Congressional staffers unpack fiscal year 2021 budget documents.
Feb. 11, 2020 by David Silverberg
Southwest Florida seniors are likely to suffer if President Donald Trump’s fiscal year 2021 budget request is enacted as proposed.
The president’s $4.8 trillion budget, officially unveiled yesterday, Feb. 10, would cut Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).
Medicare spending would be reduced by 7 percent or $756 billion between 2021 and 2030. Doctors, hospitals and hospices would receive lower reimbursement rates for the services they provide.
Two Social Security programs, SSDI and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which pays monthly benefits to people with limited income and resources who are disabled, blind, or age 65 or older, would lose $75 billion over the same period, with $10 billion in cuts coming from retroactive benefits a person can receive after he or she is considered disabled.
Other programs important to seniors like Meals on Wheels, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, the Senior Community Service Employment Program and legal services for seniors would be cut or eliminated.
These cuts and reductions would fall heavily in Lee and Collier counties, which have double the national percentage of people 65 or older.
According to 2018 Census statistics, 28.6 percent of Lee County’s 618,754 people are 65 or older (which works out to 174,488 people). Of Collier County’s 321,521 people, 32.2 percent are 65 or older (103,530 people). Both counties’ populations have been steadily increasing.
According to DataUSA, a private consortium that repackages government data, 14.7 percent of Lee County’s population is on Medicaid and 20.8 percent is on Medicare. In Collier County that is 12 percent on Medicaid, 24.9 percent on Medicare.
These are significant populations that could be significantly, adversely affected by Trump’s proposed budget cuts.
Southwest Florida reactions
This will be Trump’s last budget proposal before the 2020 election, making it particularly significant and politically impactful.
However, reaction in Southwest Florida from both candidates and sitting representatives was surprisingly mixed.
The only congressional candidate in the 19th Congressional District to immediately comment was Democrat Cindy Banyai.
“The thing that is so disappointing about the #TrumpBudget and every similar austere fiscally conservative move, is that SS, Medicare are macroeconomic drivers that other countries wish they had. Funding only the ‘deserving’ is crippling,” she tweeted as soon as the budget was released.
Among Republican candidates for the 19th District seat only State Rep. Dane Eagle (R-77-Cape Coral) issued any sort of comment at all and his was a generic partisan tweet urging people to vote Republican if they believe in strong borders, lower taxes, low oil prices, law enforcement and the military. He made no mention of the budget or the cuts to social safety net programs.
Sitting SWFL Republican members of Congress were active on Twitter as the budget was released—but each addressed topics as far from the budget and constituent impacts as possible.
Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) was concerned with events in El Salvador: “Reports of armed police and soldiers entering #ElSalvador’s National Assembly are deeply concerning. I urge all sides to come together in a peaceful and constructive manner to address the needs of the Salvadoran people,” he tweeted at the time.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) thanked President Trump for funding Everglades restoration. “As my colleagues from the Everglades Caucus & I stated in our recent letter to POTUS, the #Everglades is a national treasure & fundamental to Florida’s economy. I thank @POTUS for including the requested $250 million in his proposed budget to Congress.”
Rep. Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.) was more concerned with the costs of investigating President Trump’s high crimes and misdemeanors: “Now that @realDonaldTrump has been acquitted, I am proud to announce I am co-sponsoring the SHAM Act. It is time we audit that entire bogus process to figure out exactly how much taxpayer money was wasted.” (The Statement of Harm to the American Majority Act or SHAM Act, House Resolution 5769, would initiate an audit of the costs of the presidential impeachment inquiry.)
On a national level, House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.) issued a statement saying: “President Trump’s latest budget continues his relentless attacks on the health and economic security of hard-working Americans. It is a complete reversal of the promises he made in the campaign and a contradiction of the statements he made at the State of the Union.”
When it came to social safety net programs affecting seniors, Pelosi stated: “President Trump has broken his promises to seniors and families by slashing half a trillion dollars from Medicare, taking $900 billion from the lifeline of Medicaid, and cutting Social Security Disability Insurance.”
She concluded: “The federal budget is supposed to be a statement of national values. Once again, the President is showing just how little he values the good health, financial security and well-being of hard-working American families. The President’s budget is anti-growth, does not create good-paying jobs and increases the national debt.”
The budget proposal will now be considered by the House of Representatives, where it is likely to be substantially altered.
“I’ve always supported the president,” she said in response to a question by Elias. “I was here when he had his very first rally and I was one of his first supporters. So my support has been continuous and it will be ongoing.”
Asked about her opinion of impeachment, she said: “I don’t think we should impeach the president. I think that is wrong.”
Fitzenhagen has been an attorney in Fort Myers with Morgan and Morgan for the past seven years. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Hollins University, Hollins, Va., and a Juris Doctorate degree from Nova Southeastern University, Davie, Fla.
The 78th Florida House District covers Fort Myers and approximately a third of Lehigh Acres.
Fitzenhagen is currently term-limited and 2020 will mark her last term in the Florida House.
She won her previous races with comfortable margins: 59.3 percent of 68,915 votes over Democrat Parisima Taeb in 2018 and 67.3 percent of 56,033 votes over Independent Kerry Babb in her first race in 2012. In that year, the first after new maps were drawn, she faced a primary race against Jonathan Martin, winning the primary with 68.8 percent of 13,530 votes. She ran unopposed in 2014 and 2016.
Based on her initial interview, it is clear she will be running to out-Trump State Rep. Dane Eagle (R-77-Cape Coral), who has staked the most extreme pro-Trump, anti-Democratic position of the five Republican candidates running before her entrance into the race. She is the only female candidate on the Republican side.
An image from State Rep. Dane Eagle’s announcement video.
Dec. 2, 2019 by David Silverberg
It took 18 days from the time Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) announced his retirement from Congress on Oct. 19 until State Rep. Dane Eagle (R-77-Cape Coral) made his own announcement on Nov. 6.
“Our values, our way of life and our president are under attack from the far left, the media and even some in our own Republican Party,” Eagle warned ominously in a video statement on Twitter, that subtly lashed out at Rooney.
Against a dark, grayed-out, brooding image of protesters and then a picture of “The Squad” of four Democratic members of Congress, Eagle declared: “Washington has been infiltrated by radical socialists who despise our Constitution and detest our freedoms. They know President Trump is winning, they know he is making America great again and they will stop at nothing to destroy it.”
And so battle was joined on the Republican side and the tone was set for the coming contest.
In the days following Rooney’s abrupt announcement, Southwest Florida’s Republican politicians had some hard thinking to do. The seat was open. The primary on Aug. 18 of the following year would likely determine the election and so this was both an opportunity but one with risk and danger.
One by one the most likely Party candidates took themselves out of the running: State Sen. Lizabeth Benaquisto (R-27), who ran in the 2014 congressional primary, issued a statement saying that “running for Congress in 2020 is not the right path for me and my family… .” State Sen. Kathleen Passidomo (R-28) demurred. Former Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott said that he wasn’t running.
Then, the day before Thanksgiving, Nov. 26, Mayor Randall (Randy) Henderson of Fort Myers announced that he would be running for the seat.
The opportunity to file for the seat is open until noon, April 24, so more candidates may enter. Prime possibilities include State Reps. Byron Donalds (R-80), Bob Rommel (R-106) and Heather Fitzenhagen (R-78).
However, the longer they wait, the more difficult their runs.
The current contenders
Dane Eagle is a 36-year-old resident of Cape Coral who attended the University of Florida where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics. He started out selling real estate and was a broker associate for Commercial Real Estate Consultants in Fort Myers.
But Eagle had early political ambitions and showed promise. At the age of 24, he served as Republican Gov. Charlie Crist’s deputy chief of staff, the youngest person ever to hold that office.
In 2012, the first election after new maps were drawn following the census, Eagle ran for the state legislature in the newly-created 77th District encompassing Cape Coral. In the primary he was up against former city councilman Christopher Berardi and won by 70.6 percent. (Berardi is today Rooney’s press secretary.) Eagle then went on to win the general election against African-American Democrat Arvella Clare by 62.4 percent to Clare’s 37.6 percent.
Once in the legislature, Eagle began a remarkably rapid rise—but it was practically over before it began. On April 21, 2014, at age 31 and the start of his second term he was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol in Tallahassee. At 2 am, after nearly colliding with another car and bumping a curb, he was pulled over by a police officer who smelled alcohol and found Eagle’s eyes bloodshot and watery. Eagle denied drinking but stumbled getting out of his car and refused to take a field sobriety test. He blamed the alcohol odor on previous passengers. The policeman’s dashcam video of the entire incident was released to the public.
Eagle’s arrest on April 21, 2014.
In a subsequent statement to constituents he acknowledged that “while there are some decisions that I would have made differently” he said that the full story had not been told and contended that legal proceedings meant he could not discuss it further. Three months later he pleaded guilty to a charge of reckless driving and received six months of probation, had to take alcohol tests and perform 100 hours of community service.
The arrest notwithstanding, Eagle continued a robust legislative career that featured his sponsoring legislation consistent with conservative Republican orthodoxy. He sponsored or co-sponsored legislation to increase criminalization of various aspects of abortion, increase penalties for offenses committed by undocumented aliens (which died in committee), called for a supermajority vote of the legislature to raise any state taxes or fees, and sought to reduce penalties for openly displaying weapons if the person has a concealed weapon permit.
Eagle’s legislative record earned him an “A” rating from the anti-taxation Americans for Prosperity and a 2019 “F” rating from the People First Report Card for his votes on the environment, immigration, public schools, healthcare and other issues.
Eagle had a relatively easy time electorally. In 2014 he defeated three other primary challengers, winning 64.1 percent of 12,410 votes cast and then cruised to victory over Independent Jeremy Wood. He was unopposed in both the primary and general elections of 2016.
In 2018 he won with 63.4 percent of the vote against Democrat Alanis Garcia, the first trans-gender candidate to run in a Florida election.
He also rose through Republican ranks in the legislature, becoming House Majority Whip in 2016 and then House Majority Leader in 2018.
On Oct. 1 of this year at a church in Iceland, he married Brooke Iwanski, a chiropractor based in Fort Myers.
Randall (Randy) Henderson is the 63-year-old mayor of Fort Myers, an office he has held since 2009. As of this writing he had announced his candidacy but not yet legally filed with the Federal Election Commission.
Born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Henderson has an extensive record in government. He served on the Fort Myers City Council for nine years before running for mayor and is now in his third term, the first Fort Myers mayor to serve that long.
Professionally he has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Mars Hill College, Mars Hill, North Carolina, and is a licensed real estate broker in both North Carolina and Florida. He came to Fort Myers in 1979 to take a position with the Ellis Banking Corporation. He left banking in 1986 to join the Corbin Henderson Company, a family-owned firm specializing in office, warehouse and light industrial and multifamily real estate. He’s been very active in civic and business groups
Electorally, Henderson has had some big advantages. During his tenure mayoral races have been held in off-years and the primary election served as the general election. Turnout was extremely low. Henderson won his first race in 2009 with a mere 1,777 votes. In 2013, he won with 65.2 percent of only 886 votes cast, a mere 23 percent turnout of the eligible registered voters. In the 2017 election he won with just 4,073 votes, 70 percent of 20,782 votes cast. (Starting next year, Fort Myers will hold its elections on the same days as presidential primaries and general elections.)
“My 10 years as mayor, including nine years on the City Council, has provided insight and vast experience working in the public sector including solving complex issues while improving the quality of life for the citizens of Fort Myers,” Henderson stated when he announced. “I believe this experience provides me the background to lead the charge for serving citizens in District 19 and bring focus and support from Washington to our district.”
He’s been married to his wife Ginny for 40 years and they have three children: Laura, Marcus, and Alex.
Antonio Dumornay is a Miami native who grew up in Naples. The father of three, he began getting involved in local politics in 2015 in the City of Naples and served on a Community Redevelopment Advisory Board.
In a July 3, 2017 meeting at the Unitarian Universalist Sanctuary in Naples covered by the Naples Daily News, Dumornay related his personal experience as an inmate in the criminal justice system. He was arrested selling drugs, which he said he did to support his family during a crisis. He did hard labor and was paid 10 cents an hour “but we didn’t get paid. They promised us gain time, but we didn’t get that either.”
At the meeting Dumornay said was creating an organization to keep people out of the criminal justice system.
On his campaign website Dumornay states that he is concentrating his campaign on community and small business development, infrastructure and education improvement, youth career training and Medicaid expansion.
William Figlesthaler is a Naples-based urologist who is making his first run for public office. According to his professional biography he’s a cum laude alumnus of Wake Forest University and graduated with honors from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, NC. He then completed his urological surgery training at the University of Kentucky, in Lexington, Kentucky. His specialty is treating prostate cancer.
In that interview Figlesthaler stated that he’s completely loyal to President Trump. “I will be loyal to the president. All the way. I believe in Donald Trump’s policies,” he told Elias.
At the same time he demurred when asked if he supported all of Trump’s statements and tweets. “I mean that is a loaded question. He’s not our messiah. He’s not somebody who says, ‘Oh my goodness I worship this man. [sic]’”
Figlesthaler’s second wife, Olga, is a Russian immigrant.
Daniel Severson, 65, of Cape Coral, is a graduate of St. Cloud State University, St. Cloud, Minn., where he graduated in 1979 with a bachelor’s degree in physics. He enlisted in the Navy in 1978 and served as a Navy fighter pilot, officer and commander until 2000.
In 2002 he won election to the Minnesota House of Delegates where he represented District 14A until 2011 and served as minority whip. In 2010 he ran for Secretary of State but lost to incumbent Democrat Mark Ritchie by 49 percent to Severson’s 46 percent.
In 2012 Severson sought the Republican nomination for the US Senate to run against incumbent Democrat Sen. Amy Klobuchar. However, he lost the party’s endorsement at the state convention and withdrew from consideration. He was narrowly defeated in his second bid for Secretary of State in 2014, losing to Democrat Steve Simon, who won with 47 percent of the vote to Severson’s 45.9 percent.
On his campaign Facebook page Severson states: “During these impeachment hearings, it is important to remember the American people supported President Trump when they elected him in 2016, and we continue to support him going into 2020. We’ve got your back Mr. President!”
He also states: “Donald J. Trump and Mike Pence are men of God serving in the White House,” and “Christians need to put people of faith back in leadership across all sectors of public office!”
When it comes to the Second Amendment he states: “I am the only person in this race who can truly say I support our Constitutionally protected right to bear arms, which includes assault weapons. As your Representative to the U.S. House, I will fight all legislation that undermines the 2nd Amendment in the slightest.”
Severson is married to Cathy Jo Severson.
Analysis: The fight on the right
OK, we’ve done our due diligence, now let’s get real. As of this writing, there are two credible candidates in this race: Dane Eagle and Randy Henderson.
They both have the name recognition, the historical records, the experience and the access to funding to make them genuine contenders.
An Eagle-Henderson race is going to be an interesting one for a number of reasons:
It pits a Trumper against a Republican
As his video demonstrated, Eagle is tying himself entirely to Trump and playing the conspiracy card, warning of socialist infiltration of government. He has established his campaign on national themes and absolute allegiance to and adoration of Trump, which can be expected to continue.
Henderson, by contrast, is basing his campaign on local issues and his record. He told the News-Press that he intends to run a clean race emphasizing the environment, quality of life, business expansion, infrastructure modernization and disaster resilience issues.
This race is shaping up as a contest between the Trump Cult and the Republican Party for the souls of Southwest Floridians.
It’s a contest of generations
Eagle is 36, Henderson is 63 (a nice bit of numerology there!). Each brings a different generational perspective. With 27 percent of the district 65 or older (28.6 percent in Lee County, 32.2 percent in Collier County), it will be interesting to see which candidate can elicit the greater loyalty from the area’s seniors.
It pits Cape Coral against Fort Myers
Each candidate has his own geographical base, Eagle in Cape Coral, Henderson in Fort Myers. According to current census figures, Cape Coral, the fastest growing city in the country, has 189,343 residents as of July 2018, Fort Myers, 82,254.
Can the personal and ideological appeal of each candidate retain his geographic base and expand it sufficiently to win the nomination?
Turnout will be everything
Robust turnout is always key to an election and that is certainly true in this case. Each candidate will have to motivate his followers to get to the polls by primary day, Aug. 18 amidst the deathly stillness of a Florida summer and the uncertainties of hurricane season—not on Nov. 3, when turnout in the general election should be very big given the presidential election.
Follow the money
This race is going to be more expensive than any either of these candidates have previously run. Will the money come from local donations or contributors outside the district? The sources of funding will say much about whom the winner will serve should he attain office.
Past and future
Both candidates have had a relatively easy time in their past elections.
In his general elections Eagle was up against Democratic candidates who were outside the Cape Coral mainstream: an African-American woman and a transgender person and in 2016 he ran unopposed. This time he’ll be facing a mainstream candidate with a strong record.
Henderson always ran for mayor in off-year elections when the primary was the main contest and turnout was extremely low, requiring few votes to win. Now he’s running in a jurisdiction with over 500,000 registered voters and turnout is likely to be high, given that it’s a presidential election year. He’s going to need lots of money and very vigorous campaigning to win.
Funding and endorsements will be key elements. Eagle has started strongly with numerous endorsements and a reported $100,000 raised in the first few hours of the campaign (although this is based on campaign claims, not on official FEC filings).
The tendency of candidates in any primary contest in any party is to gravitate toward the extremes. Primary voters tend to be people who hold strong political beliefs and are active in party activities. That certainly seems to be the case here.
Already, three of the five declared Republican candidates are vying to show that they are “Trumpier than thou,” so to speak. Like worshipers of some inscrutable god who expresses himself through volcanoes and hurricanes, they appear to hope the sincerity of their belief and their obedience to his commands will be rewarded by divine favor—or votes of the party faithful.
Ironically, the litmus test of true Trumpiness appears to be attitudes on impeachment, which actually has nothing to do with these candidates’ rising class in Congress. Only Rooney, already sitting in Congress, will actually get a substantive vote on anything having to do with impeachment. By the time any of the candidates are elected to the 117th Congress in November 2020, the entire political landscape may have changed and impeachment may no longer be an issue.
Nonetheless, it’s an emotional hot button in Southwest Florida conservative circles—as it is around the nation.
By the time this is posted, other candidates may have jumped in the Republican primary race.
The 2020 election is shaping up to be the most crucial in American history. On a national level, it will likely decide whether the nation remains a democracy—and even whether it has future elections.
Southwest Florida will reflect in microcosm all the nation’s conflicts. It makes for an interesting election—and a potentially cataclysmic one.
Coming next: How a Democrat can win in Southwest Florida
A seller peddles a t-shirt at a Trump campaign rally at Germain Arena, Estero, Fla., Sept. 19, 2016. The Mueller Report has revealed that Russians organized rallies for Trump in August 2016. (Photo by author)
The big initial news in Florida was that a Russian hacker tried to penetrate at least one Florida county’s election system. The scramble is now on to identify the county.
However, there are references to Florida events, people and places throughout the 448-page document.
Here, in the order they appear, are summaries of those references.
Aug. 20, 2016: Florida rallies
The Internet Research Agency (IRA), the Russian organization chiefly responsible for covertly interfering in the US election through social media, organized rallies for Trump throughout the country using front organizations. The report describes their modus operandi:
“The IRA organized and promoted political rallies inside the United States while posing as U.S. grassroots activists. First, the IRA used one of its preexisting social media personas (Facebook groups and Twitter accounts, for example) to announce and promote the event. The IRA then sent a large number of direct messages to followers of its social media account asking them to attend the event. From those who responded with interest in attending, the IRA then sought a U.S. person to serve as the event’s coordinator. In most cases, the IRA account operator would tell the U.S. person that they personally could not attend the event due to some preexisting conflict or because they were somewhere else in the United States. The IRA then further promoted the event by contacting U.S. media about the event and directing them to speak with the coordinator. After the event, the IRA posted videos and photographs of the event to the IRA’s social media accounts.”
Three of these rallies were in New York, a series were held in Pennsylvania and a series were held in Florida. “The Florida rallies drew the attention of the Trump Campaign, which posted about the Miami rally on candidate Trump’s Facebook account,” states the report. The IRA-organized Florida rallies occurred on Aug. 20, 2016 and were called “Florida Goes Trump!” and were billed “a patriotic flash mob.” At least 17 rallies were attempted.
(During the campaign, Trump held two rallies in Southwest Florida, one at the then-Germain Arena in Estero on Sept. 19, 2016 and the other at the Collier County Fairgrounds on Oct. 25, 2016.)
“Among the U.S. ‘leaders of public opinion’ targeted by the IRA were various members and surrogates of the Trump Campaign. In total, Trump Campaign affiliates promoted dozens of tweets, posts, and other political content created by the IRA. Posts from the IRA-controlled Twitter account @TEN_ GOP were cited or retweeted by multiple Trump Campaign officials and surrogates, including Donald J. Trump Jr.”
One of these Trump Jr. retweets was an allegation that Democrats were committing voter fraud in Florida: “RT @TEN_GOP: BREAKING: #VoterFraud by counting tens of thousands of ineligible mail in Hillary votes being reported in Broward County, Florida.”
June 15, 2016: Releasing hacked e-mails
On June 14, the Democratic National Committee publicly announced that its e-mail server had been hacked. Apparently in response, the following day the Russian unit (Unit 74455) of its military intelligence service, the GRU, began releasing the stolen e-mails under the persona Guccifer 2.0. Releases were grouped around specific themes such as key states—like Pennsylvania and Florida.
The report also states: “On August 22, 2016, the Guccifer 2.0 persona transferred approximately 2.5 gigabytes of Florida-related data stolen from the DCCC [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] to a U.S. blogger covering Florida politics.” The blogger’s name is not mentioned in the report.
November 2016: The attempted hack of Florida election officials
In November 2016 GRU officers sent over 120 e-mails to Florida election officials in a spearphishing effort—specifically targeting the officials with false e-mails that would open their systems to exploitation. “The spearphishing emails contained an attached Word document coded with malicious software (commonly referred to as a Trojan) that permitted the GRU to access the infected computer,” states the report.
It was through this technique that at least one Florida county’s election system was hacked. Since release of the report, the media and Florida officials have been seeking the name of the county.
Spring, 2016, Henry Oknyansky/Henry Greenberg
In the spring of 2016 a Florida-based Russian approached the Trump campaign and political activist and provocateur Roger Stone with an offer to sell damaging information about Hillary Clinton.
As stated in the Report:
“In the spring of 2016, Trump Campaign advisor Michael Caputo learned through a Florida-based Russian business partner that another Florida-based Russian, Henry Oknyansky (who also went by the name Henry Greenberg), claimed to have information pertaining to Hillary Clinton. Caputo notified Roger Stone and brokered communication between Stone and Oknyansky. Oknyansky and Stone set up a May 2016 in-person meeting.
“Oknyansky was accompanied to the meeting by Alexei Rasin, a Ukrainian associate involved in Florida real estate. At the meeting, Rasin offered to sell Stone derogatory information on Clinton that Rasin claimed to have obtained while working for Clinton. Rasin claimed to possess financial statements demonstrating Clinton’s involvement in money laundering with Rasin’s companies. According to Oknyansky, Stone asked if the amounts in question totaled millions of dollars but was told it was closer to hundreds of thousands. Stone refused the offer, stating that Trump would not pay for opposition research.”
According to the Report, Rasin was trying to make money by peddling the information and getting a cut if the information was sold. Despite his statements that he had worked for Clinton, there’s no evidence he ever did, according to the Report.
Despite being a director or registered agent for a number of Florida companies and having a Florida driver’s license, the Special Counsel’s office was unable to locate Rasin.
The Rasin-Oknyansky effort may have been separate from official Russian interference efforts, according to the Report.
July 27, 2016, Trump’s Doral, Fla., press conference.
It was at this Doral, Fla., press conference that President Donald Trump made his infamous remark: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” There are repeated references to this press conference throughout the report, starting on page 18. As the Report notes: “Within five hours of Trump’s remark, a Russian intelligence service began targeting email accounts associated with Hillary Clinton for possible hacks.”
Mar-a-lago, Palm Beach, Fla.
President Trump’s Mar-a-lago resort figures several times in the Report.
It was here in the Spring of 2016 that Paul Manafort was hired as campaign manager, initially without pay.
It was also at Mar-a-lago that on Dec. 29, 2016 the Trump team first learned of President Barack Obama’s imposition of sanctions on Russia for election interference and the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats.
Numerous members of the Presidential Transition Team, including Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus and K.T. McFarland, who was slated to become deputy national security adviser, were at the resort.
There was an exchange of e-mails about the impact of the sanctions. National Security Advisor-designate Michael Flynn was in the Dominican Republic and spoke by phone with McFarland. Flynn told McFarland that he would be speaking to Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak. He did so that evening and urged the ambassador not to allow the situation to escalate by retaliating. The following day, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced there would be no retaliation.
Conclusion: Russian efforts past and future
It remains to be seen if the Florida county where Russian spearfishing succeeded will be revealed. But what the Mueller Report really brings out was the depth and breadth of the Russian election interference effort. With Florida a key battleground state and the home of Mar-a-lago, there was considerable Russian effort expended here.
Most importantly, the Mueller Report is a critical warning for the 2020 election: Florida is in the crosshairs. The Russians will be back.
Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) at a May 31, 2017 town hall in Bonita Springs. (Photo by author)
The Rooney roundup
365 days since Rep. Rooney has met constituents in an open, public forum
Feb. 22, 2019 by David Silverberg
Today, Feb. 22, marks one year since Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) has faced constituents in person in an open, public forum to hear their concerns and answer their questions.
It was on Feb. 22, 2018 that Rooney held his last two town hall meetings, one on Marco Island, the other in Fort Myers.
Since then he has refused to make any appearance where members of the public could attend to ask him questions about his policies and positions.
He also refused to debate his Democratic opponent, David Holden, during the run up to the midterm congressional election. The Collier County League of Women Voters invited both candidates to a debate, scheduled for Sept. 17. Rooney responded in a letter to the League that he had “no availability” on that date and “no future availability.”
He subsequently announced that he had no need to debate or make public appearances because “everyone knows my positions.”
In the year since his last town hall meetings Rooney has only spoken to small, invited groups in very controlled circumstances. On May 30, 2018 he spoke to an invitation-only audience at The Alamo gun range and store in Naples. That appearance was organized by the Florida Citizens Alliance, an advocacy organization critical of secular public education.
Rooney also joined President Donald Trump on stage at a rally in Hertz Arena in Estero on Halloween, Oct. 31, 2018, which was not an occasion for listening to constituent concerns. Trump praised Rooney for his “brutal” defense of the president and his policies. (In December 2017 Rooney called for a purge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to eliminate any anti-Trump elements in the leadership.)
Rooney’s last town halls were contentious and combative. They were held only eight days after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. 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 strong 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 am 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.”
At the town hall meetings Rooney also refused to acknowledge constituent concerns about climate change. At a town hall on May 31, 2017 and then again at Marco Island on Feb. 22, 2018 he stated: “I think that there is very complex issues surrounding global warming. Sea levels have been rising since the ice age.”
Since his election in November 2016, all of Rooney’s town halls have been contentious as he has characterized the Affordable Care Act as “socialism,” deflected constituent concerns about Trump’s collusion with Russia and said the Environmental Protection Agency needed to be “reined in.”
Nonetheless, after a particularly intense meeting in Cape Coral on March 3, 2017, Rooney praised the importance of meeting constituents in town hall forums.
As he told the News-Press: “[Town hall meetings] are critically important because this is democracy at work. This is what our country is built on.”
Rooney acknowledges climate change for first time, breaks with Trump
For the first time since being elected to office, Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.), has publicly and officially acknowledged the reality of climate change.
“If there is any state whose people should be embracing the impacts of our changing climate, it’s Florida. We are the state most at risk for sea level rise than any,” Rooney stated in the release. “This survey proves climate change is an issue important to our voters and there is more we should do to protect ourselves from future impacts.” [Emphasis ours.]
This is the first time Rooney has used the term “climate change” in public and acknowledged its reality.
In the past Rooney has always dodged acknowledging climate change or using the term, stating, as he did in multiple town halls, that sea levels have been rising since the ice age.
If in fact Rooney is acknowledging the reality of climate change he is breaking with President Donald Trump who as recently as Jan. 20 mocked the idea of global warming, tweeting amidst the plunge in temperatures caused by the polar vortex: “Wouldn’t be bad to have a little of that good old fashioned Global Warming right now!”
If Rooney is truly acknowledging climate change and a concern for the environment, there are ways to display the outward sign of his inward grace:
He can publicly embrace America’s re-entry into the Paris Climate Agreement;
He can endorse the Green New Deal to hold back carbon emissions and;
He can hold an open, public town hall, explain his new position to his constituents and listen to their climatic concerns, which are amply documented in the Conservancy survey.
The idea and its title made it into official usage, becoming part of then-Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign platform and serving as the title of a United Nations report on renewable energy. Its essence was embodied in legislation in the 2010 American Clean Energy and Security Act (better known as cap-and-trade bill), which died that year in the US Senate.
Though the idea waxed and waned in popularity, it appeared in the campaigns of some Democrats running in last year’s midterm elections. Once Democrats won the House of Representatives, environmental activists decided to make a major push for its passage, with the goal of ending all carbon emissions in ten years. The leading Green New Deal organization was the Sunrise Movement of mainly young, grassroots activists.
On Nov. 13, those activists demonstrated in Washington, DC and about 150 sat in at the offices of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.), soon to be Speaker of the House, demanding the Deal’s immediate implementation.
Enter Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-14-NY) has become the face of the Green New Deal. She’s an insurgent Democrat who defeated 10-term Democratic congressman Joe Crowley in her district’s 2018 primary and then won the general election.
Passionate, articulate, telegenic and at 29 the youngest member ever elected to Congress, Ocasio-Cortez was a supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and like him, calls herself a Democratic Socialist.
Ocasio-Cortez addressed the demonstrators at Pelosi’s office. She demanded creation of a Green New Deal select committee in the House. Pelosi didn’t support that demand, instead creating a new Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, headed by Rep. Kathy Castor (D-14-Fla.), a longtime environmental activist representing the Tampa area.
Though thwarted in her initial aim, Ocasio-Cortez proceeded to pull all the ideas swirling around the Green New Deal and put them into coherent, legislative form. On Feb. 7 she introduced House Resolution (HR) 109, “Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal.” (The Senate version of the bill was introduced by Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) as Senate Resolution 59.)
The introduction of HR 109 takes the Green New Deal from possibility to proposal. It now has specific provisions and actions and delineates a specific path to implementation.
The Green New Deal and Southwest Florida
HR 109 does not mention Florida by name and there are no provisions specific to the state or to its southwest region. Nonetheless, it has broad implications given Southwest Florida’s environmental sensitivity and past disasters.
Although the Everglades are never mentioned, Everglades restoration could receive a major boost from the Green New Deal program.
The bill calls for “mitigating and managing the long-term adverse health, economic, and other effects of pollution and climate change, including by providing funding for community-defined projects and strategies” and among these are “restoring and protecting threatened, endangered, and fragile ecosystems through locally appropriate and science-based projects that enhance biodiversity and support climate resiliency.”
This precisely describes current Everglades restoration projects including the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan and the “wetlaculture” concept put forward by Prof. Bill Mitsch of Florida Gulf Coast University. These ideas stand to get a major boost if the bill passes and the Florida congressional delegation aggressively pursues the resulting benefits.
The bill calls for “building resiliency against climate change-related disasters, such as extreme weather, including by leveraging funding and providing investments for community-defined projects and strategies” and “reducing the risks posed by climate impacts.”
This could very directly benefit Southwest Florida in its efforts to fortify itself against hurricanes, wildfires and sea level rise. The region would be in line to receive extensive federal support for infrastructure and protection improvements. If Everglades restoration can be presented as a climate change mitigating initiative, Florida would have a significant claim on federal support. Federal funding might even benefit individual homeowners in the form of tax credits and incentives to strengthen their houses.
The bill aims to meet 100 percent of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources, including renewable energy and new capacity.
For Florida that means a big boost for solar power. The Sunshine State is already taking the initiative to increase solar capacity but passage of the Green New Deal would result in significant federal support for these efforts.
The bill calls for the federal government to work collaboratively with farmers and ranchers to remove pollution and greenhouse gas emissions as much as possible. Given Southwest Florida’s extensive agricultural sector, farmers could see grants and incentives to make their operations more energy efficient.
Beyond these very specific local benefits the bill’s support for the renewable energy industry, housing, health and employment would affect every American. And, of course, protecting the environment, keeping it livable and preventing catastrophic climate change affects all life on the planet.
Analysis: What happens next
Controversy and unanswered questions are swirling around the Green New Deal and the bill that embodies it.
The biggest of these is how it will be funded. Ocasio-Cortez has dodged the question, saying that the United States found a way to fund the original New Deal, World War II and the space program and will find a way to do it this time. It’s a blithe but unsatisfying answer—there were extensive debates about paying for those initiatives at the time.
The proposal’s scope and ambition is breathtaking. As written it would really mean a reordering of society and a complete re-fit of the nation’s built environment, energy and transportation. Its practicality within a ten-year time frame is questionable, to say the least. Even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has avoided endorsing it, as demonstrated by her refusal to appoint a select committee on that specific topic.
Predictably, the conservative and Republican reaction has varied from hysteria and paranoia to scorn and dismissal, starting with President Donald Trump.
“I think it is very important for the Democrats to press forward with their Green New Deal. It would be great for the so-called ‘Carbon Footprint’ to permanently eliminate all Planes, Cars, Cows, Oil, Gas & the Military – even if no other country would do the same. Brilliant!” he tweeted on Feb. 9.
From a purely legislative standpoint HR 109 has a long way to go. It started out strong, with 68 cosponsors, which means there’s hefty support for it in the House. However, it has been referred to 11 different committees and making its way through all those committees will take time. While any one committee could derail it, the numerous referrals also mean it will get broad consideration throughout the House. Still, it seems unlikely to reach the floor during the two-year span of the 116th Congress.
If events take their normal course, the proposal will be steadily whittled down and delayed during the legislative process. If it even makes it to a vote by the full House and passes, it is highly unlikely to pass in the Senate. If by some miracle it passed both houses and landed on the president’s desk, it seems extremely improbable—one never wants to use the word “impossible” but this is close—that Trump would sign it into law.
But despite its radical solutions, unanswered questions and the improbability of its enactment, the Green New Deal should not be dismissed.
The political importance of the Green New Deal
Some of the demonstrators protesting in front of Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s office on Nov. 13.
The Green New Deal is important as an aspiration, a rallying cry and a set of principles that can inspire Democrats, progressives and environmentalists. It gives coherence to progressive principles and cements those principles in a foundation of environmentalism. It far outshines the weak and anemic proposals on any subject made to date by the current Democratic leadership.
Further, the Green New Deal is likely to stand as a goal and aspiration that may last for decades, rather like the abolition of slavery or pursuit of women’s suffrage. It is not merely a proposal, it is now a movement and movements have their own dynamics.
The Green New Deal could provide common principles to Democratic candidates and the party as it begins pulling together its platform for the 2020 presidential race.
Equal and opposite reaction
The Green New Deal also has to be understood as an equal and opposite reaction to Donald Trump’s brute anti-environmentalism.
The Paris Climate Agreement represents the moderate course in climate change response. It was a phased, consensus approach to combating climate change where everyone shared the pain of restraint but gained the benefit of a livable planet and pledged to take reasonable steps to pursue reasonable goals. It was painstakingly negotiated and at the time of its signing included all the nations of the world but two—Nicaragua (which felt it didn’t go far enough) and Syria (which was in the midst of a civil war).
Donald Trump didn’t just withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement and leave the US isolated and alone in the world. By his scorn and vitriol and sheer resistance to science and dismissal of environmentalism, he seems not to care about the fate of the planet or humanity—indeed, every day he proves that he truly does not care about anyone but himself. Given the powers invested in him, he truly could destroy the world.
This kind of attitude fuels the urgency of the Green New Deal’s advocates, especially the young ones. There’s a religious sense of imminent apocalypse, hence the Green New Deal’s short timelines and broad sweep.
Further fueling their urgency was the Fourth National Climate Assessment by the US Global Change Research Program, which warned of disastrous consequences if the causes of climate change weren’t addressed.
The battle to come
While the argument over the Green New Deal is intense now, it’s going to become exponentially more intense as the nation moves toward the 2020 presidential election. Already, Trump and his supporters are lumping the Green New Deal under a socialist label and starting to paint their campaign as a crusade against socialism.
On the other side, though, more extreme Green New Deal supporters see their cause as the only alternative to destruction of the planet.
Here in Southwest Florida the effects of climate change can be felt all around. Its presence should be undeniable, although the entire conservative, Republican establishment, following Trump’s line, continues to deny it—and will no doubt continue to deny it as the storms blow ashore and the water laps up to their chins.
The problem of climate change should be obvious to all. In the Green New Deal a solution has been proposed. Although imperfect it is now the only proposal on the table. Since Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Climate Accord, no other alternative has been offered.
Of course, there is always the option of doing nothing. In this case, that option could prove fatal.
A view of Big Cypress Preserve in the Everglades. (Photo: Big Cypress Preserve)
Feb. 16, 2019 by David Silverberg
President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency yesterday, enabling him to take funds from military construction projects, has set off a scramble to find out which ones will be affected—and Florida is no exception.
Across the country, officials are trying to determine the impact of the declaration in their home states and districts. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) sent a letter to Patrick Shanahan, the acting secretary of Defense, asking for a list of the projects shortly after Trump declared the emergency. Lawsuits are being launched challenging the legality of the move.
In Florida, military and federal construction is overseen by the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), whose state headquarters is in Jacksonville.
Projects affecting Southwest Florida include Everglades restoration and repairs to the Hoover Dike surrounding Lake Okeechobee, according to USACE’s Jacksonville office.
USACE has already invested $2.4 billion in Everglades restoration projects. Plans are underway to create reservoirs to prevent polluted water from Lake Okeechobee being released into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, a cause of last year’s blue-green algae blooms and a prime feeder of red tide in the Gulf of Mexico. In the federal fiscal year 2019 budget, $115 million was set aside for the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), part of $1.1 billion appropriated for CERP projects like the reservoirs and repairs to the Hoover Dike.
Some of that money is already committed. On Feb. 5, USACE awarded a $387 million contract to three contractors, the Bauer Foundation Corp. of Odessa, Fla., Bencor Global Inc. of Frisco, Texas, and Treviicos South, Inc. of Charlestown, Mass., for 28.6 miles of cutoff wall to prevent seepage from the dike.
According to a USACE statement in June, 2018, USACE was planning to spend $148 million in Florida and Puerto Rico on navigation, flood and coastal storm damage reduction and aquatic ecosystem restoration projects. Much of this consisted of harbor improvements in both Florida and Puerto Rico, including improvements to Sarasota’s Lido Key ($13,462,000), Miami Harbor ($1,897,000), Port Everglades ($771,000) and Tampa Harbor ($500,000).
In addition to these, an advanced munitions technology complex is being planned for Shalimar, Fla., in the USACE Mobile, Ala., district.
On Jan. 23, the 27 members of the Florida congressional delegation sent a letter to President Trump urging him to preserve Everglades and Florida funding.
The emergency declaration is being challenged in court and details of its scope and impact remain to be clarified.
A private aircraft purchased in Michigan in 2014 by the Mexican Sinaloa drug cartel, headed by drug lord “El Chapo” (inset), to smuggle drugs into the United States. A border wall will do nothing to stop drugs coming into the US on private aircraft. (Photo: DHS)
Feb. 5, 2019 by David Silverberg
Tonight, President Donald Trump will stand before the full Congress of the United States and the American people and make his case for a wall along the entire length of the US southwestern border.
The merits of this proposal are quite debatable. But beyond the overall national arguments, would a wall have any impact on Southwest Florida?
The short answer is: directly, no. The longer answer is: secondarily, yes.
Let’s look at each in turn.
According to the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency in the Department of Homeland Security, Southwest Florida has only two official “ports of entry”— authorized places where people and goods come into the country from abroad.
One of these is Florida Southwest International Airport (RSW), which handles commercial, scheduled, non-stop international flights to and from destinations in Canada and Germany. RSW has both commercial flights and “general aviation”—the term for all other forms of civil flight that are unscheduled or non-commercial. General aviation in Southwest Florida usually means private aircraft like corporate jets or personal planes.
The other port of entry is Naples Airport, which handles only general aviation and passengers. “Port personnel are the face at the border for returning residents and visitors entering the United States,” according to CBP—i.e., airport employees rather than federal officials handle incoming passengers.
General aviation has long been a concern for border and security authorities both for its potential use for terrorist purposes and its longstanding use for smuggling of all kinds, particularly illicit drugs.
As should be obvious, a border wall is not going to stop large shipments of drugs coming into the United States—or for that matter, into Southwest Florida—on general aviation flights or in aircraft passengers’ luggage.
Secondary impacts of the border wall could be enormous in Southwest Florida. Federal funding would likely be diverted from internal and infrastructure uses to the border wall. These impacts could include:
Taking funding from Everglades restoration and Hoover Dike repairs;
Taking funds from disaster recovery and assistance programs;
A drop in federal support for any hurricane resilience projects to protect Southwest Florida;
Loss of federal resources for water purity projects and protections;
Diversion of customs and border security resources in Florida to the southwest land border.
In addition, President Donald Trump’s policies are hurting Southwest Florida agriculture. The lack of comprehensive immigration reform means there is no guest worker or seasonal program to legally supply temporary workers for Southwest Florida farms, particularly in Collier County. That in turn could lead to labor shortages, higher food prices and lower agricultural productivity, impacting the local economy.
President Donald Trump’s unnecessary and ineffective border wall will impact every American and will have demonstrably deleterious impacts on Southwest Florida while failing in its primary mission of keeping out undocumented migrants and illicit drugs.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin explains sanctions against Venezuela at a White House briefing, Jan. 28, 2019.
Jan. 29, 2019 by David Silverberg
New sanctions imposed on Venezuelan exports of crude oil could raise oil prices in Southwest Florida and throughout the United States—although it may take time before that impact is felt at the pump.
On Monday, Jan. 28, at a White House press briefing, US sanctions were announced against Venezuela’s state oil company, PDVSA (Petroleos de Venezuela, SA), by National Security Advisor Ambassador John Bolton, Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, and Director of the National Economic Council Larry Kudlow.
PDVSA owns the CITGO oil company, which is the main supplier of gasoline products to the 7-Eleven convenience store chain.
“PDVSA has long been a vehicle for embezzlement, for corruption for Venezuelan officials and businessmen. Today’s designation of PDVSA will help prevent further diversion of Venezuela’s assets by [Nicolas] Maduro, and will preserve these assets for the people of Venezuela where they belong,” stated Mnuchin.
Mnuchin was at pains to assure the public that the sanctions will not raise prices at the pump.
“…There’s been a big reduction in the overall price of oil and particularly since we instituted the Iran sanctions. I think you know we’ve been very careful in making sure that these costs don’t impact the American consumer,” said Mnuchin. “Gas prices are almost as low as they’ve been in a very long period of time. These refineries impact a specific part of the country. And I think, as you’ve said, we’re very comfortable that they have enough supply that we don’t expect any big impact in the short term.”
The “specific part of the country” Mnuchin mentioned is the Gulf coast of the United States. However, the main impact there is likely to be felt by refineries on the Gulf coast of Louisiana and Texas, which will have to replace Venezuelan heavy crude oil with oil from other, more expensive sources like the Middle East.
“Citgo assets in the United States will be able to continue to operate, provided that any funds that would otherwise go to PDVSA instead will go into a blocked account in the United States,” stated Mnuchin.
“Now, I’ve been in touch with many of the refineries. There is a significant amount of oil that’s at sea that’s already been paid for. That oil will continue to come to the United States. If the people in Venezuela want to continue to sell us oil, as long as that money goes into blocked accounts, we’ll continue to take it. Otherwise, we will not be buying it.
“And again, we have issued general licenses so the refineries in the United States can continue to operate. So I expect, in the short term, very modest impacts on the US refineries. We’ve been working with them closely on these issues.”
US oil imports from Venezuela have been declining in recent years and currently account for only about 5.7 percent of US oil imports.
The United States has recognized Juan Guaido, an opposition leader who assumed leadership of the National Assembly and swore himself into office, as the legitimate president of Venezuela following an election that the United States charges was fraudulent and rigged to elect Maduro. Russia and China are backing Maduro; European nations are joining the United States in recognizing Guaido.
As with most battles of this sort, the impacts will depend on the length of the struggle. The Trump administration is trying to minimize the effect on consumers at the pump, as Mnuchin pointed out. In the short term, it’s likely to succeed in this, since the US is not heavily dependent on Venezuelan oil.
However, the longer the fight with Maduro continues the more likely some consumer impact will be felt. Should the fight escalate and possibly include military action, the likelier the effects on all oil and gas sales and the higher the possibility of impacts on the economy, already weakened by Trump’s government shutdown.
Southwest Florida will feel these impacts, like the rest of the country.
337 days since Rep. Francis Rooney has appeared in an open, public forum
Jan. 25, 2019 by David Silverberg
Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) has not voted on any measure in the US House of Representatives since Wednesday, Jan. 16. It is unclear at this time whether Rooney is avoiding voting or is absent from the House and if so, why.
A request has been sent to his office to clarify his absence. While no response has yet been received, this report will be updated if and when it arrives.
By being absent or avoiding voting, Rooney has missed voting on four measures that would have re-opened the government. He also missed voting on a measure, House Joint Resolution 30, disapproving of the administration’s plan to lift sanctions on Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. That measure passed by a vote of 362 to 53.
Rooney’s only other public congressional activity since Jan. 16, was to send a letter to President Donald Trump, along with the other 26 members of the Florida congressional delegation, encouraging the president to support Everglades restoration and water quality infrastructure projects.
Trump’s insistence on $5.7 billion for a border wall, which Rooney supports, threatens to take money from Everglades restoration projects and other critical Southwest Florida needs as well as many other national priorities.