The five men and women who will be on the ballot next year in the race to succeed the late Bill Young in Florida's 13th Congressional District gathered en masse for the first time today at a candidates' forum held by the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club in St. Petersburg.
Republicans David Jolly, Kathleen Peters and Mark Bircher were joined by Democrat Alex Sink and Libertarian candidate Lucas Overby at the forum, all taking turns to talk about their respective candidacies and fielding questions from a jam-packed crowd at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club.
By far the most accomplished speaker was Sink, which should not be a surprise considering she has run twice for statewide office and seriously considered a third time, before announcing in September that she would not run again for the Democratic nomination for governor.
Unlike 2010, when she seemed befuddled on how to respond to the contentious debate about the Affordable Care Act, Sink criticized the problems with HealthCare.gov but said it is now the law.
"The rollout has been a disaster, the administration has failed us, but I believe that Americans deserve the right to health insurance and affordable healthcare," she said to applause from the audience, which seemed to be in her camp.
Sink said that she had heard "amazing and incredible stories" about Bill Young's staff. She added that when she took over as chief financial officer for the state in 2007 she didn't make a complete overhaul of the staff there, implying that she might keep some of his staffers employed if she were to win the seat.
Sink has it relatively easy for now, as she isn't running in a contested primary.
That's not the case for the three Republicans in the race. They are in a march against time to get their name and message out before the primary less than six weeks from now.
Retired Marine Corps brigadier general Mark Bircher was the first GOP candidate to take the stage. Like David Jolly, Bircher has never run for office. Unlike Jolly, he's not an insider with links to the GOP establishment in Pinellas County, prompting one Tiger Bay member to ask him what he's done in the community.
He said he had volunteered at one point with the public defender's office and has coached Little League. But he said that his deployment overseas in Iraq was in a way serving his community.
He was critical of the Republican Party, saying they have given voters a choice between "big government and bigger government," adding "I think we've lost our way."
The question of what one has done for Pinellas County is a key talking point for State Representative Kathleen Peters' candidacy. It's a question that she and ally Jack Latvala have used to differentiate her not only from Jolly but also from Alex Sink.
Peters does have an impressive resume of service in south and north Pinellas County over the past two decades, and used much of her time at the mic to talk about that experience. A former city council member and then mayor of South Pasadena in Pinellas, she ran for and won her first bid for state office last year, taking the seat vacated when Rick Kriseman opted not to run for re-election and ran instead for mayor of St. Petersburg.
She chided the Obama administration and Congress for allowing the federal deficit to climb so high. "Every city, every county, every state has to have a balanced budget, but why not Congress? The debt and the deficit that they are imposing on future generations is absolutely unacceptable and inexcusable," she said.
She also blasted Washington for failing to address the flood insurance problem that has come Pinellas County's way in the form of the Biggert-Walters Act, a bill passed after Hurricane Katrina to make the government’s flood insurance program solvent and to eliminate taxpayer-backed subsidies needed to pay for catastrophic losses. It hits tens of thousands of households in Pinellas County hard, and thus all of the major candidates in the race have condemned it and vowed to come up with a better solution.
And she had nothing positive to say about the ACA, but did say she didn't agree necessarily with House Republicans voting 40 times to repeal it, at least not without a viable alternative to replace it. She said she had personally experienced problems with discrimination from insurance companies because of a pre-existing condition.
When asked why she left her seat in Tallahassee to run for one in Washington, Peters said she felt she could represent her constituents just as well, if not better, in the nation's capitol as in the state capitol.
Next up was David Jolly, the longtime aide to Congressman Young who has emphasized in his brief time on the campaign trail that he is a "Bill Young Republican." Speaking with confidence, Jolly appeared not to have updated his speech, saying that polls showed him leading the primary, when in fact the latest St. Pete Polls survey has him in a virtual tie with Peters.
The 41-year-old is quite aware of the criticism that Peters and Latvala have rained down on him for being an outsider to Pinellas County, saying, "I don't believe in poll-tested one-line attacks." He told the audience that they would hear him referred to as a lobbyist. But no, he really isn't, he said. "I'm a Pinellas County businessman. I work in finance in Clearwater, I have a communications firm. I run a nonprofit management firm. I have consulted for businesses, and yes, for some of my clients I have been a registered lobbyist."
"This race is going to be about substance, not about attacks," he proclaimed, though it may definitely wind up being about the latter. "This race is going to be about taking on issues, not taking on each other."
Closing out the afternoon was Lucas Overby, a 27-year-old who filed to run for the office long before Congressman Young passed away. He's a Libertarian, but not "that kind of Libertarian," though it wasn't clear what he meant by that. When asked by Kim Black from the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association what he thought about the federal government's role in public education, Overby said he didn't, saying he believed education should be controlled by the states.