Tom Rooney didn't know much about social work, but he could balance a budget. • Before successfully running for Congress, Rooney worked for Home Safe, a Palm Beach County nonprofit serving abused and neglected children. • As part of the team looking for a new CEO in 2004, he pressed candidates on their budgeting experience, so much so that he was recommended for the job. • "I said, I am not a social worker, I have no idea how that works but I think I can get these books balanced," said Rooney, 42. "I think I may have been the only Republican social worker when I was there."
Rooney now enters his third term as a congressman. Because of redistricting, he now represents Florida's 17th district, which includes residents in Hillsborough County. The sprawling 10-county district includes Riverview, Wimauma, FishHawk and southeast Hillsborough. He'll stage a ribbon cutting for his new office in Riverview on Feb. 8.
Rooney represented what was District 16, covering eight counties, from 2009 until this year. With redistricting, the military will be an ongoing focus for him, since many veterans live in the area and the MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa is close to the district, he said.
Rooney will also continue focusing on agriculture. In his former district, there was controversy over the Army Corps of Engineers discharging excess rainwater from Lake Okeechobee into nearby estuaries to prevent flooding for farmers. But some were worried about pollution from the water.
"There was a little conflict there that isn't there now," Rooney said.
He currently sits on the House Appropriations Committee and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and is trying to get on committees for agriculture and the military.
Rooney said he is "trying to be somebody who believes all politics is local." He wants to represent the 17th district in Washington and "not just be a federal politician."
"So far it's been great despite the 9 percent approval rating," he said. "We've got to start looking at this as an opportunity and not the next way to get the other side."
Rooney was born in Philadelphia. His grandfather Art Rooney founded the Pittsburgh Steelers. Rooney's family moved to Palm Beach Gardens in the mid 1980s, where they owned a dog track and gambling business.
His grandfather "was very charitable but also very strict and very disciplined," Rooney said. "He built an amazing business. My father helped continue on that legacy in Florida." The family's business successes allowed Rooney and his siblings to pursue careers in the military and public service, he said.
He and his wife, Tara, met at the University of Miami School of Law, and both served in the U.S. Army JAG Corps. Rooney served as special assistant U.S. attorney at Fort Hood in Texas, and worked as an assistant attorney general when they moved back to Florida in 2004.
In 2008, Rooney asked his brother, Patrick Rooney Jr., if he should consider challenging incumbent congressman Tim Mahoney. Patrick told him to go for it, and that he'd at least get his name out there.
Tom Rooney trailed Mahoney until October of that year when news broke that Mahoney had "multiple" extramarital affairs while in office. Mahoney insisted he broke no laws, even though he put one of his lovers on the federal payroll as a congressional staffer. She later became a campaign worker.
Patrick, the oldest of seven siblings, ran for the state House a few years after his brother got into office and is now a state representative.
"After he won, that's when I started thinking about running for something myself more seriously," Patrick said.
Both brothers were also involved in Home Safe. Tom replaced Patrick on the board before becoming CEO from 2004 to 2006.
"He ran the company well and allowed the rest of us to really step up and fill the voids," said Matthew Ladika, current CEO of Home Safe. "He didn't feel that comfortable in some areas, but he allowed everybody to assist. It made for a smooth operation at that point in time."
He'd make decisions as CEO based on the expertise of the people working for him.
"I learned that in the military," Rooney said. "You have to know your strengths and weaknesses."
One of his jobs was to raise money for the agency. He would take people into the children's shelters to show them the facilities and have them meet the children, telling them ahead of time how to act.
"Don't look like there's something wrong. Don't look sad," he would tell them. "Be happy to see them and talk to them. Don't look like you're upset that they're here."
Visitors would come out impressed by the staff, he said, "who did that for a living, dealing with kids in tough positions."
He and the staff pored over spreadsheets with the board each month to justify spending, much like Congress has to justify spending to the public, Rooney said. He is currently still on the board.
The budgetary lessons would "smack you in the face every time. If you run too much of a deficit you have to close your doors," he said. "Ideology doesn't have any place, I think, when you're just trying to do the right thing."
As for personal goals, Rooney told the Palm Beach Post he has two resolutions for the new year, including one that involves his three sons.
"I'd like to quit tobacco, that's chewing tobacco, once and for all. And then I'd like to portray being happier to my children more than as frustrated as I get," he told the Post. "I think they see me come home from work and I'm sort of edgy or frustrated and I certainly don't take it out on them but I can see it in their eyes …
"Hopefully I can get back to being the guy who makes them laugh more than worry them," he added, "so I'm going to work on that."
Keeley Sheehan may be reached at [email protected]