Tom Rooney has plenty of options as he ponders his political future but Tallahassee might be a better bet than staying in Washington. There’s already buzz that Rooney could try for the U.S. Senate in 2018 regardless of what Bill Nelson does. But Rick Scott has also thrown his name into the mix and Rooney simply doesn’t have the name recognition or the war chest the governor has.
Rooney could wind up running for a state Cabinet office in 2018 instead of the Senate. Congressmen like Bill McCollum, Connie Mack IV and Jim Davis have had problems moving up to hold either the governorship or a Senate seat. Holding a lower state office can often lead to a higher one. With Congress polling lower than cockroaches, Rooney might also want another office to use as his base before he sets his eyes on being governor or tries for a Senate seat.
The grandson of Pittsburgh Steelers founder Art Rooney, Tom Rooney, after graduating from college, worked for Connie Mack III’s Senate mail room. Rooney cites it as a formative experience which gave him insight into understanding the issues confronting everyday Floridians. After going to law school, Rooney joined the Army, served in the JAG Corps and taught classes at West Point. He returned to Florida and became an assistant attorney general.
Despite his pedigree and credentials, Rooney's electoral career appeared stalled before it even started. He had no easy task in the Republican primary to challenge Democratic Congressman Tim Mahoney in 2008, but he defeated Gayle Harrell to secure the GOPs nomination. For most of the campaign, Mahoney appeared headed to a victory over Rooney, but the incumbent was plagued with reports of extramarital affairs in the final weeks of the election, including one with a staffer who received more than $120,000 from him. Rooney won big, taking 60 percent in the general election while Mahoney finished with less than 40 percent of the vote. While Rooney switched from the Palm Beach area to being more in the center of the state, he has easily won two other terms to the House.
Rooney has been prominent on a number of different fronts during his time in Congress, including the War on Terror, environmental affairs, foreign policy and agriculture. With a growing profile, Rooney, who is only 44, could soon be facing opportunities if he wants to follow in the elder Mack’s footsteps or head to Tallahassee as governor down the road. But, whatever his record in Congress and family ties, Rooney remains unknown in many parts of the state. A state Cabinet position -- be it agriculture or attorney general -- could easily boost Rooney's chances down the road for even higher office.
While Rooney certainly has the background to serve as Florida attorney general, there’s another option -- and that’s state agriculture commissioner. Sure it has a lower profile than being state attorney general but Rooney has the background for it. Rooney sits on the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee and has been busy in recent months as Florida faces problems with citrus greening. With his brother Patrick serving in the House, Rooney could have better relations with the Legislature than other outsiders to Tallahassee.
Right now Rooney is one of a crowd. Florida has 27 congressmen and most of them are unknown outside their own districts. Serving in a state Cabinet post could help Rooney win an even greater place in the sun and give him a leg up on other ambitious Florida Republicans. Regardless of what he does in 2018, Rooney is positioned to be a major player in Florida for years to come.
Tallahassee political writer Jeff Henderson wrote this analysis exclusively for Sunshine State News.