Francis Rooney made millions on sprawling building projects like the Dallas Cowboys’ football stadium. He parlayed his status as a George W. Bush mega donor into a diplomatic post. He fended off frequent Fox News guest Dan Bongino in a 2016 primary to win a Naples-based congressional seat that is one of the most conservative in the state. And he once called for a “purge” of career FBI and Justice Department officials during Robert Mueller’s investigation.
But the 65-year-old Rooney is now Florida’s most pro-environment Republican in Congress.
Rooney is the only Republican in Congress currently supporting a tax on carbon emissions, and is one of two vocal critics of the state’s sugar industry in Washington. His considerable wealth — Rooney ranked as the 26th richest member of Congress in 2018 and drew a $5.5 million salary the year before entering elected office — means he doesn’t need checks from lobbyists to fund his reelection campaigns.
“I’m kind of a lone wolf on this from a conservative district,” Rooney said in an interview at his Capitol Hill office. “I’m certainly not doing it for politics. In fact I may be doing it against politics.”
Before entering the House, Rooney was the majority owner of Manhattan Construction Group, a firm that built the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium, the underground U.S. Capitol visitor center and both Bush presidential libraries. He pines for the eventual demise of the nation’s coal industry through a carbon tax, wants Florida’s sugar industry to stop burning cane fields and give up land for a proposed Everglades reservoir, and said Republicans need to start talking thoughtfully about the environment if they want college-educated suburbanites to vote for them.
But he’s also operating in a climate where many Republicans are happy to criticize a proposed Green New Deal by liberal Democrats without offering a substantive alternative.
At the same time Rooney talked about the need for a carbon tax in his office, other congressional Republicans drank milk at a press conference to argue that a Green New Deal would hurt dairy farmers and Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe wore a tie with oil rigs on it while casting his vote against the proposal.
Rooney’s environmental bent comes from a lifetime spent on the water — he once sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and holds a boat captain’s license from the U.S. Coast Guard — and a lot of conversations with his adult children. He noted that his parent’s generation was OK with dirty steel mills in Pittsburgh and factories in Chicago until the pollution started killing people. He said his children’s generation won’t accept that.
“He’s not in Congress to pass the time,” said former Rep. Carlos Curbelo, whom Rooney succeeded as the GOP head of the Climate Solutions Caucus. “This is someone who’s overqualified to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. For most people in Congress, their main goal is to get reelected; for Francis Rooney, his main goal is to address some of the greatest challenges facing our country.”
While many of his fellow lawmakers speak in general terms about the need to lower carbon emissions, Rooney says a carbon tax would have a clear goal: turning coal into a nonviable energy source.
“If we can get less acid in the air and water it can’t hurt, and the easiest way to do that is to stop burning coal,” Rooney said. “We should do a carbon tax. Most of the money would be paid by coal, and drive them on out of the market.”
“I’ve heard him talk about importance of water in his district, Everglades to sea level rise to the oceans, and to make sure the beaches are clean and that sort of stuff,” said Alex Taurel, the conservation program director at the League of Conservation Voters. “I think he is … grappling with some of the science.”
Environmental groups note that Rooney maintains a low rating, even compared to some Republicans. The League of Conservation Voters gave Rooney a 20 percent rating in 2018 because he voted for GOP-led spending bills that decreased environmental funding, though his rating increased from zero percent in 2017.
“We know that sea levels are rising, we know that glaciers are shrinking, we know there’s more acid in the air, we know that temperatures have gone up,” Rooney said. “Has God done all that or has man had an impact? But we also know that if we didn’t burn coal, we would have cleaner air, and I don’t think that anybody disagrees that we should have cleaner air.”
Rooney noted that he’s close friends with U.N. Ambassador nominee Kelly Craft and her coal-executive husband from their time as major GOP donors, but he doesn’t think the industry should exist.
“He’s a good guy but I just think his industry ought to become a sunset industry,” Rooney said, adding it’s “swampy” that former coal and oil industry lobbyists were appointed by President Donald Trump to lead the Environmental Protection Agency and Interior Department.
But while Rooney opposes coal and is a vocal opponent of offshore drilling, neither industry has a foothold in Florida. Rooney’s crusade against big sugar is a different story.
Cris Costello spent the past 12 years working for the Sierra Club and sparring with Florida’s major sugar producers, an industry that doles out campaign cash to both Republicans and Democrats around the state.
Rooney was the first member of Congress to ever call her unsolicited.
He was concerned about the effects of burning sugarcane fields, a practice that growers argue is environmentally safe, and ordinances that do not allow fields to be burned when the wind is blowing toward wealthy Palm Beach County communities like Wellington and Mar-a-Lago, but do allow burning when the wind is blowing toward low-income communities like Belle Glade.
“Francis Rooney just called me on my cellphone. That’s extraordinary. I’ve been doing this for 12 years and I’ve never had a member of Congress cold-call me once,” Costello said. “We don’t have an ask for Congress … regarding this subject. It’s really state-related, but nonetheless he’s still interested.”
Rooney said it doesn’t make sense for an industry already protected from foreign competition by tariffs to also burn fields against the objections of some local residents.
“Certainly the sugar industry gives a lot of support to everybody in Florida,” Rooney said. “I don’t understand this cane burning. I don’t understand why we have a tariff protection for them. Why don’t they just suffer the increased cost of cleaning up the bagasse instead of burning it and stop putting all those chemicals back down on all of us?”
Rooney was one of three members of House from Florida to vote in favor of a plan to end sugar subsidies last year. The others were Republican Rep. Brian Mast, an opponent of sugar who represents a Treasure Coast district affected by algae outbreaks, and Ron DeSantis, who is now governor. Every Florida Democrat sided with the sugar industry, and U.S. Sugar sent campaign cash to 19 of the state’s 27 House members last year along with Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson. Rooney said he and Mast’s successful reelections, combined with DeSantis’ victory, shows that the political consequences of crossing Big Sugar are overrated.
“Like, 120 members voted to end the sugar tariffs. Those people are getting money somewhere,” Rooney said. “Sugar is a very powerful force in Florida. Maybe I figure that it’s a public service I can do to speak up on some of these things, especially on the cane burning, because to me it makes no sense that we allow it.”
Curbelo disagrees with Rooney on singling out sugar, but said constituents appreciate members who communicate their positions plainly.
“I think many agricultural enterprises have been polluting Lake Okeechobee for decades so I don’t subscribe to this demonizing of any specific industry,” Curbelo said. But “he’s going to tell you what he thinks, he’s not going to coddle anyone.”
At a recent speech in Cape Coral, Rooney said he was trying to “deal with the continuing menace of agriculture” in the Everglades reservoir project. His comments prompted a rebuke from Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, Florida’s only statewide elected Democrat.
“We all want solutions to our water issues, Congressman,” Fried said on Facebook. “But farmers are often the best stewards of our land and environment. They are NOT a menace. They are an asset!”
Rooney said he was solely referring to the sugar industry in his comments, not other agricultural producers.
“I’m not a good political speaker. You know how people learn to say nothing in a lot of words? I’m not real good at that.”
FUTURE FOR REPUBLICANS
Much like President Trump, Rooney frequently mentions polling. But unlike the president, who continues to bash polls for underestimating his 2016 performance, Rooney says the data show him that conservative-leaning voters want leaders who care about clean air and water.
“Dealing with climate change polls very highly throughout the state, even in Lee and Collier County, which quite frankly surprised me,” Rooney said. “It polls so heavily, especially with young people, I think it’s a way for our Republican Party to bridge to more voters.”
Rooney said if Democrats include environmental protection plans like the Green New Deal as part of a massive expansion of government, while Republicans make fun of it, more voters will embrace the party that’s presenting substantive ideas.
“George Bush got elected with suburban college graduate people and we didn’t get much of them in 2018,” Rooney said.
But Republican leaders don’t appear interested in giving power to their most vocal pro-carbon-tax members. Republicans blocked Rooney from serving on a special committee to address climate change established by Democrats after they won control of the House last year. Instead, Republicans chose a congressman from Louisiana, a state noted for its embrace of offshore drilling, to lead the panel.
“There are five members on the caucus and their lifetime environmental record adds up to 9 on a 100-point scale,” said Melinda Pierce, the Sierra Club’s legislative director. “Mr. Rooney tops them all combined. The GOP is seeing climate as more of a political punching bag, and not moving to the middle and taking seriously the need to act on climate.”
While the Sierra Club and League of Conservation voters say Rooney’s environmental record, particularly on industry regulations, is far from ideal, they acknowledge that his work goes beyond “green washing” — a term used to describe politicians who espouse pro-environment talking points without taking any substantive steps to address climate or pollution issues. Pierce said Rooney is the only member from a very conservative district who has an open-door policy with her group .
Rooney is hopeful that Trump, a part-time Palm Beach resident who plans to visit Lake Okeechobee on Friday, will make restoring the Everglades a priority. He’s less hopeful that Trump will back policies to tax pollution.
Rooney said Republicans in Washington should stop debating the cause of climate change and start thinking more like local governments, which are tasked with developing building codes and best practices to withstand natural disasters. He noted his district was much better prepared for the effects of Hurricane Irma than Houston was for Hurricane Harvey, where flooding lasted for weeks.
He also acknowledged that lawmakers are likely to not care about climate change until disaster comes to their district.
“These places usually work off of cataclysmic things. Kind of like airline safety after crashes,” Rooney said. “I wish more people would embrace the future instead of saying climate change doesn’t exist. We don’t know for sure, but what if we’re wrong?”
“The Invading Sea” is a collaboration of four South Florida media organizations — the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Miami Herald, Palm Beach Post and WLRN Public Media.