Can Bill Young be beat?

These candidates think he can.

click to enlarge CONGRESSMAN: C.W. "Bill" Young served for decades on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense. - congressmanbillyoung.com
CONGRESSMAN: C.W. "Bill" Young served for decades on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense.

On paper, winning the Congressional District 10 seat away from the incumbent would seem to be very possible.

The gerrymandered district — which stretches from downtown St. Petersburg along all of Pinellas' beach cities before skipping most of Clearwater to jut back in from the ocean and capture Dunedin — is highly Republican in registration but votes Democratic when it comes to the presidency. Clinton carried it twice, as did Gore. Kerry even almost won it. The district has, in fact, a power rating of D+1, which gives a slight margin to a Democratic candidate in the arcane numerical rankings that some politicos have assigned to congressional districts. (In contrast, the Congressional 9 seat I wrote about a few weeks ago in the story about Plant City candidate John Dicks is an R+4.)

There's plenty to attack the incumbent on: He's been in Congress for 18 terms ("Time for a Change!" and "Eight Is Enough," the direct mail will trumpet). He's one of the champions in the House of Representatives for bringing home bucks for local projects in earmarks, more than $160 million in 2007-2008 ("It's Time for Less Pork in Government").

And yet very few people — including some of the challengers — think wresting away Congressional 10 from its Republican incumbent is anything but a long shot.

That's because the congressman in question is C.W. Bill Young, the dean of Tampa Bay politicians, the nearest thing we have to a legend. He is the longest-serving Republican in the House of Representatives and served as the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, doling out the taxpayers' cash, from 1999 to 2005.

Judging by the number of big-name Pinellas politicians who are sitting on the sidelines for this seat waiting until Young retires (someday), he seems to be viewed as unbeatable.

But for the first time in decades, Young may face a real challenge from a Democrat. Three candidates are running in the Democratic primary for a shot at Young, including anti-war activist Samm Simpson (who lost a race against Young in 2006 when she got just 34 percent of the vote), former Reform Party gubernatorial candidate Max Linn and Dunedin Mayor Bob Hackworth.

I'm going to write about all of them in future columns, but Hackworth is the most intriguing of the bunch.

Dunedin is one of the coolest, most progressive small urban settings in all of Tampa Bay. Blessed with a pedestrian-, skater- and bicycle-friendly downtown, the city was the third in the state to be green-certified and builds its government facilities to LEED green standards, including a new community center.

The city became an oasis of hip long before Bob Hackworth, 53, was elected mayor in 2006 after serving two terms as a city councilman. But being the mayor of Dunedin, as anonymous a job as that is in the larger picture of Tampa Bay politics, is a pretty good thing.

"It has a certain cachet that carries some weight," Hackworth said during a recent breakfast at Kelly's, an iconic restaurant in his city's downtown. "When I'm down in St. Petersburg, they don't know who the mayor of Dunedin is, but they do know Dunedin."

He's got some mainstream Democratic support already: the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, Democratic fundraiser and business leader Craig Sher, St. Pete councilmembers Jamie Bennett and Karl Nurse, and state Rep. Darryl Rouson, to name a few. But the support, especially when it comes to campaign finances, is half of what it would be if anyone thought Bill Young could be defeated.

"It is considered by most people to be an unbeatable seat," Hackworth said. But if lightning strikes, he posited, consider the possibility of a small-town mayor who has run his government efficiently and progressively standing next to an 18-term incumbent who has to bear some responsibility for the Iraq War mess and rising gas prices. The mayor said, with hope, "It's not an impossibility. Is that a tough sell to have somebody pull the lever 'Obama-Hackworth?' I don't think so."

And at a time when being a politician is often viewed as a negative, Hackworth's job may prove to be a plus.

"I have a great record of running an efficient government," he said. "You have to make the case that you have a credible record of being able to govern."

On the issues, the Democratic candidates seem very close, with only shades of difference. All support some kind of universal healthcare, with Linn and Simpson supporting a bill in Congress for a single-payer healthcare system; Hackworth believes the bill is not passable and would opt for a blended system of government and private insurance.

So far, the race has turned on one of party affiliation; Simpson criticized Linn and Hackworth (in the words of the Progressive Democrats of America, which supports her) as "two lifelong Republicans in Democratic clothing." Hackworth became a Democrat earlier this year, to vote for Obama, he said. He never considered himself a Republican and didn't run in partisan races where he would have to make that self-identification. He was a Republican largely because of his father, who was a Lincoln Republican who was liberal and protested the Vietnam War.

(Simpson's Democratic pedigree is not clean as the driven snow, either. Earlier this year, one of the state's most prominent Democratic Netroots bloggers called her out for her endorsement of Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul.)

Hackworth said he is not making an issue out of anyone's party in the primary, feeling that politics is too partisan already. He does feel he can work with both sides of the aisle if elected. More than that, he believes that he would give Young the first credible mainstream opponent in Young's three decades-plus of national politics.

"I think voters deserve that opportunity," he said, "and they haven't had that opportunity."

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