Why would any successful entrepreneur want to run for public office in today's toxic political environment?
It's a rare business owner who is willing to put up with the scrutiny that comes with a Congressional run these days. Financial disclosures, insults from pundits who question your integrity, corporations looking for favors and fundraising demands for increasingly costly campaigns are just some of the unpleasant realities of today's political landscape.
Francis Rooney, whose holdings include the largest construction company on the Gulf Coast, is about to find out what it's really like on the campaign trail. “I'm prepared to take it, but I don't like it,” he acknowledges when pressed about the personal attacks he and his family will likely endure.
Just days after he announced his run for the Florida's 19th Congressional District June 6, a local newspaper columnist accused Rooney of using his personal wealth to win the seat that includes Fort Myers and Naples. Rooney says he's not self-funding his campaign, though he says he won't accept money from political action committees. He says he knows there are more such unsubstantiated attacks coming, but he's undeterred.
“I've built a career and now it's time to give back,” Rooney says. “This whole system is broken. I'm really concerned. I do think there's a lack of real-world experience in Congress.”
Through Rooney Holdings, the entrepreneur has built Manhattan Construction Group of Naples into the largest commercial contractor headquartered on the Gulf Coast. The company reported $1.37 billion in revenues last year with 1,305 employees. Notable past projects include the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, the Dallas Cowboys stadium and the George W. Bush Presidential Center. Locally, the firm built landmarks such as JetBlue Park, spring training home of the Boston Red Sox, and numerous buildings at Florida Gulf Coast University.
“I know politics can be a very negative industry,” Rooney says. “It may not be perfect, but it's still the best system.”
Indeed, Rooney isn't a stranger to government service. Former President George W. Bush appointed him as U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican from 2005 to 2008. The Naples resident has been outspoken on issues ranging from national security to government waste and how Catholics can support Donald Trump. “He's our nominee and I'm for the nominee,” Rooney says of Trump.
Rooney says his wife, Kathleen, urged him to run for Congress after he complained some of the candidates he backed hadn't delivered on their promises. He says it only took a few days to make the decision. “I wouldn't be doing it if my family wasn't behind it,” he says.
The 62-year-old executive says if he wins the primary this summer and the general election in November he'll have to give up the reins of his company, which derived about 20% of revenues from federal government contracts. “I won't have an office or a salary,” Rooney says. “I will be totally out of the company.”
Rooney says his father's death when he was 26 years old made him realize the importance of passing the business to his three children, all of whom are involved in the company. “I'm a fanatic of succession planning,” he says. “It's been part of our corporate culture.”
What's more, Rooney says the company has a deep bench of talent. “Part of any good organization is that nobody is indispensable,” he says, emphasizing that also includes the CEO.
Besides, Rooney says being a Congressman isn't a part-time job. “I'm running for a job that's 24/7,” he says.
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