The oddity of congressional redistricting, through years of party-line battles, was on full display in Sarasota recently when U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Okeechobee, spoke to a room full of business leaders.
Rooney is now the congressman for the southern half of Sarasota County, an area that includes Venice and North Port, even though he lives 110 miles away. The newly configured 17th district held by Rooney stretches from Venice to part of Polk County in the north and part of Glades County in the south, and it touches eight counties in total. U.S. Rep Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, was booted from the bottom half of Sarasota County in redistricting but he continues to represent northern Sarasota County and all of Manatee County. That's now the 16th district.
This leaves Rooney representing a group of people who not only didn't elect him, but know little about him. Rooney was the keynote speaker at a Jan. 21 luncheon hosted by the Argus Foundation, a Sarasota-based pro-business group. “I know a lot of you are scratching your heads wondering who is this guy who grew up in Palm Beach Gardens?” Rooney told the crowd. “And why is he standing at our lunch claiming to be a new representative for our county?”
First elected to Congress in 2008, this is Rooney's second go-around with redistricting, and he says he's now represented 15 Florida counties in Washington, D.C., after starting with three. “I almost feel like I' m a statewide candidate at this point,” he quips.
Rooney has had an interesting life prior to politics. The grandson of Pittsburgh Steelers founder Art Rooney, he played football at Syracuse University and Washington & Jefferson College in western Pennsylvania. The congressman is also a former U.S. Army lawyer and prosecutor, and he taught constitutional and criminal law at West Point.
Rooney praised the work Buchanan has done in Congress, and he says he hopes to have that kind of positive impact on the local area. Rooney is on the House Committee on Appropriations, in addition to an intelligence committee, and has been involved in a number of issues, including agriculture and national security. Rooney is up for re-election in the 17th district in November.
The geography of his new district, Rooney adds, isn't totally foreign because his wife's parents live in Venice, which used to be the place he went to escape work. “My in-laws live in this county,” Rooney says. “So if I screw up, I'm going to hear about it.”