Politics & Government

Republican-turned-Democrat challenging Republican incumbent for 17th District congressional seat

The congressional race in Florida's 17th District pits a Republican-turned-Democrat challenger against the GOP incumbent.

Republican Tom Rooney was elected to Congress in 2008 and said his experience and leadership position as a deputy whip for the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives means he can do more for his constituents.

"I'm not in Congress because I want to be all high and mighty," Rooney said. "I'm trying to be a servant to the people. And I feel I've been effective at that."

Democratic candidate Will Bronson, who switched to the Democratic party in 2004, said he feels Rooney isn't properly representing the district, and he didn't want to stand by and watch as government favored big businesses over the needs of the individual.

"Our system is completely out of balance," Bronson said.

The 17th Congressional District is large, covering East Manatee, parts of Hillsborough, Polk and Lee counties and all of Hardee, Desoto, Charlotte, Highlands and Glades counties.

Tom Rooney

Rooney, who sits on the

House Appropriations Committee and the Intelligence Committee, described himself as a congressman who tries to engage with a core set of issues.

"I stay focused on my wheelhouse, such as national security issues," he said.

The 43-year-old said he originally ran for Congress because he felt the federal government needed new leadership.

Now, he said he wants to continue giving the 17th District the best representation he can.

Rooney grew up in South Florida and moved to New York, Washington, D.C., and Texas before returning to Florida, currently living in Okeechobee. He served as a special assistant attorney for the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General's Corps, taught at West Point, worked as a state prosecutor and became CEO at The Children's Place at Home Safe, a charity that serves abused, neglected and abandoned children before running for Congress the first time in 2008.

He said his strength as a congressman comes from understanding the issues important to his district and properly representing them in the House. He cites his work on citrus greening as an example of fighting for his constituents' needs, and said the predominant factor in how he votes is how it will affect his district.

Generally, Rooney said he tries to fill that position by only focusing on issues he's familiar with, such as security threats, veterans issues and agriculture protections.

"I'm not someone you'll see introducing a bill about a topic I don't have experience with," he said.

Rooney said he's seen an "anti-incumbent wave" sweeping the country as people become disillusioned with the current Congress and partisan politics. He said he personally tries to vote what is best for the country and his district, not just his party's lien.

"It's been extremely frustrating for me," he said. "We go into meetings and talk about how to make Democrats look worse. People have a right to be angry."

Rooney said he was always taught to give back to his community, and that drove him to run.

"I want to serve as much as I can. I'll always want to do that," he said. "If I wasn't in Congress, I'd be doing something else to try to better my community."

Rooney has raised $546,729 for his campaign and spent $558,525.

Will Bronson

Bronson said he's running because he can't stand by and watch big businesses continue to manipulate the government.

"It's not new, but it's coming to a crisis," the 75-year-old challenger said. "Businesses are dictating how politics are done, and they're bankrupting the country."

Bronson said thanks to Congress people's favor towards large businesses and banks because of huge campaign donations, other areas such as education, green energy and supporting senior citizens suffer. He said he wants to see those businesses held accountable.

Bronson was born in Chicago and moved to many places throughout his life, including Massachusetts, Georgia and Washington state before moving to Lehigh Acres in Florida in 2011, where he currently resides. He ran for Congress in four previous elections and was a pilot for Delta Airlines.

Bronson switched from a declared Republican to a Democrat in 2004, a switch he said he made for many reasons, but the final straw was his experience with his former employer.

"It was when Delta defaulted on their obligations to thousands of pensions, including mine, by declaring bankruptcy," Bronson said. "But then the very next day, they go back to making millions of dollars."

Bronson said that made him realize just how much big businesses could get away with, and he sees Rooney as one of the many representatives in those businesses' pockets.

"These big conglomerates think they're above the law," he said. "And whenever they run into problems with the law, they have their pals in Congress change it."

Bronson wants to see more regulations on those companies, particularly banks, which he said have not changed since the recession started in 2008. He also wants to stop what he calls the "Republican agenda" to privatize everything.

"I'm a senior citizen, and like most seniors I don't want to see Social Security or Medicare privatized like Paul Ryan wants to do," he said.

Instead, Bronson said he wants to cut back on subsidies to large companies and invest money in policies that help small- to medium-sized businesses and create jobs that way.

Bronson also supports encouraging green energy, universal health care coverage and more protections for the environment.

He said if he's elected, it would show him that the system is not completely broken and that individuals do want to see a government free of big business control.

"If we lose, I think people are saying the money has taken over and there's nothing we can do about it," Bronson said.

"They're saying, 'There's no use in fighting billionaires.'"

Bronson has raised $19,252 and has spent $18,813 for his campaign.