Editor’s note: With this article we open the Donalds Dossier, an occasional series of articles tracking, reporting and analyzing Rep. Byron Donalds’ activities in representing the 19th Congressional District of Southwest Florida in the US Congress.
March 3, 2021 by David Silverberg
Today marks two months since Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) took the oath of office—and it has been two of the most momentous months in American history.
Just how momentous needs to be fully appreciated: during the past 60 days a coup nearly succeeded, the Constitution was nearly demolished, an election was nearly overturned, the Capitol was violently attacked, congressional leaders were nearly killed, the Vice President was nearly lynched, a president was impeached for a second time and democracy barely survived—and all this amidst a deadly pandemic.
Into this turmoil stepped Byron Donalds, a former Southwest Florida state lawmaker, banking executive and financial advisor who unreservedly pledged his personal loyalty and complete obedience to Donald J. Trump during his election campaign.
Throughout the events of his first two months in office, Donalds has remained ideologically consistent: still pledged to Trump and Trumpism and opposed to any Democratic measure brought forth in the House of Representatives.
A man in microcosm
Jan. 6, the day of the Capitol attack, illuminated Donalds in microcosm. In the morning he attended Trump’s anti-election rally on the Ellipse outside the White House. Then he went to the Capitol building at 11:17 am where he signed his objection to certifying the election. When rioters entered the building to stop the vote count he fled to safety with other members. That night, after the riot, when members returned, he voted against certifying the election, which was the object of the attack.
At 10:09 pm in a lengthy Twitter statement, Donalds called the rioters “lawless vigilantes,” “a bunch of lunatics” and condemned their actions as “thuggery.” He later altered the tweet to remove the criticism and watered it down to just state that the rioters “do not embody my constituents’ values and heart.” Despite their actions, he tweeted, “they will not alter my decision to object to the Electoral College certification.”
Donalds’ vote against it notwithstanding, Joe Biden’s election was certified and Donalds attended the inauguration on Jan. 20.
So despite Trump’s and Donalds’ best efforts, the results stood—including Donalds’ own election to his office—and there is still a legislative branch of the United States government in which he can serve.
A vocal ideologue
After an initial pause, Donalds has shown himself an active and vocal representative, taking to all forms of media—social, right-wing and mainstream—to get out his messages. For all the talk, his positions have been orthodox conservative and Trumpist. He:
Opposed invoking the 25th Amendment and voted against the second impeachment of Donald Trump, calling the trial “a partisan political sideshow;”
Voted against stripping Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-14-Ga.) of her committee assignments;
Condemned halting construction of the Trump border wall;
Supported retaining the Hyde Amendment prohibiting US funding in any form for abortions;
Denounced the Biden administration’s proposed immigration reforms;
Accused the Biden administration of planning to vaccinate terrorists and undocumented migrants before American citizens;
Denounced teachers’ unions for pressing for safe classrooms;
Praised Rush Limbaugh as being “our voice” and said his passing was “a tremendous blow to generations of patriots;”
Some of these positions were merely cosmetic or superficial but Donalds’ really substantive efforts surrounded the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, aimed to stimulate the economy, bring relief to those affected financially by the pandemic and speed vaccine distribution.
Marching the party line
Donalds followed the Republican Party line against the plan but added his own extra effort from the beginning, when the legislation was in committee. Donalds sits on the Budget Committee and, in keeping with the Republican position, denounced the plan as “nothing more than a liberal wish list under the guise of COVID-19 relief, but in reality, this bill is using the pandemic to push forth the radical and misguided policies of the far-left.”
He opposed every aspect of it. First, he opposed using a procedure known as “budget reconciliation” to get it through Congress (which allows it to pass by a simple majority vote). He vehemently inveighed against the $15 minimum wage provision, which more than 60 percent of Florida voters approved in their own referendum last year. He opposed use of Paycheck Protection Plan (PPP) funds for non-profit corporations, particularly denouncing Planned Parenthood’s receipt of the funds. He also complained that aid was going to states that skewed Democratic like New York and California that had locked down to halt the spread of COVID-19. He called these public health precautions “authoritarian measures,” and contrasted them with Florida’s lack of restrictions despite the virus (which he himself caught in October but from which he recovered).
The very night that the bill passed, Donalds joined other Republican freshmen in the Capitol to further denounce the bill. While the other members stood behind him, masked as required by House rules, Donalds, a vehement anti-masker, said that he’d forgotten his mask in his office. He proceeded to argue that the only reason Democratic members were supporting the bill was because they feared House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.) and needed the support of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. (Unlike the Republicans, who never acted out of fear of a presidential tweet.)
For all that, of course, the American Rescue Plan passed the House by a vote of 219 to 212 at 2:00 am on Saturday morning, Feb. 27.
On the fast track
Donalds, one of only two Black Republican members in the House (the other is Rep. Burgess Owens (R-4-Utah)), is clearly on a fast track in the Republican caucus and in the conservative movement.
The Republican leadership gave him committee assignments that offer numerous opportunities for political advantage. He sits on the Oversight and Reform Committee, which frequently generates headlines for its investigations and revelations of government misdeeds and shortcomings. His seat on the Budget Committee puts him in a very prominent position for consideration of the Biden administration’s annual budget initiatives, in this year’s case the American Rescue Plan. He also sits on the House Small Business Committee, which while generating fewer headlines, is helpful in the district.
(By contrast, Republicans have traditionally assigned less promising members to the Education Committee, which they regard as a backwater. It generates few headlines, offers few opportunities for high-profile work and congressional Republicans generally despise the Department of Education, which it oversees. It was where former Rep. Francis Rooney was initially placed and where Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene was consigned before she was stripped of her committee assignments.)
Donalds also received recognition from the conservative movement at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the conclave that gathered in Orlando last week. While he was not one of the main speakers, he was given a seat on a panel discussing the political utility of supporting law enforcement, a slot in keeping with his rank as a freshman House member. On that panel he argued that while criminals need to be punished, they also need to be reintegrated back into society once they’ve completed their sentences. Donalds himself was arrested at 19 for drug possession and theft.
Back in the district…
While Donalds has been active on the front lines of conservatism and Republican ideology, he’s done little to no visible work in Congress yet on local issues like ensuring Southwest Florida’s vaccine allocation (dealt with in a broader sense by the American Rescue Plan he opposed), protecting the environment, strengthening measures against harmful algal blooms, bolstering infrastructure resilience against climate change or ensuring water purity. These were not key issues in his election campaign, either.
He has held no public town halls or constituent listening sessions—impossible in person right now, although possible virtually.
He did, however, conduct a very limited outreach session to local black businesses in a virtual roundtable on Thursday, Feb. 25, which was closed to the media.
Hospitality—and then some
One of Donalds’ more interesting efforts with local businesses occurred prior to the election. On Oct. 26, 2020 he sponsored an online roundtable with the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association to discuss the needs and challenges of Southwest Florida’s hospitality industry with seven local restaurateurs and business owners. It didn’t hurt that he was connecting with local businessmen as early voting was taking place.
Two of the major points to come out of that panel were the need for COVID liability protection for local businesses and opposition to a minimum wage hike, opposition that Donalds clearly shared and took to Congress during the American Rescue Plan debate.
At the time Donalds agreed that economic stimulus was necessary but said it had to be targeted in concert with state governments. Ultimately, he voted against the stimulus contained in the American Rescue Plan.
Among the panelists was Alfie Oakes, the extreme conservative grocer and farmer. Oakes told the panel that COVID is “not a pandemic in my mind.” If any of his employees became sick “We would get some hydroxychloroquine and give it intravenously and within two days they were perfect. We didn’t jump into the fear of everything.”
But even Oakes, a vehement anti-masker, had to admit that despite his having called it a “hoax,” COVID caused him some concern. “Some people may still think I’m handling this in a reckless manner,” he said. “I have customers coming in, he’s 97, his wife is 94, they’re not wearing masks and I was worried for them but they’re still shopping every day. They didn’t buy into the fear.”
Oakes, who is otherwise a vociferous opponent of the federal government, stated that the PPP program helped stave off layoffs on his farm and the federal Farmbox program, which provides food to the needy directly from farms, aided his enterprise.
When it came to raising the minimum wage, Oakes said, “It would be asinine. It would be socialism. The people it would hurt are the people who it’s supposed to help. I’d have to squeeze more out of existing employees. It is a total liberal sham and I pray it doesn’t pass as I hope that Joe Biden doesn’t get elected.”
Analysis: Getting what you say you want
Make no mistake; in Byron Donalds the majority of voters in the 19th Congressional District got what they said they wanted: “a strong, Trump-supporting, gun-owning, liberty-loving, pro-life, politically incorrect black man,” as he put it during his campaign. His actions in office to date have followed logically for someone meeting that description.
Donalds is clearly ambitious and his election put him on a path to greater national glory and possibly higher office. But it’s not an easy path, it’s more of a tightrope over a chasm and Donalds is like a juggler trying to walk it while keeping three balls in the air.
One ball is the Republican congressional leadership. Donalds has to keep them happy to advance. So he follows the Party line, with which he seems to actually agree at the moment. So far they like him, are promoting him and he seems to really share their pronouncements and positions.
The second ball is Donald Trump and he is a ball that isn’t perfectly spherical and doesn’t follow the normal laws of aerodynamics. Donalds has to stay in his good graces or at least out of his line of fire. At CPAC, Trump declared that he will be staying in the Republican Party, he will be purging its heretics and when it comes to the 2024 presidential race, “I may even decide to beat them for a third time. Okay? For a third time. True.” To keep from dropping this ball, Donalds has to go along with the complete and utter fantasy that Trump won and had the election stolen from him. It takes a lot of willful credulity and a lot of sycophancy to keep that ball in the air—and it’s a ball that can fly off in any direction at any moment or suddenly hit him in the face.
The third ball is the “base,” the conservative movement and Donalds’ hard-core Trumper constituents in Southwest Florida. This includes the “lawless vigilantes” and “bunch of lunatics” who attacked the Capitol but whose votes Donalds needs to stay in his seat. These have been among some of Donalds’ most faithful supporters and donors to date. Donalds has to be conscious, though, that on Jan. 6 these people were a lynch mob just as surely as the lynch mob that rampaged through Fort Myers in 1924—only in 2021 they were seeking to hang the faithful and subservient Vice President of the United States. They could riot again, in person or at the ballot box, and turn against anyone, including him.
If Donalds can keep all three of these balls in the air and keep his footing on the tightrope, he just may get to the other side of the chasm.
And what is on that other side? Presumably whatever Donalds thinks constitutes “success.” But what Donalds considers “success” for himself may not necessarily be “success” for Southwest Florida.
Florida Democrats are just starting to gear up for the challenges of 2022. The governorship, a Senate seat and, of course, all congressional seats are up for election.
Aside from the potential change of power, 2022 presents a chance for state Democrats to redeem themselves from the disastrous defeat of 2020.
In making their preparations, Florida Democrats can look north to Georgia where a stereotypically deeply conservative Republican stronghold voted Democratic for President and two senators.
Can the kind of work and effort that flipped Georgia blue be duplicated just south of the state line next year?
Hope, of course, springs eternal. Florida Democrats are trying to stand up, brush themselves off and regain their footing.
But getting from aspiration to actuality is a long and difficult road and the roads that run through Georgia’s clay and Florida’s sand are very different.
What adjustments need to be made? What factors were unique to 2020 and how will they change in 2022? What can Georgia teach Florida for next year?
Georgia’s march to victory
There were many factors that contributed to the Democratic victory in Georgia but some that stand out include:
There’s long been debate among historians whether history is made by individuals or vast, impersonal forces. Stacey Abrams is living proof that people make history. A woman of extraordinary intelligence, drive and achievement, she demonstrably and individually steered this quintessentially southern and tradition-bound state in a new direction.
Most Floridians first heard of Stacey Abrams in 2018 when she came within 55,000 votes of winning the Georgia governor’s race. She did this despite rampant and blatant voter suppression and a Republican Secretary of State, Brian Kemp, who oversaw the election rules even as he was running for governor. But after losing the election, instead of giving up she redoubled her efforts.
With Georgia flipping blue Abrams is now a political star but her overnight success was 10 years in the making—48 years if one starts counting from her birth. She tirelessly and relentlessly worked to increase voter registration, turn out minority communities and after her gubernatorial run, founded Fair Fight Action to oppose voter suppression. She saw the political possibilities in Georgia long before any other politician or pundit and worked to make them real. She drew up the strategy that ultimately resulted in victory.
Suburban growth and change
Atlanta has long billed itself as “the city too busy to hate.” From its earliest days it has been a commercial hub focused on business. Atlanta’s suburbs have grown exponentially and rapidly. According to the US Census Bureau, between 2010 and 2019 they went from 5.3 million people to more than 6 million, at the same time racially diversifying.
Throughout the 2020 campaign, polling repeatedly found that there was an educational divide between college-educated and non-college educated voters, with the former less favorable to Donald Trump. The nation’s suburbs, and Atlanta’s in particular, were better educated and more inclined to the Democratic Party. Also trending Democratic were educated, suburban women, to the point where Trump at a speech in October 2020 pleaded, “Suburban women, will you please like me? I saved your damn neighborhood, OK?”
His pleadings didn’t work. “For a lot of women in the state, Trump kind of pushed them to the edge,” a Georgian named Jen Jordan told Emma Green in The Atlantic magazine article, “What Just Happened in Georgia?” When the Georgia legislature considered an anti-choice bill that would have made abortions illegal once a fetal heartbeat was detected, “The heartbeat bill was the thing that made them jump.”
“After the 2016 election, it became clear that the counties north of the city of Atlanta—Cobb, Gwinnett, the upper part of Fulton—were no longer homogenous conservative strongholds,” Green wrote. As a result, “The Trumpian brand of Republican politics does not play well in Atlanta, which prides itself on low taxes and business-friendly attitudes.”
When it came to Georgia’s Senate runoff elections, “Black voters showed up at stratospheric levels and white voters did not. You saw really big shifts in heavily Black counties,” David Wasserman, an editor at the Cook Political Report was quoted saying in a Vox.com article, “Georgia went blue. Can Democrats make it happen elsewhere?”
Getting that stratospheric turnout took Stacey Abrams and Democratic activists ten years to achieve—155 years, if counted from the end of the Civil War. But it was really propelled in the last two years.
Georgia’s Black voters had turned out in 2008 and 2012 to vote for Barack Obama. Abrams attributed her 2018 loss to voter suppression but in 2020 a combination of factors propelled by grassroots activism managed to galvanize Georgia’s communities of color and propel them to the polls.
The New Georgia Project, a voting rights group also founded by Abrams, “knocked on more than 2 million doors, made more than 6.7 million calls, and sent more than 4 million texts urging people to vote ahead of the runoffs,” Nsé Ufot, chief executive officer of the group, told Vox. “A larger coalition of progressive voting groups coordinated by America Votes knocked on more than 8.5 million doors, made about 20 million phone calls, and sent over 18 million texts.”
The growth of Georgia’s ethnic populations, more accessible voter registration and grassroots mobilization combined to deliver the state to Joe Biden for president and Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock for Senate.
But there was another factor that energized Georgia voters.
Trump, of course
Say what you will of Donald Trump, he certainly drove voters to the polls—whether they loved or hated him.
The massive voter turnout around the nation was true in Georgia as well and it yielded eye-popping results. It was one of 16 states where Trump lost ground from 2016. For the first time since 1992 Georgia voted more Democratic than Florida and it was the first time since 1860 that its Laurens and Monroe counties did not vote for the statewide winner. For the first time in 40 years Cobb County supported a Democrat for president.
The urgency, the implications and the magnitude of the Trump threat powered every election in the country and led to the unprecedented turnout, the massive absentee balloting and the critical need to reach all voters, no matter their political parties. As a result, in Georgia, Joe Biden won by 11,779 votes.
What was remarkable in Georgia was that the same forces that powered voters in the presidential race didn’t let up for the Senate runoff, which ultimately gave Georgia its two Democratic senators.
Marjorie Taylor Greene and the 14th District
While Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-14-Ga.) appears to have taken Trumpist delusion and paranoia to the limits of lunacy, she is as much a part of the Georgia story as Stacey Abrams.
Greene represents Georgia’s 14th Congressional District, a combination of 11 counties northwest of Atlanta. It bears some striking resemblances to Florida’s 19th Congressional District along the Southwest Gulf coast, not least in being 85 percent white.
However, the Florida 19th has a rating of R-13 from the Cook Political Report, the bible of congressional politics, meaning it is 13 percent more likely to vote Republican than the average district. By contrast, the Georgia 14th has a rating of R-27, meaning it is twice as conservative and Republican as the 19th—which, for a Southwest Floridian, is pretty hard to imagine.
In the past, the 14th’s elections have broken in the 75 percent range for Republicans, while the 19th usually breaks in the 60 to 65 percent range.
In 2020 the 14th’s representative in Congress, Rep. Tom Graves, retired. After an initial primary that featured nine Republican contenders—like the Florida 19th District—Greene beat challenger John Cowan, a neurosurgeon and businessman, in the Republican runoff. Kevin Van Ausdal, the Democratic candidate, then dropped out of the race in September, for “family and personal reasons”—i.e., a divorce that led him to leave the state for his parents’ home in Indiana. This left Greene the unchallenged candidate and sent her to Congress.
“Is this the best the 14th District can do?” mourned an editorial in the Dalton, Ga., Daily Citizen-News [grammar theirs]. “We don’t think so. … We challenge patriotic citizens to examine their life and to determine whether they should put themself forward in the next race for the congressional seat in two years. … The more and varied voices, the better. And we must do better.”
Comparing peaches and oranges
In looking at differences between the two states, one can start out with size and population.
Georgia is half the size of Florida. According to 2019 Census figures, Georgia has a population of 10.9 million people. By contrast, Florida has 21.48 million people.
Florida gained the greatest population of all states in 2019: 601,611, which works out to roughly 1,650 arriving every day. Georgia gained 284,541, or roughly 780 per day. Georgia has five television markets, Florida has 10.
Florida is widely acknowledged to be a fragmented, unwieldy state politically and a very tough state in which to manage a statewide political campaign. Georgia is much more compact.
But aside from those physical and demographic differences, there are other important contrasts between the two states.
Personalities and parties
While Georgia had the driven, persistent efforts of Stacey Abrams, Florida does not have the same guiding force.
Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum came within a heartbreaking 32,463 votes of defeating Ron DeSantis in 2018. Like Abrams, he vowed to continue his fight for Democratic victories and policies after the election. He founded Forward Florida, which, like Abrams’ organizations, aimed to register voters. He seemed to have momentum and potential until a crushing personal scandal ended his public possibilities, seemingly permanently.
In Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried is the highest ranking elected Democrat in the state and a very likely candidate for governor. But between her day job and her aspirations, driving voter turnout and fighting suppression is not her main focus.
“In Florida, Democrats have struggled to unite a sprawling, diverse coalition around a coherent plan to win races,” wrote Kirby Wilson in the article “What Florida Democrats have to learn from Stacey Abrams” in The Tampa Bay Times. “Even though nearly 5.3 million Floridians voted for Biden in 2020, some question whether Florida remains a swing state.”
Rick Wilson, the acerbic Republican operative and a co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, put it more succinctly: “The Democratic Party of Florida cannot organize a two-car motorcade,” he told The Palm Beach Post. “They are terrible at this work — nothing personal against any one person. The Florida GOP is the best-run Republican Party in the country.”
And he’s also said that Democrats “don’t understand this is not a blue state, it is a red state with a blue tip on the south end.”
For many years, knowledgeable political observers warned that it was misleading to view Hispanic voters as a monolithic block despite the tendency of many Democratic politicians and experts to see them that way. There are many different and diverse Hispanic communities, especially in Florida, and the 2020 election proved it.
Trump’s 2016 racist rants against Mexicans and Hispanic migrants and his incompetent handling of the 2017 Puerto Rico hurricane disaster were huge turnoffs to many Hispanics. But in 2020 his hardline policies and rhetoric against the Cuban and Venezuelan regimes and his targeted—and strident—anti-socialist message resonated among Florida’s Cuban-American and Venezuelan-American communities.
“Trump showed up in Florida. He asked us what our issues are and he addressed them. He didn’t take us for granted,” Bertica Cabrera Morris, a Republican strategist and a board member of Latinos for Trump, told NBC News immediately after the election.
As a result, while Biden made inroads in Miami-Dade County and ultimately won it, he did so by a far smaller margin—7 percent—than might otherwise be expected from 2016, when Trump lost it by 29 points.
One myth that has persisted among Florida Democrats is that turning out minority votes, specifically Black votes, can swing the state. While every vote is important, the fact is that if every single non-white Floridian cast a Democratic ballot, Black voters constitute only 16 percent of Florida voters—in contrast to Georgia where they represent 31.9 percent. In a close Florida election minority communities can make a difference but even if fully mobilized they don’t have the same decisive weight as in Georgia.
Although Florida has a huge influx of residents moving in, it is also not clear that they are necessarily changing the political complexion of the state, as new Georgia residents did there. While New Yorkers constituted the largest number of new Florida residents (57,488) according to 2019 Census figures, it’s not clear that their political allegiances were necessarily Democratic or outweigh those of other contributors to Florida’s population. (Interestingly, the next largest influx to Florida came from Georgia with 49,681 people.)
The bottom line: Georgia and Florida have very different populations and political orientations and require different efforts and strategies.
Analysis: What’s new in ’22?
People expecting the 2022 elections in Florida to be a replay of 2020 will be more than disappointed—they will be wrong, no matter which party they support.
Aside from it simply being a different year, overall conditions will be significantly altered, not just throughout the world but especially in Florida. Some major changes include:
The importance of the decennial redrawing of political boundaries cannot be overstated. Florida may be in line for as many as two new members of Congress, which would mean two new congressional districts. With a Republican governor and legislature, the lines are overwhelmingly likely to be redrawn to Republican advantage. Democrats may resort to the courts to change them but Florida’s courts have been in conservative Republican hands since Jeb Bush’s governorship starting in 1999. The results of redistricting will have implications for at least the next decade and probably beyond.
Not Trump but Trumpism
As this is written, the impeachment trial of Donald Trump is underway. Whether he will run or be eligible for future office is unclear. But what seems very certain is that Trumpism is unlikely to die, especially in Florida. (For more on this see the article, “No need to secede: Welcome to Florumpia!”) Even if support for Donald Trump and the authoritarianism he represents cools, the sentiment powering his cult will likely continue to be a factor in Florida politics well beyond 2022. As of this writing Gov. Ron DeSantis seems all in on Trumpism and will likely be running as a full-fledged Trumper in 2022. There’s much talk of Trump’s spawn seeking statewide office and possibly taking on Sen. Marco Rubio for the US Senate.
Nowhere is the divide between Trumpism and Republicanism clearer and more obvious than in the Sunshine State. That could produce a split in the electorate, especially if Trump or someone else forms a “Patriot” or “MAGA” party, which would effectively be the Trump cult with a Florida mailing address. In 2022 three major parties—Democratic, Republican and Trumper—may be battling for Floridians’ ballots.
The state of the pandemic on Nov. 8, Election Day 2022, will no doubt be a major factor in the results. No one can know now whether the whole thing will be over or if new variants will continue to take their toll.
Gov. Ron DeSantis is betting that by 2022 Florida voters will remember him more for getting seniors vaccinated and not for the frustration, desperation and uncertainty that accompanied Florida’s vaccine rollout.
In 2020 the pandemic had a major impact on campaigning. In Florida Democrats heeded COVID warnings and did much of their campaigning remotely or in cars. Republicans, by contrast, either followed Trump’s lead and dismissed COVID as a hoax or simply ignored it when they did in-person campaigning. It didn’t matter to them if their voters, volunteers and staffers sickened and died as long as they lived long enough to cast ballots. Say what one will, it was a strategy that worked.
In 2022 Democrats will have to resume in-person campaigning, whether that means rallies, canvassing or get-togethers of any kind if they’re going to be competitive again. Presumably this will be possible with largely vaccinated populations but one cannot be sure at this point.
One other point that needs to be made: if President Joe Biden’s vaccination efforts work and if Floridians can connect his decisions to the end of the pandemic and their own health, it may just rebound to the benefit of state Democrats when people go to the polls. But getting people to connect good national policy to their personal benefit and rewarding politicians and parties with their votes is a long stretch—especially in Florida.
Measures taken by the Biden administration may lead the economy—both in Florida and nationally—to at least a modest recovery by Election Day 2022. Clearly, that will be a stark contrast with 2020 when the pandemic led to a massive downturn.
But recovery is not certain and the economic blows the nation took in 2020 will take a long time to heal. However, if there is some recovery, if the pandemic can be stopped or slowed and if “normal” economic activity can resume with some degree of safety, it may rebound to the Democrats’ benefit.
Throughout the pandemic DeSantis—following the lead of Trump, his patron—de-emphasized anti-COVID measures in favor of keeping businesses open. The political calculation here was that a relatively functional economy was worth the cost in lives.
The next election will tell us if that calculation paid off and how voters weigh the results.
Of course, in looking ahead to a new election, personalities make a big difference. It is sufficient to say that if Democrats field vibrant, exciting and inspiring candidates at all levels who have messages that resonate with their voters, they will have a chance against an old guard tainted by its association with Trump, its complicity in his crimes and its self-destructive adherence to his delusions.
Georgia on my mind
So what must Democrats do to follow the Georgia playbook and flip Florida—despite the obvious differences between the two states?
In her book, Our Time is Now Stacey Abrams goes through her daily checklist as she evaluates the state of her campaign. It’s a good checklist for any campaign:
Early investments in infrequent voters;
Consistent, authentic progressive messaging;
Outreach in multiple languages;
Centering the issues of communities of color and marginalized groups typically exiled to the fringes of statewide elections.
In addition, just before the Senate runoff election, the Democratic Party of Georgia issued a six-page memo analyzing its 2020 presidential victory. While particular to the state, it also yielded some broader principles that could be applicable in Florida:
Build “a robust coalitions program aimed at engaging voters and elected officials in the Latino, AAPI [Asian American and Pacific Islander], African American communities, faith and religious leaders, military and veteran families, sportsmen and sportswomen, as well as youth, LGBTQI, women, progressive and Jewish coalitions.”
Build a digital-first organizing approach allowing the campaign to reach voters in new and creative ways, creating digital organizing hubs, speaking with voters on every platform, and hosting daily virtual events all over the state.
Using a combination of daily virtual and in-person events, drive the news cycle to parallel the broader campaign strategic imperatives on persuading and turning out voters. A strong surrogate program and regular principal travel also helps drive the news cycle and increase voter mobilization and engagement.
Blanket the airwaves on TV and radio, while leveraging targeted digital efforts and direct mail to boost turnout and bolster persuasion efforts.
Expand voter contact efforts to help voters apply for absentee ballots as early as possible and make voting by mail as easy as possible.
Obviously, Florida Democrats have some unique imperatives: they must win back the Hispanic voters that they lost in 2020; they must meet and defeat the “socialist” canard that Republicans threw—and continue to throw—at them; they must defeat voter suppression in all its forms; as the state of the pandemic allows, they must resume in-person campaigning. More than any other imperative, they must turn out voters from every nook and cranny and hiding place, from Florida’s swamps to its beaches to its urban jungles to its retirement villages and nursing homes.
The demographics of Georgia and Florida are very different. But Stacey Abrams has a very telling observation in her book and it is one Floridians can take to heart.
“Demography is not destiny,” she writes. “It is opportunity.”
Maybe, just maybe, Florida Democrats can find the opportunity in the changing demographics of their state by next year and make 2022 a year when Florida returns to its democratic traditions—but in a fresh, new and hopeful way.
Did Francis Rooney, representative of the 19th Congressional District and Southwest Florida in the United States Congress, make a difference during his four years in elected office?
Based on Rooney’s own evaluation, he did what he set out to do: increase funding for Everglades restoration and promote the purity of the region’s waters.
But when he ran in 2016 he hardly campaigned on such a narrow platform. He proclaimed that he was battling socialism and promoting conservative values. He characterized Donald Trump as possibly the nation’s savior and advanced Trump’s electoral victory.
So Rooney’s tenure should be evaluated on a broader spectrum than his own criteria.
What changes that Rooney made or promoted are most likely to live on after him? Will these be beneficial to Southwest Florida and the nation? Did he do any damage and can it be repaired? And lastly: what needs to be done in the future to build on what he did?
Acknowledging the obvious
In the future, if the planet doesn’t burn to a cinder, if objective history is still written, and if historians bother to look at Southwest Florida, they will be amazed that as late as 2019 denial of climate change was still firmly entrenched in many Southwest Floridians’ heads. It will seem as though a primitive tribe living in the region was cut off from civilization and still believed the earth was flat.
Francis Rooney acknowledged climate change as a fact and broke the Republican, conservative taboo against admitting its reality—and by admitting that reality made realistic measures to cope with it possible.
For a region where human habitation and what is known as the “built environment” is a thin and fragile layer imposed on a primeval wilderness, climate change is a huge threat. This flat, coastal area is extremely vulnerable to hurricanes, erosion and sea-level rise. The fresh water that makes human life possible in this erstwhile swamp, while abundant during its wet season, is constantly threatened by pollution, algal toxicity and salt water intrusion. The habitability of this tropical environment and the health of its plants, animals and people is completely dependent on the wet and dry seasons coming predictably in their turns, at their expected times and with anticipated intensity.
As scientists detailed the data and warned of the dangers of unpredictable climatic changes driven by human activity, the response in Florida, and especially Southwest Florida, was simply denial. Before 2019 climate change was never mentioned in local media. As the local television meteorologists reported ever higher temperatures and worsening storms they never discussed climate change as a possible cause. To this day they still steer clear of it no matter how dramatic and compelling the weather they’re reporting.
Politically, discussing climate change was taboo because of the fear that conservative Republican voters would potentially react to the subject with vehement denials and retaliate at the polls. The most extreme manifestation of this came under Republican Gov. Rick Scott (2011 to 2019), who avoided meeting with scientists to hear about the data for as long as he could and informally banned state employees from using the words “climate change.” (To see a telling illustration of this, take note of the 2015 video of Brian Koon, Florida’s emergency management director, trying not to use the phrase during questioning by state senators.)
Then, on top of local resistance, in 2016 President Donald Trump was elected to office after calling climate change “a Chinese hoax” and withdrawing the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement. Internationally, it made the United States a global pariah as the rest of the world’s countries tried to deal with the crisis. Domestically, it enshrined climate change denial as a pillar of the Trumpist credo.
Rooney’s evolution was reflective of these currents. In his first term he denied and evaded acknowledging climate change. Then, in his second term, as a member of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, he followed a common Republican tactic of admitting deleterious climatic impacts like sea-level rise while avoiding naming their prime cause.
In this Rooney and local Republicans were actually lagging behind the thinking of the local public, which began to change after Hurricane Irma in 2017. This change in attitude was extensively documented in February 2019 by a carefully conducted survey commissioned by the Conservancy of Southwest Florida (“The Southwest Florida Climate Metrics Survey”), which found that 75 percent of local respondents believed that climate change was real and 76 percent believed they had observed it themselves.
Rooney’s Sept. 11, 2019 Politico article had multifaceted significance: It declared that climate change was real and called on Republicans to acknowledge it, face it and deal with it. Politically, it blessed realistic assessments of environmental changes and dangers, which in turn made possible real planning and countermeasures.
While die-hard deniers and ever-Trumpers will reject the notion of climate change until their bitter ends, they are now outside the mainstream dialogue on regional environmental matters. Rooney’s manifesto gave Southwest Florida a real chance. If his call is heeded by sensible Republicans nationally, it will advance the conservationist tradition of the Party.
Essentially, in his own District, Rooney was able to act as Galileo to Southwest Florida Republicans’ Inquisition, although without suffering house arrest. On this matter, with his help, science was able to succeed.
Following the Big Bloom of 2018 Rooney pulled together the disparate threads of response to harmful algal blooms (HABs) and established the momentum for local jurisdictions and federal agencies to work together to monitor, alert and respond.
This was no small achievement. Prior to the Big Bloom, HABs were not recognized as disasters and response was fragmented and uncoordinated. As the Big Bloom showed, HABs could seriously adversely affect the livability and economy of Southwest Florida.
The momentum of this effort should be continued and nurtured; there’s too much at stake not to pursue it.
A key element that Rooney began and needs to be continued was called the Protecting Local Communities from Harmful Algal Blooms Act (House Resolution (HR) 414), which consisted of a three-word amendment to the Stafford Act.
The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act provides the legal framework for disaster response. The change would add “or algal blooms” as major disasters subject to federal action. If the change was made and a bloom occurred again in Southwest Florida, the region would be eligible for a disaster declaration and various forms of support and assistance from the federal government.
Rooney introduced the bill on Jan. 10, 2019 and it never made it out of committee. It’s a small, unglamorous, easily overlooked piece of legislation that was unremarked and unrewarded in the District but it could be of major importance in the event of another HAB. It needs to be reintroduced in the 117th Congress and brought to enactment. It will have a much better chance of approval under President Joe Biden.
The shore and the Everglades
None of the legislation that Rooney introduced in Congress over his four year tenure made it into law. Actually, this is not that unusual. There are members of Congress who go through entire, lengthy careers without passing a piece of legislation. Rooney had only two terms.
The bill that got furthest was the Florida Coastal Protection Act, HR 205, which made an oil drilling moratorium in the eastern Gulf permanent. This bill made it all the way through the House—no small achievement. Of course, it never came up in the Senate and never arrived on Trump’s desk. Florida’s two senators never promoted it, other than in its initial introduction in that body, and it was opposed by the oil industry.
On September 8, 2020 Trump told a rally in Jupiter, Fla., that he would be issuing an executive order extending the offshore drilling moratorium for 10 years to 2032. The announcement was clearly intended to help Trump win the state of Florida. Had he been re-elected there is no telling whether the order would have stayed in force. (The Arctic was not so lucky; there, Trump rushed through an auction of leases on federal lands to facilitate drilling.)
Southwest Florida received a double benefit because during the campaign, Biden pledged not to allow new offshore oil drilling. Between the Biden pledge and the Trump executive order, Florida’s shores would seem to be safe.
Regardless of these statements, if the Florida Coastal Protection Act passed in the new Congress it would be enshrined in law and Southwest Florida would be that much safer from the possibility of offshore oil exploitation.
In addition to all these bills and measures, Rooney did help maintain the funding for Everglades restoration and provided momentum to get the many stalled projects of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan moving. He worked hard to persuade his fellow members of Congress and the administration to advance the region’s interests.
Presuming that these projects and this plan will help the natural environment of Southwest Florida to recover and thrive (and it’s worth remembering that past human interventions were all intended as improvements as well), Rooney made a significant contribution to both human habitability and the balance of nature by advancing them. It is to be remembered, however, that he was part of a large effort that took many individuals and lawmakers of all political persuasions to succeed.
Nonetheless, both his efforts and the bipartisanship of his second term deserve recognition and emulation in the future. It’s a worthwhile legacy.
The Trump shadow
Rooney’s time in Congress coincided with Donald Trump’s time in the presidency and Trump loomed over all that Rooney said and did.
Historians will likely look back at the Trump years as a sad, sick and savage interlude, a time that, far from making America great again, began what is likely to be a long decline. Rather than American exceptionalism, Trump put America on track to follow all the great empires of history toward diminution and decrepitude. Like a toddler with a new toy, he broke America.
Francis Rooney was one of the many millions of Americans who were willingly deceived by Trump. Especially egregious was his 2016 hailing of Trump as a “savior”—with that word’s full gravity and implications. From the day in 2015 that Trump descended the escalator in his building and delivered his first speech he made no secret of what he was: a bigot, a racist, an ignoramus, an autocrat and a pathologically narcissistic and selfish egomaniac. Those who supported him knew what they were getting.
Once in Congress, as a member of the governing class Rooney encouraged, enabled and emboldened Trump’s worst behavior. And Rooney bears special responsibility as Trump’s very visible, vocal and “brutal” defender during some of Trump’s worst excesses.
As such, Rooney will forever bear his share of the responsibility for the damage Trump did to America and the world, damage that seems likely to continue after he’s left the White House.
It also bears mentioning that Rooney’s conservatism was of the harshest and most unsympathetic kind when it came to healthcare, education, labor, women’s choices, disaster relief and most of all, the pandemic.
That said, Rooney ultimately summoned the courage to fully break with Trump, to assert his own thinking and perceptions and to make his views public. He opened his mind to the evidence of Trump’s impeachable crimes. He finally recognized Trump’s delusions as delusions and refused to parrot or obey them—and these delusions have killed hundreds of thousands of Americans and seem set to kill hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, more. And when Trump lost the election, Rooney was the first Southwest Florida Republican to acknowledge it, congratulate Biden and call for a smooth and cooperative transition for the sake of the country.
It was a late awakening but it was an awakening nonetheless. Regrettably, Rooney did not take the logical steps that his awareness should have led him to take: vote to impeach Trump and formally endorse Biden.
However, he did make his conclusions public and he paid the price in ostracism and condemnation from his Party and constituents. More importantly, though, he ultimately remained true to his oath of office to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” That was much more than many of his colleagues did.
This year marks the beginning of the post-Census redistricting process. The Republican legislature will carve up the state’s congressional districts. Whether the 19th will remain the 19th and what its boundaries will be remains to be seen. But it is a fair bet that it will be gerrymandered to favor Republican dominance into the indefinite future.
No matter what shape their boundaries take, the people of the Southwest Florida coast will need to be represented in the Congress of the United States and their vital interests advanced.
What will future representatives bring with them from Francis Rooney? To distil the best of what he leaves to its simplest, most basic essence, three things stand out:
Environmentalism: To protect, advance and conserve the natural environment that makes human habitation in the region possible and do it in a way that maintains a balance between human needs and natural processes.
Bipartisanship: To work with others of different ideas and persuasions to meet common needs, be open to their cares and concerns and cooperate to promote the general welfare.
And there’s the hope for Conscience: To fulfill the oath of office and serve the nation, the region and the common good despite party dictates or ideology or popular delusion, according to America’s best values and principles.
If these are the things that future officials take away from the service of Francis Rooney, who today marks the 67th anniversary of his arrival on earth, Southwest Florida and America will be well served.
It’s the least that we the people should expect from those whom we entrust with public office.
On Nov. 6, 2018 Francis Rooney cruised to an easy victory in his reelection bid.
He won 62 percent of the vote to David Holden’s 37 percent and while Holden had increased the Democratic percentage by 2 points from 2016, he didn’t come close to winning.
Republicans had a very good night that night in Florida: Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-6-Fla.) would now be addressed as Governor, having squeaked out a 32,463 vote win over Tallahassee Democratic Mayor Andrew Gillum. Having been plucked out of obscurity by President Donald Trump, DeSantis was entirely indebted to Trump for his success. Term-limited Republican Gov. Rick Scott defeated Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson to ascend to the US Senate. Florida was looking redder than ever.
But nationally, the news was not so good: Democrats had gained 41 seats in the House of Representatives, meaning that Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.) would reclaim the gavel as the next Speaker of the House.
Nancy Pelosi! Short of Hillary Clinton herself, there was no more menacing she-Devil in Republican demonology. To Donald Trump she was “Crazy Nancy,” “MS-13 Lover Nancy,” “Nervous Nancy,” “Nancy Antoinette.” Republicans had been condemning, flaying and cursing her throughout her 32-year congressional career.
That she also happened to be a brilliant legislative tactician, a persevering partisan, a fruitful fundraiser and perhaps the nation’s canniest politician also did not endear her to them, either.
When Francis Rooney went back to Washington after his re-election he would be in the minority, in a House where, unlike the Senate, the minority is largely powerless.
How could a vocal conservative who had voted 95 percent of the time with Donald Trump in the 115th Congress possibly function in a House run by Nancy Pelosi and what Trump viewed as her army of ranting, raving, radical Democrats?
Rooney hit the ground running on the very first day, Jan. 3, after the oath-taking and ceremony when he introduced a bill to prevent oil and gas leasing in the eastern Gulf of Mexico where the military conducted its exercises.
This simply continued his crusade against offshore oil drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. But five days later the new reality was apparent when he signed on as a cosponsor to a different bill that accomplished the same thing—only this bill was introduced by his Democratic colleague up the coast, Rep. Kathy Castor (D-14-Fla.), who represented the Tampa area. Castor was also the newly-named co-chair of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, which gave her additional heft.
Her bill, the Florida Coastal Protection Act, would make the offshore oil drilling moratorium permanent. It would be given the number House Resolution (HR) 205. It was a promising sign of bipartisan cooperation and, in fact, the two had cooperated in the previous Congress to draft an amendment to the Defense authorization bill that did the same thing. That effort was quashed by the House Republican leadership, which didn’t allow it to come to a vote.
This time they were introducing a stand-alone bill into a new Congress and they were doing it together, reaching across the aisle in deeply divisive times. It was the kind of cooperation people so often said they wanted to see. Perhaps the stars would align better than in the past.
But this promising start was overshadowed by a government shutdown triggered by Trump’s obstinate insistence on getting funding for his border wall. Despite having promised that Mexico would pay for it, he now wanted $5.7 billion American taxpayer dollars for its construction. Democrats refused. The shutdown began at midnight on Dec. 22, 2018 and despite frantic efforts to head it off, it was still underway when the new Congress convened.
As the shutdown ground on, Rooney supported Trump’s position and the wall, helping prolong the crisis by voting 100 percent in agreement with the president. He missed votes on four measures that would have ended the impasse and then voted against one that would have resolved the battle.
Ultimately, the shutdown ended on Jan. 25 after 35 days, when Trump agreed to a stopgap funding measure. It was the longest such government shutdown in American history and it did enormous damage to the United States, costing the economy $11 billion, according to an estimate by the Congressional Budget Office.
While supporting Trump on the shutdown, on Feb. 26, Rooney took a startling position.
Having lost the shutdown battle, Trump tried to circumvent Congress by declaring a national emergency at the southern border and getting the money for the wall that way.
Rooney voted with Democrats and 12 other Republicans to end Trump’s state of emergency.
“I voted for the resolution because I believe in the rule of law and strict adherence to our Constitution,” he stated at the time. “We are, as John Adams said, ‘A nation of laws, not men.’ The ends cannot justify the means; that is exactly what the socialists want.”
Rooney may have couched his dissent in constitutional, anti-socialist, strict immigration control terms but the fact of the dissent was unmistakable. He was opposing a Trump position on a significant issue. It was a first chink in the policy bonds between them.
Protecting Southwest Florida’s fragile environment had always been Rooney’s priority and as the new Congress dawned he had a priority within this priority: dealing with what were technically called Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs).
Determined not to have a repeat of 2018’s Big Bloom, Rooney began the process of pulling together all the threads that would prevent or warn of a recurrence.
Shortly after the new Congress convened and in the midst of the government shutdown, Rooney introduced legislation to make HABs major disasters so that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) could intervene. He asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to study the health impacts of toxic algae. And he asked the Army Corps of Engineers to coordinate with state agencies to monitor fertilizer pollution that could lead to blooms.
But to really make the warning, monitoring and response to HABs effective, Rooney felt he needed to convene a grand meeting that would include all Southwest Florida’s elected executives as well as experts from relevant federal agencies: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.
He managed to pull them all together and proudly announced to the press and public that they would be meeting at Florida Gulf Coast University’s Emergent Technologies Institute on May 7, 2019—and then he closed the meeting to the public, saying it was “private.”
Rooney’s abrupt closure of the meeting full of public officials seemed of a piece with the Trump administration’s increasing secrecy and opacity. In Washington, Attorney General William Barr was deceptively summarizing the findings of Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling and the president was continuing to hide his tax returns. Bit by bit and piece by piece what had once been open and public in government was becoming dark and secluded. Now, on a local level Southwest Florida’s congressman was drawing the curtain on a matter of vital interest to residents. Rooney obliquely indicated that it was CDC officials who had insisted on secrecy in order to attend, but it didn’t make any difference.
Despite protests both verbal and physical and a letter from WINK-TV’s attorney charging violations of Florida’s Sunshine Law, Rooney, the experts, and local and state elected officials including DeSantis held their meeting, comparing notes on HAB warning signs, monitoring, alerts, local responses and funding.
As a sop to the press and public, Rooney held a second meeting at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida in Naples three days later where local conservation groups were allowed to vent and the press was permitted to attend. But at this meeting Rooney was the only elected official present and no decisions were made.
Despite the difficulties, the meeting and Rooney’s work did provide momentum for further progress on HABs by the agencies and jurisdictions involved.
Rooney advanced this further by introducing a bill in June to ensure that the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science could continue to monitor HABs even during a government shutdown—the kind of shutdown he had voted to prolong earlier in the year.
Funding the River of Grass
Despite praise lavished on Trump for his care and concern for Southwest Florida issues, Trump repeatedly shortchanged the state on Everglades restoration funding. In March, the budget he put out for fiscal year 2020 was no exception. Instead of requesting from Congress the $200 million that Florida was due, Trump requested a measly $63 million.
Rooney joined both Florida senators and Rep. Brian Mast (R-18-Fla.) in protesting the budget request, calling it “incredibly short-sighted” and saying that it was time for the administration to meet its commitments.
With Florida a crucial element of Trump’s re-election strategy, the president agreed to come to Lake Okeechobee to see the Hoover Dike for himself. He did so on March 29, which provided an opportunity for every Republican officeholder to be present in a kind of Florida mini-convention. Trump used the occasion to denounce immigrant caravans and call on the Army Corps of Engineers to build the border wall.
The Florida officeholders used the opportunity to lavishly thank the president and flatter and stroke his ego. Sen. Marco Rubio told Trump: “you have a chance, Mr. President, and your administration, to go down in history as the Everglades President — as the person who helped save and restore the Everglades.” Rooney weighed in as well: “Mr. President, I just want to thank you for this and for a lot of other things you’ve done to show when a businessperson gets involved in government, good things can happen. And you are going to save the Everglades. We’re doing as much in three years, because of you, than we’ve done in the preceding 13 years. So thank you, Mr. President.”
It took a reporter to bring Trump back to the topic of Everglades funding, asking when and how much money he would request from Congress. Responded Trump: “Soon. A lot. More than you would ever believe.”
Ultimately, in December, when Trump signed the new budget it contained $200 million for Everglades restoration. But that did not happen before Trump boasted in a tweet in May that he was “fighting” for the money.
The greening of Francis Rooney
It appeared in the first half of 2019 that Rooney was planning to run for a third term and to do so as a “green” Republican.
In addition to his work on offshore oil drilling and Everglades funding, he championed a tax to bring down carbon emissions. After the 2018 election he signed on as cosponsor to a proposal from fellow Floridian Rep. Ted Deutch (D-22-Fla.), which would progressively tax the carbon content of fuels. Although that bill died when the 115th Congress adjourned, he sponsored another, more business-friendly, version in the next Congress. This act was barely noted in the District but it violated the Republican anti-tax orthodoxy and brought down the wrath of the fiercely anti-tax Americans for Tax Reform.
Ultimately, 58 members signed on as co-sponsors to the legislation. Rooney was the only Republican.
Another aspect of Rooney’s environmentalism came in July when his committee assignment was changed from the Committee on Education and the Workforce to the Committee on Science, Space and Technology. This put him in a much better position to affect environmental policy.
A September to remember
September 11 is, of course, the anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, DC. But Sept. 11, 2019 was a very special day for Francis Rooney.
“If we want to show America that we’re the party of the future, then it’s time for all Republicans to return to their roots as champions of our environment,” he wrote.
It’s hard to overstate the magnitude of what amounted to an environmental manifesto. After nearly three years of publicly evading or downplaying questions about climate change, Rooney was fully recognizing it and doing so while Donald Trump was still dismissing it as a “Chinese hoax.” Many congressional Republicans and Southwest Floridians shared Trump’s opinion.
The very same day, HR 205, the Florida Coastal Protection Act making the offshore oil drilling moratorium permanent, passed the entire House by a vote of 248 to 180. Rooney was now listed as the legislation’s chief sponsor.
How had it passed? Rooney did his own shout-out in the statement announcing the passage: “Thanks to the support of Speaker Pelosi, Majority Leader Hoyer and Natural Resources Chairman Grijalva, the House of Representatives has done its job to protect Florida.” Pelosi, Reps. Steny Hoyer (D-5-Md.) and Raul Grijalva (D-3-Ariz.) were all Democrats, as was his chief cosponsor, Kathy Castor.
Rooney had learned to play well with others.
There was more good news in September when on Sept. 16 he was formally welcomed as a member of the Environmental Subcommittee of the House Science Committee, the key body that would deal with environmental policy. It was the perfect subcommittee assignment for further work on Southwest Florida’s environment.
Rooney was now positioned as the leading “green” Republican, he had proven that he could operate effectively in a Democratic House, he had collaborated successfully with Pelosi to the District’s benefit, he had taken a giant step toward protecting Southwest Florida’s coastline, he had begun a movement toward coping with toxic algae, he had increased Everglades appropriations, he was in a strong position in the District and his election to a third term seemed absolutely assured.
As the sun set on the month of September 2019, Rooney appeared to have attained that highest of all political ambitions—he was a winner.
What could possibly go wrong?
A ‘perfect’ phone call
On July 25, 2019 President Donald Trump had a phone call with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine. They discussed military cooperation and then Trump said, “I would like you to do us a favor, though… .” He wanted information damaging to former Vice President Joe Biden, his likely rival in the upcoming 2020 election.
That phone call, which Trump later characterized as “perfect,” set off a chain of events that led to the third presidential impeachment in American history.
Day after day the tension built as witnesses testified before Congress, new elements of Trump actions came to light and controversy grew.
In a polarized nation this led to even more extreme polarization. The more he was attacked and the more information emerged about his malfeasance the more Trump insisted on his near-papal infallibility and demanded absolute loyalty.
A key element of Trump’s defense was that there had never been a quid pro quo asked of Zelensky. However, on Oct. 17, Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s White House chief of staff, admitted to reporters that there had indeed been a quid pro quo when Trump froze aid to Ukraine unless he got the public accusations he wanted against Biden’s son, Hunter.
An open mind is a terrible thing to have
After weeks of denying the quid pro quo, Mulvaney’s admission shocked Rooney.
Over the months since Trump’s praise for Rooney on Halloween night 2018 rifts had grown between the president and his defender.
In addition to Rooney’s first vote against Trump’s state of emergency declaration over the border wall, Rooney had voted against the president yet again on the same issue.
The House had voted against the emergency declaration. So had the Senate. Trump vetoed the bill and then the House tried to override Trump’s veto. Rooney, sticking to his original position, voted with the Democratic majority and 13 other Republicans to override. Although the override failed, Rooney had bucked the president and his Party, even while denying his vote had anything to do with Trump and everything to do with the Constitution.
Then there was a matter of foreign policy. Rooney, a former ambassador who was passionate about foreign affairs, began expressing disapproval of some of Trump’s diplomatic moves, one in particular.
On Oct. 6, following a telephone conversation between Trump and Turkish President Recep Erdogan, the White House announced that it wouldn’t oppose a Turkish incursion into northern Syria, which was aimed against an autonomous Kurdish enclave there. The Kurds had fought shoulder-to-shoulder with American troops against the Islamic State, bravely facing the terrorist group’s cruelty and ruthlessness. Now American troops would abandon them. Trump’s decision amounted to the darkest betrayal of a close ally in United States history.
Rooney had repeatedly supported the Kurds in op-eds and statements. He now issued a statement urging Trump to reconsider. “The administration’s decision to remove our remaining troops from Syria is strategically short-sighted, erodes our credibility amongst our regional partners and fortifies Russia’s position in the conflict,” stated Rooney. Like so many statements made at that moment it was ignored and what followed was a genocidal assault against the Kurds that undid years of American effort.
So when Rooney agreed to an interview with CNN’s Poppy Harlow the morning of Oct. 18 after Mulvaney’s statement, he was perhaps not in as much of a mood to defend the president as he had been in the past.
“Whatever might have been gray and unclear before is certainly clear right now, that the actions were related to getting someone in the Ukraine to do these things [the quid pro quo],” Rooney said, noting that political power was not to be used for personal gain.
Were the president’s actions grounds for impeachment? Harlow asked. “I don’t know. I want to study it [the president’s statements] more,” Rooney said. “I want to hear the next set of testimony next week from a couple more ambassadors. But it’s certainly very, very serious and troubling.”
Rooney made a politically dangerous comparison to Richard Nixon’s situation after Watergate. “I don’t think this is as much as Richard Nixon did,” he said of Trump’s actions. “But I’m very mindful of the fact that back during Watergate everybody said it’s a witch hunt to get Nixon. Turns out it wasn’t a witch hunt but it was absolutely correct.”
He also said that Pelosi “had a point” when she told Trump in a meeting that “with you all roads lead to Putin.”
“I was skeptical of it, like most Republicans,” he noted of Pelosi’s remarks. But he was also led to ask: “Are we trying to exculpate Russia, who all our trained intelligence officials have consistently corroborated that Russia was behind the election meddling, not the Ukraine?”
Harlow kept pressing Rooney to say that the president’s actions constituted impeachable offenses. Rooney very carefully resisted. He said he wanted more information and he wasn’t an authority on impeachment.
Then Harlow changed tack: “I think you are saying that you are not ruling out that this was an impeachable offense for the President,” she said.
“I don’t think you can rule anything out until you know all the facts,” responded Rooney.
Ostensibly a reasonable and obvious observation reflecting an open mind, in Trumpworld, this was Rooney’s moment of high heresy. It stabbed at the heart of Trump’s own doctrine of absolute innocence and infallibility.
In that interview and in a follow-up interview with Politico, Rooney repeated that he was open to considering the evidence being gathered for impeachment. When Mulvaney tried to walk back his statement, Rooney was scornful: “What is a walk-back? I mean, I tell you what, I’ve drilled some oil wells I’d like to walk back — dry holes,” he told Politico.
“I did what I came to do and I want to be a model for term limits,” he said. He announced that he was not going to run for a third term.
Rooney said that he was “shocked” by Mulvaney’s remarks that there had been a quid pro quo and disgusted by the “rump, non-professional diplomatic channel” of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Energy Secretary Rick Perry who had been negotiating on Trump’s behalf with Ukraine outside normal channels.
Rooney said he felt “like I was a bit on an island for some time” among his Republican colleagues, with whom he disagreed on many issues. He said he didn’t really think he wanted a third term. His aim, he said, had been to get the money for the Everglades and stop offshore drilling. He said he’d gotten the Everglades projects going and increased its funding by ten times and the projects were under way. He had thought that might take three terms but now he felt it was accomplished.
When Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan welched on his commitment to stop offshore drilling, Rooney had worked with Pelosi and achieved his goal, he explained.
“I came to do what I came to do,” he said. “I believe in public service, not public life. I thought that you came and did your public service and you left.” Now, “I’m really tired of the intense partisanship and I’m ready to leave.”
Asked if he was like other Republicans who were tired of defending President Trump, he said no, “I just call ‘em as I see ‘em.”
Did his retirement announcement free him up a little bit? asked Vittert. “No,” said Rooney. “It’s just like we tell our kids and our employees: just try to do the right thing at all times.”
Rooney may have announced his retirement but he still had a year of his term to go and coming up was one of the most momentous congressional votes in American history.
For two months after his Fox News interview, Rooney appeared to be the only Republican member of the House undecided on whether or not to send articles of impeachment to the Senate. As such he was the subject of intense speculation and suasion.
Finally, on Dec. 18 the world received its answer when Rooney joined 196 other House Republicans in voting against the first article of impeachment, abuse of power, and 197 on the second article, obstruction of Congress.
“Based on the limited evidence provided to the House of Representatives, the President’s behavior, while inappropriate, was neither criminal, nor does it rise to the level of justifying impeachment,” he announced.
The Republican votes notwithstanding, the majority of the House voted to impeach the president. The articles were sent to the Senate for trial where Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) refused to allow witnesses to be called and the president was acquitted.
Although he had voted the Party line on impeachment, Rooney was still a heretic according to the Trump credo. His heretical status was confirmed in later votes as well.
In January Rooney confirmed his apostasy when he defied Trump and party discipline and voted to restrict Trump’s ability to go to war with Iran. This followed the US assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and an Iranian missile retaliation against US forces. In this he was joined—incredibly—by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-1-Fla.), perhaps Trump’s most histrionic defender in Congress. Rooney explained his vote as being in keeping with Congress’ authority to declare war.
In the District public focus shifted to a raucous and wild Republican primary to succeed Rooney, with ten Republican candidates at one point vying to gain his seat.
Behold a pale horse
When the year 2020 dawned the biggest expected disruption to normal everyday life was what was sure to be a passionate and hard-fought re-election campaign. But at the beginning of December, 2019, the most disruptive and destructive event in a century had its origins in a “wet market” half a world away in Wuhan, China.
As the coronavirus, COVID-19, swept through the world and became a confirmed pandemic, Trump kept assuring the public that “like a miracle, it will disappear” and did no planning, organizing or preparation while the plague mounted and began taking lives in the United States.
There was little that Congress could do about the virus itself. But it could provide relief to hard-hit American families, bolster business and try to provide the financial resources to keep the country working.
What followed were a series of House initiatives to cope with the effects of the pandemic, marshaled by House Speaker Pelosi in the absence of leadership from the President.
Each had to be approved by the Congress. And in every one, Rooney was absent.
It was as though, having announced that he would retire at the end of the 116th Congress, Rooney had actually decided to retire immediately.
Rooney did take some actions: he signed a Republican letter calling for the resignation of the head of the World Health Organization and made a variety of announcements. But he took no legislative actions.
At the end of June, Rooney’s absence and his willingness to use proxy voting, which Democrats were promoting because of the pandemic but which congressional Republicans opposed, led sophomore Republicans to vote him off the Republican Steering Committee. A little-known but powerful panel, this was the body that made committee assignments. He was replaced with a Texas congressman.
Finally, at the end of July, Rooney denied that he’d been absent from the work of Congress.
“I am working right along, every day, on issues important to Southwest Florida: Everglades appropriations, dredging in Collier County, estuary renourishment, pushing the administration to support the offshore drilling ban that I sponsored in the House, and a host of other issues,” he stated in response to questions from The Paradise Progressive.
As for all the missed coronavirus votes, he stated: “Voting on things that are preordained to pass, otherwise the Speaker would not bring them forward, has not seemed to be worth the COVID risk to me.” He had refrained from voting by proxy at the behest of the Republican leadership while they challenged the practice in court. Once the challenge was heard in court, he proceeded to participate again and cast his first, post-absence ballot on July 29.
Rooney did make headlines again in June when he told The New York Times that he might support the Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, because “Trump is driving us all crazy.”
Of Biden, Rooney said: “What he’s always been is not scary. A lot of people that voted for President Trump did so because they did not like Hillary Clinton. I don’t see that happening with Joe Biden — how can you not like Joe Biden?” Still, he was not formally endorsing the Democrat because he wanted to make sure he did not veer off to the extreme left of the political spectrum.
Rooney also did not make an endorsement as nine Republicans battled and battered each other for the nomination to replace him.
That might have remained a statesmanlike position before the Aug. 18 Republican primary but after local Republicans selected state Rep. Byron Donalds (R-80-Immokalee) to be their standard bearer for Congress, Rooney still did not make an endorsement.
Donalds won his race anyway, with the dependable 62 percent Republican majority in the District.
However, as the presidential race was called for Joe Biden and Donald Trump resisted the voters’ verdict, Rooney went rogue yet again.
Republicans nationally and locally were either following Trump’s lead and alleging widespread fraud or withholding their recognition of Biden’s victory.
But Rooney, alone of local Republicans, extended congratulations to the President-Elect on Nov. 7.
“All Americans need to come together in supporting President- elect Biden,” he posted on Twitter and Facebook. “Our nation will only be successful if the new administration is. We must work together to enact bipartisan legislation and solve the problems which our country faces – that is how our system of government works. We have more that unite us than divide us, and now that the heat of battle has drawn to a close we must come together for the betterment of all our citizens.”
He followed that up with a longer, more expansive look at presidential transitions in an op-ed in The Hill newspaper on Nov. 15. Titled “Time to concede: The peaceful transition of power is an American tradition.” It again put forward his earlier conclusion: “President Trump should concede the election immediately after all long-shot court challenges have been disposed of. The best interests of our nation and our party demand that we acknowledge the winner of this vigorous contest. The American People have made their choice. It is the American way to recognize and honor that choice.”
Rooney was predictably denounced by die-hard ever-Trumpers.
Doris Cortese, vice-chair of the Lee County Republican Executive Committee and the “godmother” of Lee County Republican politics, was livid.
“For him to call himself a Republican and then call for our Republican president to concede, I think is beyond terrible,” she told Amy Bennett Williams of the News-Press on Nov. 17. “He has betrayed our president, he’s betrayed our party, he’s betrayed the people who trusted him and voted for him and worked for him, and he’s betraying our country by not letting our election process work itself out.”
Byron Donalds agreed: “Let’s just let the process work,” he told Williams. “When we see what the numbers look like after that’s done, then I think it’s time to start (making) those decisions and having those conversations.”
So Rooney was ending his congressional career as an outcast and heretic, about as far as possible from where he had stood on that warm October afternoon in 2016, when as a believing Trumper he praised the man as a potential savior from the twin menaces of Hillary Clinton and socialism.
On Oct. 30, just before the election and almost exactly two years to the day since Trump had praised him before the crowd in Hertz Arena as a “great congressman,” Rooney was interviewed by Dave Elias, NBC2’s political reporter, in what was promoted as an “exit interview.”
“How will history remember Republican Congressman Francis Rooney of the 19th District?” asked Elias.
“I hope they remember he did the things he ran to accomplish and got them done even if they never agreed with everything. I did what I thought was the right thing and I was intellectually honest about it at all times,” responded Rooney.
Would that in fact be the way Southwest Florida would remember Francis Rooney?
There is no ritual more solemn in Washington, DC, than the taking of an oath of office. It expresses an individual’s deepest, most fundamental commitment to the United States as witnessed before God. It is when those who walk in the footsteps of the Founders pledge their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to their country.
As a new year dawns after an election, the members of the House and Senate take their oaths of office, followed weeks later by the president at his inauguration.
For members of the US House of Representatives, on the first working day of January they gather en masse in the Capitol with grave pomp and, inserting their names, recite: “I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”
The loyalty expressed in the oath is not to a person; it’s to a Constitution and the principles underlying that Constitution. In fact, the US oath is a form of rebellion against the oath used in colonial times, when officeholders swore allegiance to the king.
But Donald Trump saw loyalty differently. In his mind, loyalty could flow only to him and he expressed that view bluntly and directly. “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty,” Trump told James Comey, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, according to Comey’s account—shortly before he was fired. Trump didn’t want just loyalty; like a feudal monarch, he wanted unquestioning fealty and obedience.
On January 3, 2017 members of the 115th Congress may have sworn allegiance to the Constitution of the United States but the Republican members were going to be called upon to demonstrate their personal loyalty to the man who would take office on January 20. Their loyalty was going to be tested to the limits of rationality and reality and morality.
And of those members, none seemed prepared to be a more loyal defender of the man he saw as a national savior than Representative Francis Rooney of the 19th Congressional District of Florida.
Defender of the faith
For ordinarily sleepy Southwest Florida, politics were not usually a primary concern. But the election of Donald Trump after his extreme and threatening rhetoric on the campaign trail and his wild actions immediately after taking office alarmed and upset many local residents. A women’s march in Naples the day after the Inaugural attracted well over a thousand participants, much to the astonishment of the organizers.
Rooney launched his first town halls with constituents shortly after he took office and on March 3, 2017 he held two, one in North Naples and the other in Cape Coral.
The town halls drew more people than such events might have in the past and at the North Collier Regional Park the lines to get in were so long and the community room so full that people were turned away. Later that day, the Cape Coral church where the town hall was held was packed.
Rooney had called for “a civil and constructive dialogue” so that he could hear “your thoughts, concerns, and suggestions.” He really wanted to discuss his efforts to fund Everglades restoration and he clearly hoped the town hall would cover water purity and environmental issues.
But participants had other things on their minds. They wanted to hear where their representative stood on a broad array of Trump-related issues, which had only vaguely been discussed during the campaign.
What they got was Rooney’s pure, unvarnished Trumpism and conservative gospel:
On why the United States did not have universal healthcare like other industrialized nations: “Half the country voted not to do that and I don’t believe America is behind in anything,” Rooney said. “I don’t want to live in France. I’ve lived in Italy but I don’t want to live in a place with 1 percent growth, with no upward mobility where if your father was a baker, that’s what you’re going to be.”
On Obamacare: “It was an experiment that didn’t work” and should be repealed, he argued.
On cutting off federal funds for Planned Parenthood: “I definitely want to de-fund Planned Parenthood. I want to get government out of the abortion business.”
On Trump’s ties to Russia and the stream of lies coming from the administration: Rooney said the House and Senate Intelligence Committees “have superior knowledge and they have access to the classified data.”
On the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): “The EPA needs to be reined in.”
On whether Trump should release his tax returns: “We all have opinions. You didn’t hire me to express my opinions about things I can’t do anything about. I spend my time focusing on something that I can do something about for you.” Angry audience members started chanting “Yes or no! Yes or no!”
On and on it went in both town halls, with the audience getting more angry and agitated with his answers and seeming evasions. There were boos, catcalls and in both meetings audience members jumped up and started to approach the stage, having to be restrained.
It wasn’t good then and it never got better during his first term. Rooney always seemed grim, humorless and tense. It was as though he could not believe the audience wasn’t reading from his own conservative catechism. He would open the meetings trying to explain Everglades restoration and water flow, mounting charts and slides, clearly intending to deliver what was essentially an engineering briefing but the audience would never buy it. The events would quickly go off the rails into chants, shouting and discord. His own supporters were always vastly outnumbered and although his aides made sure to pick at least some softball questions from the cards people submitted in advance, what was clear and palpable was the fear, anxiety and alarm caused by Trump’s words and actions, which Rooney proved unable to address.
To his credit, Rooney continued having town halls. The meetings, he told the Fort Myers News-Press, “are critically important because this is democracy at work. This is what our country is built on.”
But his town halls ended on Feb. 22, 2018 at Marco Island and Fort Myers. It was only eight days after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. People were horrified and frantic about the bloodshed. In his opening remarks in Fort Myers he presented a technical, architectural proposal to screen students entering schools. It didn’t satisfy anyone.
On Marco Island, when asked if he would support a semi-automatic weapons ban, Rooney replied: “How willing are we to throw the Constitution out the window?” The answer elicited angry shouts and catcalls.
In Fort Myers Rooney was confronted by six surviving students of the shooting. Though stating that “irresponsible people” shouldn’t have guns, his opposition to a ban or any other gun control measure led to jeers and angry shouts from the audience.
“Children are…dying at my school!” yelled Michael Weissman, who had graduated from the school the year before. “You are heartless!”
“I’m for making sure that people who are dangerous don’t get guns in their hands,” Rooney said, to a chorus of boos. “I’m not voting to abdicate the Second Amendment.” Students from Naples and Palmetto Ridge high schools chanted: “Tell us Rooney how you dare, to put us all in the cross hairs” and “Close down the NRA; we don’t want it anyway.”
That was Rooney’s last town hall—ever.
Into the DC swamp
Freshmen members in Congress rarely have standing in an institution that reveres seniority and longevity, no matter what their stature back at home. In this Rooney was no exception.
Rooney, who had never spent a day of his life in a public school classroom, landed a position on the House Education and Labor Committee, which was something of a backwater, especially in Republican eyes. There, he supported the Chair, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-5-NC), whom Rooney once characterized as a “super conservative.” She wanted to abolish the Department of Education.
Rooney, working with Foxx, tried to cut national education spending by $2 billion and end scholarships for students intending to go into public service (“You know, you get a special loan if you commit to go into public service after college. It’s like paying people to fight against us,” he told a conservative audience in May 2018.). Rooney also hosted Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos for two tours of inspection of Southwest Florida schools.
In the end, faced with both Democratic and mainstream Republican opposition, none of Rooney’s education efforts amounted to anything.
On the labor part of his committee assignment, Rooney was relentlessly anti-union, sponsoring or cosponsoring bills to reduce union activity and make it more difficult to organize unions and easier to de-certify them. In a 2018 op-ed he specifically attacked the Coalition of Immokalee Workers as well as the idea of “worker centers” that are not unions but educate and assist workers.
Rooney also sat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, an appropriate assignment given his diplomatic experience. There he inveighed against the regimes in Cuba, Venezuela and Iran. Perhaps most memorably, he wrote an op-ed calling on State Department diplomats to at least consider the advantages of recognizing the independence of the Kurds, America’s frontline allies in fighting the Islamic State.
Bizarrely at one point, Rooney turned against legislation he himself had cosponsored and lobbied against it in the Senate. That was the Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act requiring democratic reforms in Nicaragua before American businesses could make investments there. At first Rooney supported it. Then, after it had passed the House and gone to the Senate, he turned against it, infuriating committee Chair and fellow Floridian, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-27-Fla.).
“Why Rooney chose to lobby against a bill that he himself cosponsored and to do so without even giving me the courtesy of a notice, is practically unheard of in this institution,” Ros-Lehtinen complained to the Miami Herald. “And then to take the extra step of being actively involved in lobbying against it, going to the Senate and lobbying senators against a bill he cosponsored? I don’t know what Rooney’s about, but it was not appreciated. It’s just uncool.”
Legislatively, Rooney’s most prominent effort was a quixotic attempt to impose term limits on members of Congress, which he called the Thomas Jefferson Public Service Act, an effort to return to the idea of the citizen-legislator at the dawn of the republic.
Terms of elected service are set by the Constitution and changing the Constitution is an arduous and lengthy process—deliberately so. Rooney wanted congressional representation capped at six terms in the House and two in the Senate (12 years) and he wanted to get this passed immediately. To do this, he proposed a business solution: reduce members’ salaries to $1 after the limits were reached.
The idea was criticized by Southwest Florida Democrats, among others, as being unconstitutional and favoring the wealthy who would be the only ones able to serve beyond the limits. The bill went nowhere, although it did take up a lot of Rooney’s time and attention.
The urge to purge
As Trump’s actions alarmed and enraged much of the public at the national level, Rooney was quick to jump in and defend the president. He said that Trump’s idea for a border wall was a “metaphor for border security” and when Trump promised that Mexico would pay for it, the president was speaking in “an exuberant manner.” The investigation into Russia ties had been “propagated relentlessly by democrat officials in order to discredit the President and the election” and “continues to be debunked,” he stated.
He was open and available to national media of all political persuasions and made frequent appearances to respond to questions and drive home his points.
But one on-air defense stood out from all the others. It came the day after Christmas, December 26, 2017, during what should have been a very slow news day.
Trump had been tweeting fulminations against the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Russia investigation, which he maintained was a hoax. FBI Director James Comey had been fired by Trump in May. Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe had announced his resignation. Trump was putting pressure on the FBI just at the moment former FBI Director Robert Mueller was pressing ahead with his investigation.
Rooney was interviewed by correspondent Hallie Jackson on MSNBC about the tweets and the investigation.
He offered a full-throated defense of Trump and attacked the FBI and Department of Justice (DoJ). “I’m very concerned that DoJ and the FBI are off the rails,” he told Jackson. “I think the American people have very high standards…”
“Are those agencies not living up to those standards?” asked Jackson.
“Those aforementioned examples are really nerve-wracking to me and undermine my confidence that the agencies don’t respect the Constitution and will put the ends before the means.”
“That’s a pretty broad brush you’re painting with,” responded Jackson.
“Yeah, but we’ve seen a lot of ends before the means culture both in the Obama administration, out of Hillary Clinton, 4 million dollars of potentially illegal campaign contributions, the Clinton Foundation, Uranium One. We’ve got to have good, clean government.”
“Do you think we don’t have a good, clean government?” asked Jackson. “There are those who look at remarks like you are making and say that Republicans are trying to discredit the Department of Justice and thus the Russia investigation. Is that not what you’re doing?”
“No, I’m not trying to discredit them,” responded Rooney. “I would like to see the directors of those agencies purged and say, ‘We’ve got a lot of great agents, a lot of great lawyers here.’ Those are the people that I want the American people to see good works being done, not these people who are kind of a deep state.”
Jackson’s eyes widened: “Language like that, congressman? Purge? Purge the Department of Justice?”
“Well, I think Mr. Strozyk could be purged, sure,” he said, referring to Peter Strozyk, the FBI’s Russia expert, who had been critical of Trump in private text messages.
If Rooney was seeking national attention he certainly got it. His call for a purge was covered by major news networks and outlets across the country. It was denounced by commentators and pundits. His Democratic opponents in the District regarded it as a Christmas gift to their campaign. And non-Trump Republicans were horrified as well.
“This is rhetoric of the extreme right wing of the Republican Party,” said Richard Painter, former White House ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, interviewed on CNN. “We don’t have purges in the United States of America! That’s Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany. That’s not the type of rhetoric we use in the United States of America and that man does not belong in Congress and I sure as heck don’t want him in my party.”
Rooney never backed off or retreated from his statement. Over time, in fact, a purge did take place: Attorney General Jeff Sessions resigned; Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein resigned; Comey had been fired; McCabe was terminated the day before he qualified for his pension. Trump succeeded in eliminating nearly all the high-level federal law enforcement officers who threatened him.
Through it all Rooney established his position on the front lines of Trumpism, standing out as a vocal defender of the President and his program, taking all the heat the “deep state” and mainstream media could muster.
Rooney was genuinely concerned about the purity of Southwest Florida’s water and restoration of the Everglades, which was his top priority. He plainly understood that human habitation in the area depended on its water and the Everglades were a critical and delicate resource that protected the towns of the coast.
Accordingly, Rooney was very active in lobbying for full Everglades funding and doing what he could to enhance water quality. Familiar with construction planning, he dove into details of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan and pushed to get its projects moving. He brought key officials and congressional leaders to Florida to so they could see the river of grass for themselves. He took the opportunity of a private dinner with Trump to raise these issues directly.
On Aug. 10, 2017 Rooney even waded out into the swamp itself to hunt down invasive Burmese pythons—and bagged five, winning local and national publicity.
But as Rooney showed concern for the local environment, he was caught in a contradiction by his support for Donald Trump, who was not just indifferent to the natural environment but seemed actively hostile to it. When it came to Southwest Florida, for example, Trump cut $1 billion from the Army Corps of Engineers budget, which included money that would have gone to repairing the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee, essential infrastructure for water management.
While mildly expressing hope that Trump would increase funding, Rooney otherwise went along with the whole Trump program: in addition to calling for reining in the EPA, he supported Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement and he repeatedly denied the reality of climate change at his town hall meetings.
“The climate has been changing forever,” he said at one town hall. Did he believe in global warming? “I think that there is very complex issues surrounding global warming. Sea levels have been rising since the ice age,” he replied.
When asked specifically about sea level rise at a Bonita Springs town hall on May 31, 2017 he was vague: “We definitely need to learn all we can about why these sea levels are rising. I’m just not sure how much is man-made and how much is not.” Again he used his ice age line: “The sea level has been rising since the ice age.”
While Rooney and many Southwest Floridians might deny climate change, they could not deny the climate itself and Mother Nature had dramatic ways of making her presence known.
On Sept. 10, 2017 Hurricane Irma, then a Category 4 storm, rampaged ashore at Marco Island.
The storm’s arrival followed days of warnings, mandatory evacuations, supply-buying and frantic efforts to secure homes, businesses and effects. Irma may not have been as devastating as some of her bigger cousins but she did do considerable damage, knocking out power, flinging debris and harming numerous structures.
Rooney was in Washington, DC during the entire run-up and arrival of the storm. On his official website he posted standard warnings and suggestions and links to various agencies. He returned to Southwest Florida days after the storm’s impact, touring local sites and getting briefings.
Trump and Gov. Rick Scott (R) briefly visited the area on Sept. 14, when the president handed out sandwiches and bananas for a photo-op in East Naples. He also approved disaster relief for the state, a standard federal procedure after disasters. Rooney subsequently led the Florida congressional delegation in sending a letter to the president applauding his “swift” action.
At least Hurricane Irma had a beginning, middle and end. The next disaster was more complex and sneakier.
Beginning in October 2017 red tide began forming off the coast of Southwest Florida. A natural phenomenon caused by the growth of toxic algae, at first it wasn’t considered significant. But this red tide persisted. To make things worse, a different kind of blue-green algae began blooming in the Caloosahatchee River running through Fort Myers.
By the summer of 2018, the two algal blooms were destroying aquatic life, poisoning beaches and local waters and infecting the air. People coughed and choked and gasped as they breathed in the algal toxins. The red tide expanded up the Gulf shore and around Florida to the southern Atlantic coast. The blue-green algae fed on polluted runoff from Lake Okeechobee. It was a slow-motion disaster made worse by the fact that it took a long time for authorities to recognize it as a disaster.
(Terminology note:For the purposes of this article, the two blooms will be referred to here simply as the Big Bloom of 2018. You read it here first.)
When people looked to their public officials to do something to cope with the crisis, they were met with what seemed like a thundering silence. Rooney did request the Small Business Administration to assist affected Southwest Florida businesses but it seemed a relatively feeble gesture.
In fact, there was little that public officials could do about the bloom itself. In many ways, though, they didn’t even try to offer victims solace or comfort–or even concern. In an appearance in Venice, Florida in September, Rick Scott, then campaigning for a Senate seat, was so besieged by angry protesters that he retreated into his campaign bus and fled the scene and canceled a scheduled stop in Naples.
In August and early September, Rooney was nowhere to be found as Big Bloom concerns mounted, an absence exploited by his Democratic challenger. In fact, Rooney’s first public appearance amidst the bloom was in Rick Scott’s entourage as Scott retreated back aboard his bus.
It was not until November that the Big Bloom dissipated. Even the most obtuse Floridian could see that something was amiss and that nature was out of kilter. The big question was: would Southwest Floridians register their unhappiness at the ballot box in November?
The oil war
As a boater, a waterfront property owner and a member of the oil industry, Rooney was intimately concerned about another environmental issue: the possibility of offshore oil drilling.
Florida is an oil-bearing state and there may be oil reserves immediately off its coast. However, the cost of extraction has never made full-scale exploitation worthwhile for the industry. Nonetheless, the possibility that the azure Gulf waters could see a forest of oil rigs has mobilized Floridians of all political persuasions.
A moratorium on offshore oil drilling was in place until 2022 but in one of his earliest acts, in April 2017, Trump issued an executive order opening up American waters to oil exploitation.
Rooney’s loyalty to Trump was at odds with the interests of his district, his state and his own desires. He wanted to make the oil moratorium permanent and started working legislatively to do so.
But Rooney was up against virtually every force that could be mustered against him. He thought, at the outset of his term, that he had a commitment from House Speaker Rep. Paul Ryan (R-1-Wis.) to bring forward legislation to make the moratorium permanent. But that commitment never materialized. Instead, in addition to the oil industry, Rooney faced opposition in the person of Rep. Steve Scalise (R-1-La.), the Republican Whip, who hailed from a state almost completely owned by the offshore oil industry. Scalise consistently outranked and outflanked Rooney on this issue. Rooney even confronted him directly in a conversation on the floor of the House.
“You’re telling me that the industry won’t go for protecting the Eastern Gulf in Florida?” Rooney told Scalise. “What industry are you talking about? I’m talking about tourism. I’m talking about why we’re all here, okay? Just because Louisiana is a pit, doesn’t mean we want to become a pit. Okay?”
It didn’t make a difference.
Rooney was also up against the Trump administration’s Department of the Interior, which was notoriously corrupt, subservient to industry and committed to drilling everywhere it could. He had dinner with Secretary Ryan Zinke to press his case but it didn’t seem to have an effect.
Lastly, he was up against the President who wanted to exploit every natural resource without any regard for environmental degradation.
Rooney’s only ally was the Defense Department, which used the eastern Gulf of Mexico to train its pilots and didn’t want any oil rigs in the way.
In his first term Rooney made no headway. Southwest Florida’s shores looked ripe for squeezing.
As the 2018 midterm elections rolled around, Rooney was facing a Democratic challenger, financial advisor David Holden, and local Democrats were more energized than ever.
In a standard rite of democracy, the Collier County League of Women Voters invited both Rooney and Holden to a debate on Sept. 17, 2018. Holden accepted immediately. Rooney sent a letter saying that he had “no availability” on that date and “no future availability.” In short, he would never debate. Just to twist the knife, he said later that he didn’t have to debate “because everyone knows my positions.”
Holden protested. He very publicly sent a letter to Rooney challenging him to debate anywhere or any time. There was no response and Holden’s protests got little coverage except one time on the local Fox4 news channel.
From a tactical standpoint, Rooney’s refusal to debate made sense since he might face the same kind of outrage he faced at his town halls at an in-person debate. He was not alone in his reluctance; avoiding debates is a common tactic for candidates who feel they’re comfortably ahead, don’t want to jeopardize their leads and can absorb the negative fallout from their refusals.
Southwest Florida’s local media and civic organizations, which traditionally serve as the watchdogs of the democratic process and inform voters, stayed mute and unmoved in the face of Rooney’s disdain. Seemingly indifferent or averse to covering politics, this passive and supine media establishment, especially in print, simply accepted Rooney’s pronouncement. He suffered no adverse reaction and from a campaign standpoint it counted as a success. His record and positions were never examined or challenged.
The losers in this process were the voters of the 19th Congressional District, who lost any opportunity to evaluate the relative merits of the candidates on a side-by-side basis.
Rooney did no campaigning in 2018. While Holden was the first local Democratic candidate to place broadcast advertisements in the local market, the Rooney campaign remained dark. Rooney addressed no large gatherings. He did no canvassing and any in-person events were small and invitation-only.
But Rooney did shine brightly and his long-time efforts were recognized on one special night, Oct. 31, Halloween, when Donald Trump came to the Hertz Arena in Estero to do a rally.
The arena was packed as a relaxed and expansive Trump spoke, boasting of his accomplishments and excoriating Democrats, liberals, immigrants, the media, his enemies and the whole, standard Trumpist litany. He told the audience to make sure they went out and voted and then he asked: “Who voted? Who voted?” Nearly every hand went up.
“Oh wow! Everyone voted already? Then what the hell am I doing here tonight? Good bye…” He made as though he was going to leave the stage and the crowd laughed and cheered. “That’s like 100 percent of the people in this room voted!” he said, amazed. “All right. Let’s just enjoy ourselves, OK?”
Then he began a standard part of his speeches, his shout-outs to local politicians.
“We are honored to be joined tonight by many great Florida Republicans including a man who is so great to me on television. This guy is special. He was a great businessman. Now he’s a great congressman. Francis Rooney. Where’s Francis?”
Trump scanned the crowd and had to turn around to find Rooney sitting behind him. When Trump located Rooney, the crowd cheered.
“I love him when he defends me. He’s brutal. He gets the job done. Right, Francis? Thank you, thank you.”
It was the day before early voting began. The Florida October sun shone warmly on the Collier County Fairgrounds as hundreds of supporters of candidate Donald Trump packed onto the dusty field and filled the bleachers.
As with all Trump rallies, the atmosphere was part carnival, part circus, an eruption of exuberant excitement for what all knew was a doomed candidate who was nonetheless going into the last days of battle full of defiant energy.
But before the candidate spoke there was a lineup of other personalities and politicians. Among them was the Republican candidate for Congress for the 19th Congressional District of Florida, businessman Francis Rooney.
“Once again, for the second time, we get to welcome our Republican nominee for president who may be our savior: Donald Trump,” Rooney said in his Oklahoma twang. A slight figure in rolled-up shirtsleeves, he stood amidst a sea of Trump signs and “Make America Great Again” hats.
After reminding the crowd to vote, he went on: “Now our nominee, Donald Trump, is the only thing standing between us and Hillary Clinton. It’s a thin red line between us and Hillary Clinton.”
The crowd erupted in chants: “Lock her up! Lock her up!” Rooney laughed and shouted, “Yes, lock her up!”
Trump, said Rooney, was the only thing protecting them from “three or four horrible Supreme Court nominees who are going to plague us, plague our kids and plague our grandkids for the rest of our lives.” He was also the only barrier against “invasive, oppressive regulations” and “a bunch of taxes that are going to make it impossible for people to start businesses and raise families and prosper like we’ve all been able to do since the Reagan revolution.”
He continued: “We’ve had eight years of nonstop trampling on our Constitution, an abuse of executive power. Hillary Clinton buys into every word of the Obama deal. He’s mocked, he’s mocked our traditional American values and sneered at conservative God-fearing Americans. He’s stealing our rights—right before our eyes!”
Then he yelled, emphatically, desperately, “We are at the breaking point! We’ve got to take our country back!” The crowd roared.
At stake, he continued, was whether the United States would remain an exceptional nation of opportunity and freedom “or are we going to go the way of Europe: slow growth, big government pessimism, no people have kids because they’re pessimistic or even worse. Are we going to go the way of authoritarianism?”
Southwest Florida, he said, is God’s country and “could change the game. We’re the redder than red region” and could deliver the state to the Republican Party and Donald Trump. Then he urged everyone to vote.
Rooney went on to win his congressional race and Donald Trump astounded the world—and himself—by being elected the 45th President of the United States.
Exactly four years later, Rooney was still in Congress. But now he was a heretic and a pariah, remote and removed from constituents, retiring amidst recrimination and accusation and in Congress disgraced and exiled from a key Party position.
Most of all, he had publicly renounced Donald Trump as his savior. He had questioned the creed and the doctrine and the infallibility of the man he’d once praised as the only protection for American freedom.
And when Donald Trump was defeated, Rooney, alone of all his fellow local Republicans, reached out to Joe Biden, the victor, and congratulated him. “All Americans need to come together in supporting President-elect Biden,” he wrote on social media. “Our nation will only be successful if the new administration is.” This was praise for the man who was once at the top of the Obama administration that Rooney charged was bringing authoritarianism.
Francis Rooney’s journey from believer to heretic is a great story of American politics.
But there is more, because Rooney was an active member of Congress who did change some things in Southwest Florida and in the nation’s capital. What he achieved and what he attempted to achieve need to be objectively evaluated and assessed so that the good can be a foundation and the bad can be healed.
In this four-part series, The Paradise Progressive will examine Francis Rooney’s two terms in Congress and the legacy he leaves. It is not only a story of one man’s odyssey, it also illustrates the extent and limitations of what a member of Congress from Southwest Florida can and cannot do. It illuminates the enduring issues that face the region. Lastly, it is important that Southwest Florida have a detailed history of the man who held the region’s highest elected federal position and his actions during his two terms in office.
(In a spirit of full disclosure, be aware that this author served as the communications director for Rooney’s 2018 Democratic opponent, David Holden and as such conducted and collected opposition research, helped formulate strategy and messaging and worked very hard to oust Rooney from his seat.
But this current series is meant as an evaluation, not a settling of scores. It is intended to be rigorously, factually accurate and as dispassionate in its analysis as possible, while coming from a liberal, progressive political perspective.
As part of the author’s due diligence and in a spirit of fairness, he reached out to Rep. Rooney’s office with over 30 questions seeking his input, reactions and insights and to give him the opportunity to present his viewpoint. No acknowledgement or response was received. All reporting was done from public sources.)
It is a long way from Muscogee, Oklahoma to Naples, Florida but that dusty Oklahoma town is where Francis Rooney began his journey on Dec. 4, 1953.
Rooney was the eldest of Laurence Francis and Lucy Turner Rooney’s six children.
The young Rooney was raised in a devoutly Catholic family and embarked on an education that most remarkably stayed entirely within Washington, DC’s Jesuit Georgetown school system, starting with Georgetown Preparatory School, Georgetown University (Bachelor of Arts, 1975) and Georgetown University Law Center (Juris Doctor, 1978).
Rooney had the good fortune to be born into a fourth-generation construction business, the Manhattan Construction Company, which was founded by Laurence Rooney in 1896 when Oklahoma was still a territory.
Manhattan Construction grew with Oklahoma, building schools, courthouses and, after Oklahoma became a state in 1907, constructing two capitol buildings as the state’s capital moved. When it was a territory Oklahoma was already producing more oil than anywhere else in the United States. Once it became a state and automobiles came into common use the oil industry boomed, ancillary business exploded and Manhattan Construction thrived and expanded.
As eldest son, Rooney took the helm of Manhattan Construction and in 1984 founded Rooney Holdings in Naples, Fla. The company formally purchased Manhattan Construction as a subsidiary and expanded into other businesses like investments, real estate, electronics and insurance. In addition to bread and butter work on bridges, buildings, stadiums and oil pipelines, the construction company won major, prestigious contracts for the presidential libraries of George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush and the Capitol Visitors Center, an enormous underground facility that provides screening and security while guiding visitors into the US Capitol.
All this made Rooney very, very rich. In 2018, the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call estimated his personal net worth at $22.6 million but other estimates range much higher. The website OpenSecrets.org estimated it as $74.3 million in 2017. Whatever its exact figure, it was enough to enable him to build a massive mansion, currently estimated to be worth $29 million, on the water in Naples’ swanky Port Royal neighborhood. There he lived with his wife Kathleen, two sons, Larry and Michael, and daughter Kathleen.
In addition to a variety of charities, Rooney was a major contributor to Republican causes, giving $1 million to Restore Our Future, the super political action committee (PAC) of Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and over $2 million to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s super PAC and numerous other candidates and committees. He served other political causes, mainly in a fundraising capacity. In another expression of his political conservatism, his company built the headquarters of the Koch brothers-funded Cato Institute think tank in Washington, DC.
In 2005, Rooney was appointed ambassador to the Holy See, the diplomatic arm of the Vatican, by President George W. Bush. Not only did the appointment make sense given Rooney’s education, faith and prodigious political donations, but Rooney had some experience of international relations given his extensive international business dealings in Mexico, the Bahamas and Central America, where he was on the advisory board of the Panama Canal Authority.
From all accounts his three years as ambassador were successful—there were no major bilateral crises between the United States and the Vatican during his tenure—and he wrote a book about it and Vatican foreign policy called The Global Vatican.
After returning to the United States in 2008, Rooney could have easily lived extremely well in Naples, tended to his businesses, donated to his charities, grown richer and remained a private citizen. But in 2016 came an opening for a seat in the United States Congress and Rooney decided to grab it.
Into the arena
When Republican Rep. Curt Clawson decided to step down after one term in Congress representing Florida’s 19th Congressional District, three men leapt into the breach: Chauncey Goss, the son of former Rep. Porter Goss, who had represented Southwest Florida in Congress from 1993 to 2004; Dan Bongino, a conservative commentator; and Rooney.
The contest took place against the backdrop of the rise of Donald Trump, the angry, racist, demagogue and proud outsider, who kept smashing Republican establishment figures in primary after primary in his quest for the nomination.
In many ways, the 2016 Republican primary in Southwest Florida mirrored the national contest: an establishment scion of an entrenched family—Goss—was running against a populist, outsider businessman who proudly pointed out that he had no prior elected experience. (Rooney conveniently downplayed his previous diplomatic service, his establishment academic credentials and the fact that he’d given generously to centrist Republicans being felled by Donald Trump, like Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney.)
Rooney poured an estimated $4 million into the race, running television ads that touted his business prowess, lack of political baggage and commitment to “conservative values.”
In the end, it paid off. Rooney won the Aug. 30 primary with 52.7 percent of the vote against Goss’ 29.9 percent and Bongino’s 17.4 percent.
Rooney closely allied himself with Donald Trump’s candidacy and attitudes. It was during his run for the general election that he shared the stage with Trump at the Collier County fairgrounds, praised him as a savior and called for Hillary Clinton to be locked up. (Also sharing the stage at that rally—and immediately preceding Rooney as a speaker—was Byron Donalds, who was running for Florida state House District 80.)
Rooney sailed on to a general election victory against Democrat Robert Neeld with 65.9 percent of the vote to Neeld’s 34.1 percent, a result reflective of the 19th Congressional District’s party registrations.
It was a smashing victory for all concerned, both locally and nationally. Against all expectations, Donald Trump had beaten the odds and become President. Republicans took the House of Representatives and the US Senate. Rooney would be going to the nation’s capital on behalf of Southwest Florida.
The world seemed the Republicans’ oyster. What kind of a pearl would it produce?
Southwest Florida Democrats are looking beyond the Sunshine State, focusing their efforts on Georgia where two races will determine the balance of power in the Senate that takes office in 2021.
The Georgia runoff election is scheduled for Jan. 5 and candidates are campaigning fiercely for the two seats, with Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock seeking to defeat Republican senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler.
On Nov. 19, Democrat Cindy Banyai, who ran for Congress in Florida’s 19th Congressional District, announced that she had been named co-chair of the national United for Georgia organization.
“My role is to help promote fundraising for the on-the-ground local organizations who are connecting with the communities there for voter registration, get-out-the-vote, and persuasion,” she stated in response to questions from The Paradise Progressive. “I’m also working to recruit virtual volunteers for things like phonebanking and connecting the group with student volunteers to be part of their special intern program.”
United for Georgia was founded by Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-15-Calif.) who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2019. It is part of his Remedy PAC (political action committee), which he founded “to change Congress and elect Democrats who will go big with the issues we tackle, be bold in the solutions we offer, and do good with the way we govern.”
Banyai said she was honored to serve as co-chair. “It’s so important to amplify the local leaders and organizations in their on-the-ground efforts to get voters excited about Ossoff and Warnock. National coalitions like United for Georgia do the most good by supporting local efforts and building strong networks to make long term change.”
She also believes that her work on behalf of the Georgia candidates will help in Southwest Florida.
“My involvement with United for Georgia is also a great opportunity to see the organizing efforts that brought a blue wave to Georgia,” she stated. “I’m looking forward to bringing these lessons back to make major changes to the business as usual efforts of the Florida Democratic Party.”
In Collier County, Annisa Karim, chair of the local Democratic Party called on Democrats to mobilize on behalf of Warnock and Ossof by doing phone banking.
“We know that President-elect Joe-Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will take their rightful places on January 20, 2021 but the make-up of the Senate is still unclear,” she announced in a Nov. 21, statement. “That means our work is not done.”
President Barack Obama used to find “teachable moments” in his setbacks and disappointments. It’s a good way to approach the world. Avoiding or dismissing a defeat is unproductive and unhelpful. But making it a teachable moment, staring it in the face, objectively studying all its warts and ugliness, provides critical knowledge and ultimately, wisdom.
It’s always more pleasant to analyze the results of a victory rather than a defeat—but in some ways, it’s more important to examine a defeat because it holds more lessons for the future.
Although the presidential race, which is unresolved as of this writing, seems headed toward a victory for former Vice President Joe Biden, in Florida the race was pretty much a complete defeat for Democrats.
Donald Trump took the state, Republicans took the legislature, and incumbent Democratic stalwarts like Reps. Donna Shalala (D-27-Fla.) and Debby Murcarsel-Powell (D-26-Fla.) lost their seats. Republicans are crowing that Florida is no longer a purple state that can swing either way and is now “Trump country.” At the moment, they’re right.
In Southwest Florida, every Democratic candidate was defeated and by large margins.
So what are some of the lessons of this experience for the region’s Democrats, liberals and progressives?
Demographics are destiny
For the time being, SWFL is overwhelmingly Republican and will stay that way for a long time.
For years Republicans have outnumbered Democrats in Southwest Florida, whether those Republicans were long-residing Floridians or more recent Midwestern migrants who drove down once I-75 opened up in the 1970s.
The dominant population of Southwest Florida is politically conservative by habit as reflected in its party registration. This is also a function of age: 29 percent of the Lee County population is 65 and older as is 33 percent of Collier County. These are not people thirsting for revolutionary change.
The area’s dominant party affiliation may have altered from southern Democrat to Republican in the 1960s and from traditional Republican to Trumpist starting in 2016, but it is clear that the overwhelming sensibility is conservative—however “conservative” is defined.
That rightist allegiance—and infatuation with Donald Trump—was clearly not shaken despite the COVID pandemic, Trump’s threats to seniors’ Social Security and healthcare, his personal repulsiveness, his general incompetence and his catastrophic governance. Despite some Republican dissenters and the votes of independents, Southwest Florida voters overwhelmingly voted their registrations and so his hold continues.
With its critical victories, Republican dominance in Florida and Tallahassee seems set to continue for at least the next decade. This is the legislature that will redraw the maps after the Census. Florida is already gerrymandered to benefit Republicans. That will probably be intensified as the boundaries are refined to Republicans’ advantage with the aid of new digital tools. If those maps are too blatantly biased, Democrats will challenge them in court; however, they will be bringing those challenges to a politicized, ideologically conservative state judiciary, so not much relief can be expected there.
Certainly, Republican dominance for years to come can be expected in Southwest Florida, if not in the state as a whole.
This too shall pass
But like all things, this too shall pass—and demographics work both ways. Donald Trump won’t be president forever (or possibly not past Jan. 20) and the current Republican Boomer generation will leave the scene—sooner rather than later if they continue to refuse to wear masks. (And by the way, it’s worth noting that two prominent anti-maskers, Donald Trump and Byron Donalds, both contracted COVID-19 during this campaign.)
As Democrats pick themselves up, they have to adjust to the realization that the pursuit of democratic ideals and values in Southwest Florida is a marathon, not a sprint. Democrats, liberals and progressives need to start playing a long game, laying the groundwork for the future; organizing, thinking and cultivating the next generation of leaders.
In this there was some good news for Southwest Florida Democrats, not in the results but in their slate, which featured young, dynamic candidates like Anselm Weber, 24, who ran for Florida House District 76; Rachel Brown 25, who ran for Florida Senate District 27; and Maureen Porras, 31, who ran for House District 105. In Cape Coral, Jessica Cosden, 36, kept her seat on the Cape Coral City Council.
Congressional candidate Cindy Banyai is 40 years old—a veritable baby in Southwest Florida terms. She came from virtually nothing in terms of name recognition and is now on the local political map. She has many years of organizing, coalition-building and campaigning ahead of her—which will no doubt ultimately lead to electoral success.
To the north, in the 17th Congressional District, Democrat Allen Ellison, 40, also has many years ahead of him.
The Lee and Collier county Democratic parties will be examining their roles and activities and out of that examination will no doubt come new reforms and changes. It won’t be easy or bloodless but it will be essential. As it was, they went into the contest with better organization and dynamism than had been seen in previous contests.
On a more granular level, there is a tremendous need for better data collection about the Southwest Florida population. There is little to no systematic polling on any issue. This is a need not just in the political realm but for a great deal of decisionmaking and awareness of public attitudes on issues such as climate change, land development and conservation. Polls that were done during this election were done privately by individual candidates and only selective data was released to the public. Better data would help formulate better strategies, messaging and campaigning—and better governing in general.
The power of persistence
The great heroes and dissidents of history all have something in common—their persistence in their commitment to their ideals, values and goals no matter what the odds and setbacks.
From George Washington facing starvation and defeat at Valley Forge, to Nelson Mandela suffering 27 years in prison, to Andrei Sakharov, who labored against a seemingly insurmountable Soviet system, to Martin Luther King who fought entrenched segregation, all remained true to their ideals and values. There is the example of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), whose determination to speak on the floor of the US Senate won her what was both a rebuke and a plaudit from Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.): “Nevertheless, she persisted.”
Most recently, we have the example of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who lost many battles on the Supreme Court. When she lost, she reflected, “I’m dejected, but only momentarily, when I can’t get the fifth vote for something I think is very important. But then you go on to the next challenge and you give it your all. You know that these important issues are not going to go away. They are going to come back again and again. There’ll be another time, another day.”
And as Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) said in his 1980 concession speech: “For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”
Today marks one week before the General Election and while there’s saturation media coverage of national politics, there’s little publicly available data to determine the exact state of play in Southwest Florida.
Still, the national situation provides some context, particularly when it comes to Southwest Florida’s premier federal electoral contest, the battle to fill the seat of retiring Republican Rep. Francis Rooney in the 19th Congressional District.
But it’s not just politics that tells this year’s story because the COVID-19 virus has a vote—and this year, it is exercising that franchise in Lee and Collier counties.
The battle in the 19th
In the 19th Congressional District, the coastal area from Cape Coral to Marco Island, Cindy Banyai, Democratic candidate for Congress, has maintained a vigorous campaign schedule, is active on social media and has racked up numerous new endorsements.
“Things are going very well and we’re optimistic heading into the last week of the elections,” Banyai told The Paradise Progressive. “We had some very promising polling numbers come back and our team is running through the finish line.”
After testing positive for COVID-19 on Oct. 16, prior to President Donald Trump’s visit to Fort Myers, Byron Donalds, her Republican opponent, announced yesterday, Oct. 26, that he had tested negative for COVID-19 and positive for antibodies and would return to the campaign trail for the last week of campaigning.
Donalds has not been running any advertising and the outside political action committees like Club for Growth that powered his primary bid are nowhere in evidence now.
While Donald Trump and his daughter Ivanka came to Southwest Florida to campaign, neither mentioned Donalds during their appearances nor did anything to boost his campaign. His website has not announced any new endorsements since the primary.
From Minnesota with love
On Saturday, Oct. 24, Banyai and other Fort Myers Democrats welcomed Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) to Fort Myers for a get-out-the-vote rally and speech.
Klobuchar, who arrived in a massive Biden/Harris campaign bus, said in an interview with Fox4 News: “People should not assume that areas like this that have traditionally been Republican, that everyone thinks the same. A lot of people have decided: ‘I’m going to put my country first and maybe I don’t agree with everything Joe Biden says but he’s a good person and he has competence.’”
“It was great to hear from Sen. Klobuchar,” observed Banyai. “She gave us some insight on how to win hearts and minds across party lines.”
Since the Aug. 18 primary, Banyai has been endorsed by numerous individuals and organizations. Other Democratic candidates include Andrew Ellison, Democratic congressional candidate in the 17th Congressional District; Jacquelyn McMiller, Democratic candidate for mayor of Fort Myers; Sara McFadden, Democratic candidate for Florida House District 106; Joshua Lopez, Democratic candidate for Florida House District 77; Shawn Williams, Democratic candidate for Florida House District 78; and Todd Truax, Democratic candidate for Lee County Commissioner District 3.
Organizations endorsing her candidacy include: the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida; the Progressive Club of the Islands; the Democratic Women’s Club of Florida; the LGBTQ Democratic Caucus; the Lee County LGBTQA Democratic Caucus; Votewater.org; the Sunrise Movement; and America Youth Climate Action.
The broader context
If either local candidate is able to ride the coattails of the candidate at the top of the ticket, the advantage would seem to go to Banyai.
Nationally, former Vice President Joe Biden and running mate Kamala Harris have an 87 percent chance of winning the presidency, according to the website FiveThirtyEight.com’s Election Forecast. This site aggregates and analyzes numerous polls and data sources to reach its conclusions, making it more authoritative than just individual polls. What is more, rather than make hard predictions, FiveThirtyEight deals in probabilities, which is a much more reasonable way to project future outcomes.
Trump’s chances will likely also be hurt by the dizzying 615.19 point drop in the Dow Jones average that occurred yesterday on news that a compromise stimulus bill looked unlikely to be passed before the election.
Focusing on Southwest Florida’s Lee and Collier counties, 252,237 voters, or 51.56 percent of the electorate have voted in Lee County and 137,619 or 59.39 percent of voters have turned out in Collier County.
Ten days before the election, Collier County Democratic turnout was the highest in Florida, according to Florida Politics, and Democrats were turning out in record numbers in other traditionally Republican counties.
Likely to add to the urgency of Democratic voting was the Senate’s confirmation last night of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court in a rushed process to beat the election.
“Congratulations on our newest Justice, Amy Coney Barrett, on her confirmation to the United States Supreme Court,” tweeted Donalds following the confirmation. “Justice Barrett will honor the rule of law and uphold the Constitution.”
“It’s truly disappointing to see Senate Republicans ram through a Supreme Court nominee so close to the presidential election when they denied an early election year appointment to Obama,” Banyai told The Paradise Progressive. “We should be concerned not only with the record of Barrett, who puts corporations ahead of people and threatens women’s rights and equality, but the jeopardy our democracy is put in when we no longer have an unbiased judiciary.”
The impact of COVID
Beyond the normal political considerations of an election campaign, the COVID pandemic continues to have an impact on everything: daily life, campaigning, and political passions—as witness Donalds’ infection.
Florida is seeing a rise in new cases, despite official efforts to dampen the impact of the statistics.
As of this writing, the Florida Department of Health lists 771,989 cases in Florida and 16,449 deaths overall since the start of the pandemic.
With two largely unmasked gatherings to celebrate the visit to Fort Myers of Trump and then his daughter Ivanka, local COVID cases are likely to surge in the days ahead.
On Oct. 22, the Collier County Commission voted 3 to 2 to extend its mask mandate another six months. Donalds testified against the mandate when it was first considered in July. The Paradise Progressive reached out to the Donalds campaign to request his comment on the Commission’s latest decision but has not received a response.
Early in-person voting begins today in Southwest Florida’s Lee and Collier counties.
Voting by mail has already been massive, according to both counties’ election supervisor offices. In Lee County, 135,997 votes had been cast, a turnout of 27.80 percent, as of yesterday, Sunday, Oct. 18, at 11 am. In Collier County, 61,940 votes had been cast, 26.73 percent of the electorate, as of the same date and hour.
The in-person voting comes after an extraordinarily eventful weekend that began with a presidential visit to Fort Myers on Friday, Oct. 16—and the remarkable snub of what many had considered a rising Republican star.
Donald disses Donalds
Friday should have been a big day for Republican state Rep. Byron Donalds (R-80-Immokalee), who is running for Congress in Florida’s 19th Congressional District.
Instead, it was a day that saw him forced to declare that he had come down with COVID-19. And to add insult to injury he was ignored and overlooked by his hero and idol, President Donald Trump.
During the Republican congressional primary this summer, few candidates touted their loyalty and subservience to President Donald Trump more than Donalds, who amidst his many accolades said he was “incredibly proud to stand with President Trump.” In the traditional mafia-like mindset in which Trump operates, such loyalty by a soldier should be repaid in kind by the mafia chieftain.
When the Godfather came to Fort Myers, it was an opportunity for a laying on of hands, for a blessing from the Boss himself in front of lots of local media and adoring Trumpers. It might have been the moment when Donalds decisively clinched the election 18 days before the votes were counted.
Instead, Donalds was tested for COVID-19 before meeting with Trump and turned up positive, which he announced on his Facebook page around 5 pm. He couldn’t come in contact with the president and instead of a public anointing it was his very public infection that was the headline about him dominating local news.
But beyond the embarrassment of a vociferously anti-mask Donalds catching COVID, there was the added disrespect (dissing) from his idol and hero.
In his speech at the Caloosa Sound Convention Center, Trump went through a series of shout-outs to local politicians and worthies, acknowledging and praising them.
One should not underestimate the importance of these shout-outs during political speeches and events. They’re something every politician does and while they may seem boring and formulaic to those in the audience, they’re critical to those named. In the case of a politician who has a blindly loyal following like Trump, they are an essential blessing and benediction—especially to candidates running for election.
In the middle of his speech Trump took the time to do a round of shout-outs. He named Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), whose popularity he compared to Elvis; he lauded as “warriors” Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-12-Fla.)—“great job, Gus”—and Rep. Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.)—“another friend of mine.” Mayor Randy Henderson (R) was praised—“good job, Randy”—as was Cape Coral Mayor Joe Coviello (R)—“great job, great job.” He said he was honored by the presence of World War II and Korean War veteran Wally Cortese—“You look good, Wally, I’ll tell you. Two wars and you’re looking—you’re looking good,” (interestingly, not “thank you for your service.”). He also thanked members of the Golden Gate Veterans of Foreign Wars honor guard.
And even if Donalds wasn’t present in the audience, any experienced observer of political rituals would have expected a shout-out to a faithful follower, especially one running for Congress from the president’s party, an ally whom the president would theoretically need in a second term. So the next name to trip from the president’s tongue should have been…Byron Donalds.
But there was no naming of Byron Donalds. Instead the president moved on to tell the audience how he was fighting to protect them from “the China virus” and the “radical-left movement.”
Nor was there a subsequent word of sympathy or a get-well wish from the notoriously unempathetic president. Indeed, Donalds got more compassion from his Democratic opponent Cindy Banyai who tweeted: “I wish him and his family well as he recovers.”
Apparently, when you’re COVID-infected you’re already dead to Donald Trump.
Democrats, women, rise up and ride
While the president’s visit brought out his supporters, it also mobilized Democrats and other Biden/Harris supporters.
On Friday, activists conducted a Ridin’ for Biden, “Dump Trump” caravan to counter Trump’s appearance in Fort Myers.
Inspired by an editorial in The Paradise Progressive, activist Wally Hedman, who has organized Biden/Harris rides in the past, served as organizer and lead driver for the caravan.
Consisting of 20-plus cars festooned with flags, signs and bunting, the caravan traveled up Route 41, through downtown Fort Myers and onto Martin Luther King Blvd., prior to Trump’s arrival.
It demonstrated a Democratic presence amid the raucous Trump gathering.
Democratic demonstrators were also on the sidewalks outside the Caloosa Center to show their opposition to Trump. While there were some arguments with Trumpers, there were no physical altercations or arrests.
The following day the local chapter of the national Women’s March took to the streets of Fort Myers when approximately 300 supporters lined the sidewalks to “affirm our shared humanity and declare our bold message of advocacy and self-determination,” according to the local Women’s March website. “We march against sexism, racism, homophobia, religious discrimination, misuse or abuse of power, sexual abuse, discrimination against immigrants, gun violence, denial of environmental injustice, and lack of respect for human dignity,” it stated.
Trump’s appearance at the Caloosa Center was invitation-only and limited to 400 people, although some random people on the street were allowed in just prior to the start of the event. Inside, attendees were distanced from each other and masks were worn. People coming into contact with Trump were tested for coronavirus prior to the event, which is how Byron Donalds’ infection was discovered.
However, on the street outside numerous Trumpers were largely unmasked and crowded together, creating conditions for a COVID superspreader event.
As of Sunday, Oct. 18, the Florida Department of Health was reporting 755,020 cases in the state and a total of 15,967 deaths among state residents. In Lee County that came to 21,625 cases and 492 deaths. However, the Florida COVID Action Site created by dissident data scientist Rebekah Jones, who has charged that the state is suppressing coronavirus data, reports 824,724 cases and 16,118 deaths statewide. In Lee County, it reports 23,005 cases and 502 deaths since March 1.
With an incubation period of 10 to 14 days, Lee County medical facilities should start seeing an influx of coronavirus victims from the Trump visit around Halloween.