Rep. Tom Rooney (R)
Florida 16th District
Urban Florida has fanned far across the swamplands from its original nuclei in beachfront resort communities. Once, metro Palm Beach was a narrow stretch along Lake Worth; now it runs inland almost halfway to Lake Okeechobee, spreading out from its original locus around the posh Breakers Hotel. Old beach towns such as Hobe Sound have become the hub of affluent developments that stretch all the way to Stuart in Martin County. Farther north, near the old town of Fort Pierce, are larger but more modest developments like Port St. Lucie, which lost its image as a sleepy bedroom community with the $40 million relocation of the Torrey Pines Institute of Molecular Studies in 2009. But Port St. Lucie was hit hard during the 2008 mortgage industry meltdown, resulting in more than 10,000 properties in foreclosure and an unemployment rate of over 10%.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
The 16th Congressional District of Florida stretches from the Atlantic Ocean almost to the Gulf of Mexico, and is one of the most oddly designed districts in the nation. On the Atlantic coast, it includes most of Martin County, with its affluent towns of Stuart and Hobe Sound, and also much of St. Lucie County. Tequesta is its northernmost beach town. By a thin corridor of land, this coastal area is connected to rural territory north and west of Lake Okeechobee. There, huge farms produce citrus, tomatoes, and other vegetables, or support large dairy herds. The only population cluster is around Sebring, with its automobile racetrack. In recent years, encroaching development, hurricanes, and citrus diseases have threatened the viability of the citrus industry, and rising land prices have tempted farmers to get out of the business. The area was hit hard by Hurricane Fay in August 2008, with estimates of $20 million in damage to citrus crops. This area is connected by the swamps of eastern Charlotte County with the Gulf Coast towns of Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda, on the wide Peace River where it empties into Port Charlotte and the Gulf of Mexico. In recent presidential elections, the district has voted consistently for Republicans but not by large margins. President Bush won the district with 54% in 2004, and in 2008 McCain carried it by a similar margin, 52%-47%.
Rep. Tom Rooney (R)
Elected: 2008, 1st term.
Born: Nov. 21, 1970, Philadelphia, PA .
Education: Washington & Jefferson Col., B.A., 1993; U. of FL, M.A., 1996; U. of Miami, J.D., 1999..
Family: Married (Tara); 3 children.
Military career: Army JAG, 2000-04; Army Reserves, 2004-07.
Professional Career: FL asst. atty. gen., 2004-05; CEO, Children's Place at HomeSafe, 2005-06.
The new congressman from the 16th District is Tom Rooney, a Republican elected in 2008 and the third person to hold the seat in the past four years. The two occupants before Rooney were forced from office by scandal. In 2006, Tim Mahoney was able to secure the seat for the Democrats after Republican incumbent Mark Foley resigned amid allegations that he had sent sexually explicit messages to male congressional pages. Then in 2008, Mahoney looked to be headed for an easy re-election until ABC News broke the story that he had paid a former aide $121,000 to keep quiet about their affair after he ended the relationship and fired her. Rooney’s campaign immediately picked up momentum as Mahoney’s political problems deepened, and he became the obvious choice for scandal-fatigued voters in the district.
|Tom Rooney (R)||209,874||(60%)||($1,819,259)|
|Tim Mahoney (D)||139,373||(40%)||($3,116,453)|
|Tom Rooney (R)||20,637||(37%)|
|Gayle Harrell (R)||19,626||(35%)|
|Hal Valeche (R)||15,916||(28%)|
The grandson of Pittsburgh Steelers founding owner Art Rooney, he was born in Philadelphia and was a waterboy for the team. When he was 14, his father moved to Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., where his family owned the Palm Beach Kennel Club, a racetrack and gambling business. Rooney briefly attended Syracuse University, where he earned a spot as a tight end and deep snapper for the Orangemen. But with no desire for a professional football career, Rooney transferred to the smaller Washington and Jefferson College just outside Pittsburgh, where he played both football and golf.
He was a staff assistant for former Republican Sen. Connie Mack of Florida for a brief period, and then got a law degree from the University of Miami, where he met his wife, Tara. After graduation, Rooney was a special assistant U.S. attorney at Fort Hood in Texas, and later taught constitutional and criminal law at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. When Republican Charlie Crist became the Florida attorney general, he hired Rooney as an assistant attorney general in 2004. After leaving the attorney general’s office, he headed a home for abused children, and in 2006 entered private law practice in Stuart.
After flirting with a 2006 challenge to Democratic Sen. Ben Nelsen, Rooney decided to challenge Mahoney in 2008 and began raising money and campaigning nearly a year before the primary. He was widely considered the GOP favorite, securing endorsements from Mack and Crist, who had since become governor. The governor’s endorsement riled the other two candidates, state Rep. Gayle Harrell and former Palm Beach Gardens City Councilman Hal Valeche, who pointed to the campaign contributions Crist had received from Rooney’s family. Rooney won the primary by only 1,011 votes over Harrell, 36.7%-34.9%. Harrell won pluralities in Martin and St. Lucie counties, but Rooney’s decisive victory in Charlotte County put him over the top.
In the general election campaign, Rooney portrayed Mahoney as too liberal for the district. But Mahoney far outpaced him in fundraising, and was ahead in most polls throughout the fall. The race changed course abruptly on Oct. 13, with the news that Mahoney had paid hush money to a former staffer with whom he’d had an extramarital affair. Mahoney then admitted to “multiple affairs” while in office, including one with a Marin County official he met while she was trying to secure hurricane reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Nonetheless, Mahoney said he had done nothing to violate his oath of office. Rooney shot up nearly 25 points in the polls. Still, Mahoney declined to end his bid for re-election, even after Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called for an ethics committee investigation into the payment. Mahoney’s financial contributions quickly dried up. Rooney won easily won with 60% of the vote.
In the House, Rooney’s military and legal experience won him coveted freshman appointments on both the House Armed Services and Judiciary committees. Along with the rest of the Republican caucus, Rooney voted against the economic stimulus bill in January 2009, but his vote made him an early target of Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ads attacking his position. Rooney also voted against expanding the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. His first bill would create a tax-deferred reserve for insurance companies to set aside money for future natural disasters, an idea that was supported by many insurers. Rooney also sponsored a bill that would prevent detainees from Guantanamo Bay from being transferred to nearby Florida.