I try to avoid writing about national politics if at all possible. But it’s not every day a resident of Gateway is considering running for Congress.
Cecil Pendergrass, who is Gateway’s representative on the Lee County Board of County Commissioners, is considering running to fill Representative Francis Rooney’s seat in Florida’s 19th Congressional District. Rooney announced about a week ago that he would not seek re-election.
So far State Representative Dane Eagle of Cape Coral is the only person who has formally announced he’s running for Rooney’s seat. Just to provide some reference, Eagle’s district in the Florida House of Representatives does not include Gateway. Heather Fitzenhagen is Gateway’s rep in the Florida House, and she is also mulling a run but so far has not decided either way.
State Senator Lizbeth Benacquisto of Fort Myers was rumored to be a favorite to replace Rooney, but she has declared she won’t be running. Benacquisto currently represents the Gateway area in the Florida Senate in Tallahassee.
For his part, former Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott has also ruled himself out for a run at Rooney’s seat.
In addition to Pendergrass and Fitzenhagen, State Rep. Byron Donalds (whose state district represents much of Hendry County) is also considering running.
So what are Pendergrass’ chances winning? Right now they’re better than anyone’s. Pendergrass’ relentless work ethic has ensured that his name recognition in Lee County is virtually unmatched among local politicians. Eagle, Fitzenhagen and Donalds would all be easily defeated by Pendergrass in my view.
As a county commissioner Pendergrass’ two priorities are public safety and economic development. While much of the safety work is likely done out of the public view, you don’t need to look too far to find a construction project underway virtually anywhere in Lee County.
But the very, very real problem for Pendergrass is that some mystery candidate could come out of nowhere and donate millions of dollars to their own campaign and buy the seat, which is essentially what Rooney did in 2016.
Pendergrass raised $348,134 for his most recent election win in 2018. A healthy, healthy sum for a member of the Board of County Commissioners. But Rooney’s initial Congressional campaign raised $5,142,734 – with a reported $4 million of that amount coming from Rooney’s own personal funds.
Keep in mind that the area’s congressional district isn’t just Lee County, but parts of Collier and Hendry as well. And let’s face it… there’s no shortage of very wealthy people in Naples and other parts of Southwest Florida.
So that’s the risk Pendergrass faces. He would almost certainly have to give up his job as a Lee County Commissioner to run for Congress. As we all know, your record will only get you so far in politics. Money has the ability to decide the race.
To be clear, the only race Pendergrass needs to win is the Republican primary. This Congressional district is so heavily Republican that there’s almost no point for a Democrat to even run.
But .. alas .. in researching for this article I did discover that there is a Democrat running, named Cyndi something. Make no mistake however: the winner of the Republican primary will be the next Representative for our district.
Pendergrass’ record of solid success in Lee County clearly sets him apart from Eagle or anyone else I can think of from this area. Politically and policy-wise, Pendergrass is the area’s best possible option to represent us in Washington. And I believe Pendergrass would be an unwavering supporter of President Donald Trump. (Unfortunately the same thing cannot be said about Rooney.. so.. good riddance, sir.)
But if I was Pendergrass I’d be waiting as long as possible to see if someone with an 8-or-9 figure net worth comes along and enters the race. Because if that happens and they cut their campaign a $5,000,000 check, it might not be worth it to run.
Whether Pendergrass serves us in Southwest Florida or in the nation’s capital, it’s a win for this area. Pendergrass’ political instincts are surely telling him that with Rooney quitting that 2020 might be the best shot he’ll ever have to become a Congressman, despite the risks.
It will be fascinating to watch what decision Pendergrass makes.