Rooney Retirement Sets Politicos Buzzing



The surprise retirement of a U.S. Congressman on Monday sent political powerhouses aflutter on Monday while setting the stage for one of the most disruptive election cycles in local memory. 

U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Okeechobee, announced that he would not seek re-election after serving for a decade in Washington, D.C. “After what will be 10 years in the United States Congress representing the good people of Florida’s Heartland, it’s time to ‘hang ‘em up’ as my old football coach used to say,” Rooney said in a statement. “I will not be running for re-election to Congress in 2018.”

Rooney’s large and mostly inland district includes much of south Sarasota County, including Venice, North Port and Englewood, but it also stretches out east to Okeechobee, where Rooney lives, south to Fort Myers and north to Lake Wales. The Congressman made headlines in 2016 when he rescinded his endorsement of Donald Trump following the release of a lewd Access Hollywood tape. Rooney is a member of the high-profile House Intelligence committee, and his votes there have led to some contentious town halls since Trump’s election. But he’s also been broadly popular in the area, winning praise from a number of Republican leaders in Sarasota County.

And leaders were almost universally surprised by the Monday announcement, which left many prominent officials pondering whether to run for Rooney’s seat. The district stretches over nine counties, but 28.95 percent of registered voters live in Sarasota County, followed by 27.52 percent in Charlotte.

“The plurality of the population resides in the Southwest Florida region,” says state Rep. Julio Gonzalez, R-Venice. “Someone who is well situated here and who makes a good impression when they go outside of this area definitely has a fighting chance.” Gonzalez says he will evaluate very quickly whether to seek the seat himself. “How can you not consider it? It’s an important job that puts you in the role of having a direct influence on the future direction of the country.”

Also considering a run? State Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, and Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight. "I am pleased and humbles by the phone calls I have recieved encouraging me to run for Congress," Steube says. "I wil be talking to my wife about this possibility and making a decision shortly."

Officials like Sarasota County Commissioner Al Maio say they plan to stay put in their current seats, but state Rep. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, says he’s evaluating his options. “It’s my backyard, so I'm considering it,” Gruters says of a Congressional run. “But depending on what Greg Steube does, I may shift into that [state Senate].” The option shows the domino effect Rooney could have on the Gulf Coast’s political landscape. If state senators like Steube and Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, run for Congress, that means state House members may seek a promotion to Senate instead of running a federal race. And then pols at the county and city level may explore state House runs. And all of this ignores the entry of a major self-funded candidate.

The qualifying deadline to run for Congress in 2018 is May 4, and the state Division of Elections will accept qualifying papers as soon as April 16. The qualifying deadline for state and county offices is June 22.

Rooney won District 17 in 2016 with 61.8 percent of the vote over Democrat April Freeman. President Donald Trump won the district with 62.2 percent of the vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton’s 35 percent. The seat appears to be comfortably Republican, much more so than a state House district Democrats flipped in Sarasota this month. But Democrats will explore opportunities that open up as a result of the open seat. “My initial reaction is that an inevitable game of musical chairs is about to ensue,” says Keith Fitzgerald, Sarasota County Democratic state committeeman.

On that Christian Ziegler, Sarasota County Republican state committeeman agrees, suggesting people like County Commissioner Nancy Detert, a former south Sarasota state senator, may explore a bid as well. “No matter who or how many people run, it’s going to make the 2018 election even more fun,” she says.

Right now, Freeman and Democrat William Cyrus Pollard have already filed for 2018, as has Republican William Akins. Akins, a Port Charlotte Army veteran, intended to primary Rooney but suspected the congressman might not seek re-election when he waited so long after Jan. 1 to file. “There’s always the possibility somebody could jump up and primary us,” he says, but leaving a Republican meeting in Okeechobee, he says he’s got his eye on November. Freemad has raised $2,637, Pollard $2,831, and Akins $4,002.

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