ Harmful Algal Bloom Essential Forecasting Act made no progress in House committees. He did, however, finally introduce some text to his other legislation, the RESCUE Act. However, since passage of President Biden’s American Rescue Plan, that proposal is largely moot. A third piece of legislation, introduced on May 7, to prevent sharing trade information with the World Trade Organization, had not received any text from Donalds.

Donalds, who sits on the House Budget Committee, has now moved on to denouncing the administration’s budget proposal and taxes on the ultra-wealthy and corporations to pay for it.

With the arrival of June 1, Donalds now goes into his first hurricane season as a member of Congress. He’s already been part of the insurrectionist political storm. It will be interesting to see how he weathers storms from nature.

523 days (1 year, 5 months, 5 days) until Election Day

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg

SWFL’s 19th Congressional District moves toward Dems: Cook Report

Collier County Democrats march in the 2019 Martin Luther King Day parade in Naples, FL. (Photo: Author)

April 20, 2021 by David Silverberg

In a remarkable change from last year, Florida’s 19th Congressional District, covering the coastal area from Cape Coral to Marco Island, actually trended one percentage point more Democratic, according to the latest rating from the Cook Political Report.

For those who are into the inner intricacies of congressional politics, this is a big deal.

What makes it more remarkable is the fact that Southwest Florida’s two other congressional districts, the 17th and the 25th, became more Republican and conservative.

To put this development into context, some background may be helpful.

The Cook Report and the PVI

New Charlie Cook
Charlie Cook

Charles Cook, a friendly, gregarious, lively man universally known as Charlie, hails from Shreveport, La. In the 1970s he served as a staffer for then-Senator J. Bennett Johnston, a Democrat and fellow Shreveporter. Afterward, he worked for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the Democratic Policy Committee and served as a consulting pollster, advisor and as years went by, commentator for a variety of media outlets.

During his staff service Cook realized that there needed to be more comprehensive coverage of elections than was available at the time, particularly of House of Representatives races.

In 1984 he founded the Cook Political Report newsletter to track these races. Over the years the newsletter’s coverage grew and deepened. Its organization also grew, as well as its reputation for objective, professional and non-partisan analysis. Today Cook Report staffers interview prospective candidates as well as incumbents and get to intimately know the politics of each congressional district.

The New York Times once called the Cook Report “a newsletter that both parties regard as authoritative;” CBS News’ Bob Schieffer called it “the Bible of the political community” and Al Hunt of the Wall Street Journal, characterized it as “the Picasso of election analysis.”

In 1997 Cook introduced the Partisan Voting Index (PVI), which rated the partisan leanings of each congressional district. Using the previous two presidential election results, it compared each congressional district’s political tilt to the rest of the nation.

As the Report puts it: “The index is an attempt to find an objective measurement of each congressional district and state. While other data such as the results of senatorial, gubernatorial, congressional and other local races can help fine-tune the exact partisan tilt of a particular district, those kinds of results don’t allow a comparison of districts across state lines. Only presidential results allow for total comparability.”

Under this system a district rated D+2 means that it voted two times more Democratic than the national average, whereas a rating of R+4 would be four times as Republican. A district can be rated as even if it is within a half point of the national average in either direction.

The PVI is constantly updated to take into account new election results and redistricting. On Thursday, April 15, the 2021 PVI was released, incorporating the results of the 2020 election.

The 19th Congressional District was one of only five in Florida that saw Democratic numbers rise in the Cook ratings.

District 1, which is represented by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R) moved 2 points in a Democratic direction, the 4th and 7th districts moved 3 points in a Democratic direction and the 10th rose 1 point.

Southwest Florida in context

Unsurprisingly, the three congressional districts that make up Southwest Florida—the 17th, 19th and 25th—remain deeply Republican.

But what was very surprising was the movement of the 19th toward the Democratic column.

Based on the results of the 2020 election, the 19th District went from R+13 to R+12, a Republican decline of one point.

This stands in stark contrast to the 17th, encompassing a huge swath of Southwest and Central Florida from Punta Gorda to Venice to northwest Lake Okeechobee. It went from R+13 to R+16. The 25th, reaching from eastern Collier County and Immokalee to Hialeah and Doral, went from R+4 to R+8.

Shifting sands

So what accounts for the shift? The analysis accompanying release of the PVI does not focus on the 19th District but is national in nature. However, a number of factors provide some indication.

Democratic gains in the 2020 congressional race are the first factor.

The 2020 election in the 19th saw the election of Republican Byron Donalds with 61.3 percent or 272,440 votes to 38.7 percent or 172,146 votes for Democrat Cindy Banyai.

While Donalds won, it was by a lower percentage than fellow Republican Francis Rooney in 2018, or put another way, Democrats made steady, incremental gains. In the 2018 election Rooney won by 62.3 percent or 211,465 votes to David Holden’s 37.7 percent or 128,106 votes.

At the same time, Donald Trump’s percentages in the district basically remained stagnant from 2016 to 2020, rising by only a tenth of a percentage point, from 59.6 percent in 2016 to 59.7 percent in 2020.

The lack of polling with publicly available results in Southwest Florida means additional conclusions can only be speculative but some additional factors could be:

Ted Nugent announces that he has tested positive for COVID-19. (Image: Facebook)
  • Older Republican-Trumpist voters could be exiting the rolls as a result of natural causes or the toll of the COVID-19 pandemic. Southwest Florida, especially Collier County, has been a center of anti-masking and resistance to virus precautions, at times led by Byron Donalds who himself tested positive for COVID in October 2020 but recovered. Most recently Naples habitué, far-right musician and COVID denier Ted Nugent announced yesterday, April 19, that he had tested positive for COVID. On April 12 he played a gig before a closely-packed crowd of over 300 people at Seed to Table, a defiantly anti-mask supermarket in North Naples. Like Nugent, Trumpist voters may dismiss COVID as a “hoax” or a “sham” but the COVID virus is hardly dismissing them as potential victims.
  • More Democrats or liberal voters are moving permanently into the area as full-time residents. Acknowledgment of the arrival of Democratic northerners in the state was made by Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd at the signing of Florida’s “anti-riot” bill yesterday, April 19. As he put it: “We only want to share one thing as you move in, hundreds a day: Welcome to Florida, but don’t register to vote and vote the stupid way you did up North, or you’ll get what they got.” While the influx of northerners into the 19th Congressional District may not be huge, it may be telling in future elections.
  • Rep. Byron Donalds may be losing voter loyalty even in his largely Republican district after only four months in office.

Banyai’s boost

Cindy Banyai

For Democrat Cindy Banyai, Donalds’ 2020 opponent and declared candidate for 2022, the new PVI came as a welcome boost and a validation of her previous campaign.

“I’m very excited about it,” she told The Paradise Progressive. “That makes all of our efforts worthwhile. We’re really proud and I feel like the little engine that could; I have to keep pushing. It bodes well for ’22.

“Not only is the 19th in the top movers in Florida, we’re the one that spent the least amount of money to do it,” she pointed out. “We’ve had really solid fundraising and we’re getting a solid investment and we had a great team.”

According to her fundraising analysis, she said, she had an effective dollar-to-vote ratio and only spent $4.15 for every vote she was able to swing from Republican to Democratic, a very low cost. She also swung numerous precincts into the Democratic column, particularly on Sanibel and Pine Island. That, plus the fact that Democrats contested every ballot position, something that had not been true in previous elections, all contributed to the rating.

“The Cook ratings give two messages,” she said. “One is that we had a good candidate with a good team and our approach was on the right track. The second contradicts the narrative that Republicans are moving here to flee Democratic states. Their stories that everybody is leaving blue states like New York or California because of Democrats is a total crock.”

To see the entire Cook analysis of the 2021 PVI, click here.

To see an interactive map with all congressional districts and their ratings, click here.

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg

Biden climate team is good news for Southwest Florida

President-elect Joe Biden announces his climate and energy team nominees at The Queen Theater in Wilmington Del., on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Dec. 23, 2020 by David Silverberg

When President-Elect Joe Biden introduced his new climate, energy and environmental team last Saturday, Dec. 19, he presented the nation with a group of veteran officials and activists who know the issues and, to a striking extent, understand water and the challenges surrounding it—and appreciate the water problems Florida faces.

The importance of this is not to be underestimated. Now, when Southwest Florida officials make their case for Everglades restoration funding or try to fight harmful algal blooms or try to reduce pollution in regional waterways, they’ll be talking to veteran experts in high places who know their water.

It’s a stark contrast with the years under President Donald Trump, when the Interior Department was headed by a fossil fuel industry lobbyist, when regulations were only good for being abolished and climate change was derided as a “Chinese hoax.”

Instead the new team’s experience and expertise bodes well for Southwest Florida’s waters.

Six top nominees were presented. Their backgrounds show extensive water-related experience.

Gina McCarthy, National Climate Advisor-designate.

Gina McCarthy (Photo: EPA)

Gina McCarthy headed the Environmental Protection Agency under President Barack Obama and has 30 years of environmental activism under her belt.

After leaving the Obama administration she became an advisor to a private equity firm, Pegasus Capital Advisors, then became director of Harvard University’s Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment. In 2019 she was named president and chief executive officer of the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the most consequential environmental activist organizations.

Under Biden, McCarthy will head a new White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy, a counterpart to John Kerry, former Secretary of State and presidential candidate, who has been named special climate envoy and will likely be reintegrating the United States back into the Paris Climate Agreement.

At the American Water Summit in Miami, Fla., in December 2016, McCarthy called water “one of the top public health and economic challenges now facing our country” and said: “We need to move away from the narrow 20th century view of water: as a place to dump waste; as something to just treat and send downstream in pipes; as only an expense for cities and a planning burden for communities. We need to accelerate the move to a 21st century view – where we see water as a finite and valuable asset, as a major economic driver, as essential to urban revitalization, as a centerpiece for innovative technology, and as a key focus of our efforts to build resilience.”

Ali Zaidi, Deputy National Climate Advisor-Designate

Ali Zaidi

An immigrant from Pakistan, Zaidi grew up outside Erie, Pennsylvania.

In the Obama White House, Zaidi served as Associate Director for Natural Resources, Energy, and Science at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). He and his team helped execute economic and environmental policy on a wide array of policy, budget and management issues affecting $100 billion in funding. At OMB, he was responsible for implementing the presidential Climate Action Plan, which he helped design and draft. He was also a negotiator of the Paris Climate Agreement.

In a December 2016 posting on the White House website that looked back on a year’s progress on a water innovation strategy, Zaidi wrote: “Water supply challenges are felt around the world; in fact, water scarcity tops the World Economic Forum’s list of long-term risks to the health of the global economy.”

The response of the Obama administration—and Zaidi—was to formulate new tools and partner with the private sector to “develop and deploy the technologies and practices that both conserve water and generate new, clean supplies.” Doing this included laying out clear technical targets and mobilizing people, investors and technicians to achieve them. “The strategy focused on new cost-effective climate solutions to spur new American businesses and jobs,” he wrote.

At the time, Zaidi thought that the administration’s initiatives were having a measurable impact “and the momentum is irreversible.” That might have been overly optimistic given the four years of President Donald Trump’s administration.

 This time around Zaidi will have a lot of repair work to do before he can launch new initiatives—but Southwest Florida can be confident that he knows water and its importance.

Deb Haaland, Secretary of the Interior-designate

Deb Haaland (Photo: Deb Haaland for Congress)

Much of the focus on Rep. Deb Haaland (D-1-NM) has been on the fact that she would be the first Native American to serve as Interior Secretary. Of much more significance to Southwest Florida is the fact that in parched New Mexico, water is a precious commodity and Haaland has concentrated on the policies related to it.

Haaland is a 35th generation New Mexican of the Pueblo of Laguna. The daughter of a US Marine, she lived all over the United States, attending 13 different public schools during her education. She was long an environmental activist before being elected to Congress in 2018.

“Water is life. We must ensure the availability and integrity of this resource for generations to come,” she wrote in 2017 in her campaign for Congress. “Climate change is a national security threat and it should be treated as such. Just take a look what is happening in Florida, Houston and Puerto Rico.”

Haaland is anti-fracking and opposes offshore oil drilling, both key issues for Southwest Floridians. She will represent a complete change from current Interior Department policies, which Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) once characterized as “drill, baby, drill.”

Michael Regan, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator-Designate

Michael Regan (Photo: Karen Chavez, Citizen Times)

Currently Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), Regan served in the EPA under both Democratic and Republican presidents. He received his degree in earth and environmental science from North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro and earned a master degree at George Washington University in Washington, DC.

“We will be driven by our convictions that every person in our great country has the right to clean air, clean water and a healthier life, no matter how much money they have in their pockets, the color of their skin or the community that they live in,” Regan said when he was introduced by Biden.

A North Carolina native, Regan’s top priority in that state was coal ash cleanup from energy operations. He negotiated a settlement with Duke Energy to clean up 80 million tons of coal ash. He also focused on climate resilience, sea level rise, reducing animal waste pollution from farming operations, chemical toxins in water and mudslides, according to The News & Observer of Raleigh, NC. He had to do this despite a 40 percent cut in DEQ personnel.

Last July, when a North Carolina river registered a major bacteria bloom, Regan took to the water himself, canoeing on the river and holding a discussion with local officials, businesspeople and activists, as reported in the local Citizen Times.

“We have a water quality issue in North Carolina. We have an infrastructure issue in NC,” Regan said. “We don’t want to lose our globally competitive position. We want to continue to grow economically. This is a moving train and we don’t plan to slow down. We have to continue moving forward in a smart way.”

The DEQ’s Water Resources Division oversees nearly 60,000 stream miles in North Carolina and maintains seven field offices. While Florida and North Carolina have different climates and water issues, Regan certainly knows the fundamentals of water management and policy.

Jennifer Granholm, Secretary of Energy-Designate

Jennifer Granholm during the Flint, Mich., water crisis (Photo: CNN)

Jennifer Granholm served two terms as governor of Michigan from 2003 to 2011 and as the state’s attorney general prior to that.

As Energy Secretary, water and environment will not be her primary concerns. But that doesn’t mean she’s unfamiliar with water crises and challenges.

In 2014, when the city of Flint, Michigan changed its drinking water source, a failure to inhibit corrosion in its pipes led to severe lead poisoning among residents. It was a huge scandal. Granholm had long left office and was serving as a law professor at the University of California in Berkeley. But distance didn’t keep her from expressing some choice words for her Republican successor, Gov. Rick Snyder.

“I would want to see pedal to the metal, hair on fire action in Flint. And I think [Snyder], right now, can do that,” Granholm told The Detroit News when the crisis broke. “But if not, then I think somebody should come in who can look at [it] as the emergency that it is and move heaven and earth to get those pipes replaced.” She called on Snyder to move to Flint and live in one of the affected houses.

Brenda Mallory, Council on Environmental Quality Chair-Designate

Brenda Mallory

Established in 1970 by President Richard Nixon, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) plays a strategic and advisory role, helping to devise overall policy.

Biden has nominated Brenda Mallory to chair the CEQ. She served as its general counsel under Obama and is currently Director of Regulatory Policy at the Southern Environmental Law Center,

“Mallory brings deep and versatile expertise working directly with communities and partners across the public and private sectors to solve climate challenges and advance environmental protection and environmental justice,” Biden said in introducing her.

“Though she’s never had a high public profile, Mallory is widely considered to be one of the country’s top experts on environmental regulatory policy,” stated the National Resources Defense Council when she was named.

Analysis: Opportunity and promise

Under President Joe Biden, when Southwest Florida’s officials or representatives bring a water issue to the administration they can now be assured of a knowledgeable and likely sympathetic hearing by top officials. This is a major step forward for the region and one that should not be squandered by congressmen locked into a rigid, hostile ideological approach to the new administration.

There’s another opportunity for Southwest Florida presented by the new administration team and an environmentally sensitive Congress driven by science and aware of climate change.

The planned building of the FGCU Water School. (Art: FGCU)

It is just possible that the new Water School at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) would have a better chance than ever to become a recognized national center of excellence. Working with the new administration, it may just find its federal grant applications are given higher priority and its research may be applied more broadly.

Certainly, once the new administration takes office—and even before—it would behoove FGCU to reach out to the new team, invite them to FGCU to see the facilities, host some international conferences, integrate its work and research with national priorities and lobby vigorously for its own needs.

The expertise, activism and familiarity with water issues of Biden’s environmental team provide a source of hope and opportunity. After a long, dark time for Southwest Florida, its waters and those who care about them may finally feel some sunshine.

Liberty lives in light

© 2020 by David Silverberg

The Rooney Record, Part IV: The Legacy

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

Dec. 4, 2020 by David Silverberg

Did Francis Rooney, representative of the 19th Congressional District and Southwest Florida in the United States Congress, make a difference during his four years in elected office?

Based on Rooney’s own evaluation, he did what he set out to do: increase funding for Everglades restoration and promote the purity of the region’s waters.

But when he ran in 2016 he hardly campaigned on such a narrow platform. He proclaimed that he was battling socialism and promoting conservative values. He characterized Donald Trump as possibly the nation’s savior and advanced Trump’s electoral victory.

So Rooney’s tenure should be evaluated on a broader spectrum than his own criteria.

What changes that Rooney made or promoted are most likely to live on after him? Will these be beneficial to Southwest Florida and the nation? Did he do any damage and can it be repaired? And lastly: what needs to be done in the future to build on what he did?

Acknowledging the obvious

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

In the future, if the planet doesn’t burn to a cinder, if objective history is still written, and if historians bother to look at Southwest Florida, they will be amazed that as late as 2019 denial of climate change was still firmly entrenched in many Southwest Floridians’ heads. It will seem as though a primitive tribe living in the region was cut off from civilization and still believed the earth was flat.

Francis Rooney acknowledged climate change as a fact and broke the Republican, conservative taboo against admitting its reality—and by admitting that reality made realistic measures to cope with it possible.

This may not seem like such a revolution but to appreciate its magnitude, a review of the intellectual landscape before his groundbreaking Sept. 11, 2019 Politico article, “I’m a conservative Republican. Climate change is real,” is in order.

For a region where human habitation and what is known as the “built environment” is a thin and fragile layer imposed on a primeval wilderness, climate change is a huge threat. This flat, coastal area is extremely vulnerable to hurricanes, erosion and sea-level rise. The fresh water that makes human life possible in this erstwhile swamp, while abundant during its wet season, is constantly threatened by pollution, algal toxicity and salt water intrusion. The habitability of this tropical environment and the health of its plants, animals and people is completely dependent on the wet and dry seasons coming predictably in their turns, at their expected times and with anticipated intensity.

As scientists detailed the data and warned of the dangers of unpredictable climatic changes driven by human activity, the response in Florida, and especially Southwest Florida, was simply denial. Before 2019 climate change was never mentioned in local media. As the local television meteorologists reported ever higher temperatures and worsening storms they never discussed climate change as a possible cause. To this day they still steer clear of it no matter how dramatic and compelling the weather they’re reporting.

Politically, discussing climate change was taboo because of the fear that conservative Republican voters would potentially react to the subject with vehement denials and retaliate at the polls. The most extreme manifestation of this came under Republican Gov. Rick Scott (2011 to 2019), who avoided meeting with scientists to hear about the data for as long as he could and informally banned state employees from using the words “climate change.” (To see a telling illustration of this, take note of the 2015 video of Brian Koon, Florida’s emergency management director, trying not to use the phrase during questioning by state senators.)

Then, on top of local resistance, in 2016 President Donald Trump was elected to office after calling climate change “a Chinese hoax” and withdrawing the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement. Internationally, it made the United States a global pariah as the rest of the world’s countries tried to deal with the crisis. Domestically, it enshrined climate change denial as a pillar of the Trumpist credo.

Rooney’s evolution was reflective of these currents. In his first term he denied and evaded acknowledging climate change. Then, in his second term, as a member of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, he followed a common Republican tactic of admitting deleterious climatic impacts like sea-level rise while avoiding naming their prime cause.

In this Rooney and local Republicans were actually lagging behind the thinking of the local public, which began to change after Hurricane Irma in 2017. This change in attitude was extensively documented in February 2019 by a carefully conducted survey commissioned by the Conservancy of Southwest Florida (“The Southwest Florida Climate Metrics Survey”), which found that 75 percent of local respondents believed that climate change was real and 76 percent believed they had observed it themselves.

Rooney’s Sept. 11, 2019 Politico article had multifaceted significance: It declared that climate change was real and called on Republicans to acknowledge it, face it and deal with it. Politically, it blessed realistic assessments of environmental changes and dangers, which in turn made possible real planning and countermeasures.

While die-hard deniers and ever-Trumpers will reject the notion of climate change until their bitter ends, they are now outside the mainstream dialogue on regional environmental matters. Rooney’s manifesto gave Southwest Florida a real chance. If his call is heeded by sensible Republicans nationally, it will advance the conservationist tradition of the Party.

Essentially, in his own District, Rooney was able to act as Galileo to Southwest Florida Republicans’ Inquisition, although without suffering house arrest. On this matter, with his help, science was able to succeed.

Handling HABs

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

Following the Big Bloom of 2018 Rooney pulled together the disparate threads of response to harmful algal blooms (HABs) and established the momentum for local jurisdictions and federal agencies to work together to monitor, alert and respond.

This was no small achievement. Prior to the Big Bloom, HABs were not recognized as disasters and response was fragmented and uncoordinated. As the Big Bloom showed, HABs could seriously adversely affect the livability and economy of Southwest Florida.

The momentum of this effort should be continued and nurtured; there’s too much at stake not to pursue it.

A key element that Rooney began and needs to be continued was called the Protecting Local Communities from Harmful Algal Blooms Act (House Resolution (HR) 414), which consisted of a three-word amendment to the Stafford Act.

The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act provides the legal framework for disaster response. The change would add “or algal blooms” as major disasters subject to federal action. If the change was made and a bloom occurred again in Southwest Florida, the region would be eligible for a disaster declaration and various forms of support and assistance from the federal government.

Rooney introduced the bill on Jan. 10, 2019 and it never made it out of committee. It’s a small, unglamorous, easily overlooked piece of legislation that was unremarked and unrewarded in the District but it could be of major importance in the event of another HAB. It needs to be reintroduced in the 117th Congress and brought to enactment. It will have a much better chance of approval under President Joe Biden.

The shore and the Everglades

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

None of the legislation that Rooney introduced in Congress over his four year tenure made it into law. Actually, this is not that unusual. There are members of Congress who go through entire, lengthy careers without passing a piece of legislation. Rooney had only two terms.

The bill that got furthest was the Florida Coastal Protection Act, HR 205, which made an oil drilling moratorium in the eastern Gulf permanent. This bill made it all the way through the House—no small achievement. Of course, it never came up in the Senate and never arrived on Trump’s desk. Florida’s two senators never promoted it, other than in its initial introduction in that body, and it was opposed by the oil industry.

On September 8, 2020 Trump told a rally in Jupiter, Fla., that he would be issuing an executive order extending the offshore drilling moratorium for 10 years to 2032. The announcement was clearly intended to help Trump win the state of Florida. Had he been re-elected there is no telling whether the order would have stayed in force. (The Arctic was not so lucky; there, Trump rushed through an auction of leases on federal lands to facilitate drilling.)

Southwest Florida received a double benefit because during the campaign, Biden pledged not to allow new offshore oil drilling. Between the Biden pledge and the Trump executive order, Florida’s shores would seem to be safe.

Regardless of these statements, if the Florida Coastal Protection Act passed in the new Congress it would be enshrined in law and Southwest Florida would be that much safer from the possibility of offshore oil exploitation.

In addition to all these bills and measures, Rooney did help maintain the funding for Everglades restoration and provided momentum to get the many stalled projects of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan moving. He worked hard to persuade his fellow members of Congress and the administration to advance the region’s interests.

Presuming that these projects and this plan will help the natural environment of Southwest Florida to recover and thrive (and it’s worth remembering that past human interventions were all intended as improvements as well), Rooney made a significant contribution to both human habitability and the balance of nature by advancing them. It is to be remembered, however, that he was part of a large effort that took many individuals and lawmakers of all political persuasions to succeed.

Nonetheless, both his efforts and the bipartisanship of his second term deserve recognition and emulation in the future. It’s a worthwhile legacy.

The Trump shadow

(Photo illustration: The Daily Beast)

Rooney’s time in Congress coincided with Donald Trump’s time in the presidency and Trump loomed over all that Rooney said and did.

Historians will likely look back at the Trump years as a sad, sick and savage interlude, a time that, far from making America great again, began what is likely to be a long decline. Rather than American exceptionalism, Trump put America on track to follow all the great empires of history toward diminution and decrepitude. Like a toddler with a new toy, he broke America.

Francis Rooney was one of the many millions of Americans who were willingly deceived by Trump. Especially egregious was his 2016 hailing of Trump as a “savior”—with that word’s full gravity and implications. From the day in 2015 that Trump descended the escalator in his building and delivered his first speech he made no secret of what he was: a bigot, a racist, an ignoramus, an autocrat and a pathologically narcissistic and selfish egomaniac. Those who supported him knew what they were getting.

Once in Congress, as a member of the governing class Rooney encouraged, enabled and emboldened Trump’s worst behavior. And Rooney bears special responsibility as Trump’s very visible, vocal and “brutal” defender during some of Trump’s worst excesses.

As such, Rooney will forever bear his share of the responsibility for the damage Trump did to America and the world, damage that seems likely to continue after he’s left the White House.

It also bears mentioning that Rooney’s conservatism was of the harshest and most unsympathetic kind when it came to healthcare, education, labor, women’s choices, disaster relief and most of all, the pandemic.

That said, Rooney ultimately summoned the courage to fully break with Trump, to assert his own thinking and perceptions and to make his views public. He opened his mind to the evidence of Trump’s impeachable crimes. He finally recognized Trump’s delusions as delusions and refused to parrot or obey them—and these delusions have killed hundreds of thousands of Americans and seem set to kill hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, more. And when Trump lost the election, Rooney was the first Southwest Florida Republican to acknowledge it, congratulate Biden and call for a smooth and cooperative transition for the sake of the country.

It was a late awakening but it was an awakening nonetheless. Regrettably, Rooney did not take the logical steps that his awareness should have led him to take: vote to impeach Trump and formally endorse Biden.

However, he did make his conclusions public and he paid the price in ostracism and condemnation from his Party and constituents. More importantly, though, he ultimately remained true to his oath of office to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” That was much more than many of his colleagues did.

Takeaways

During the ten years of the 19th Congressional District’s existence, Francis Rooney was its longest serving and most substantive representative.

This year marks the beginning of the post-Census redistricting process. The Republican legislature will carve up the state’s congressional districts. Whether the 19th will remain the 19th and what its boundaries will be remains to be seen. But it is a fair bet that it will be gerrymandered to favor Republican dominance into the indefinite future.

No matter what shape their boundaries take, the people of the Southwest Florida coast will need to be represented in the Congress of the United States and their vital interests advanced.

What will future representatives bring with them from Francis Rooney? To distil the best of what he leaves to its simplest, most basic essence, three things stand out:

Environmentalism: To protect, advance and conserve the natural environment that makes human habitation in the region possible and do it in a way that maintains a balance between human needs and natural processes.

Bipartisanship: To work with others of different ideas and persuasions to meet common needs, be open to their cares and concerns and cooperate to promote the general welfare.

And there’s the hope for Conscience: To fulfill the oath of office and serve the nation, the region and the common good despite party dictates or ideology or popular delusion, according to America’s best values and principles.

If these are the things that future officials take away from the service of Francis Rooney, who today marks the 67th anniversary of his arrival on earth, Southwest Florida and America will be well served.

It’s the least that we the people should expect from those whom we entrust with public office.

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

Liberty lives in light

© 2020 by David Silverberg

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