Political Hunger Games in Pinellas

Republicans fight Republicans in the race to hold on to Bill Young’s Congressional seat.

click to enlarge David Jolly - Kevin Tighe
Kevin Tighe
David Jolly

It’s Alex Sink vs. a Republican to be named later in the race to succeed Bill Young.

For years, Democrats in Washington have believed that once the late Bill Young retired from his congressional seat representing Pinellas County in Congress — a status he maintained from the time of Richard Nixon’s heyday — it’d be an opportunity to move the district from red to blue in the always fierce battle for control of the House of Representatives.

That’s because Congressional District 13 is a rarity these days — a truly “swing” district that could go either way under neutral conditions.

With Young’s death in October at the age of 82, the prospect of a change in representation became a reality. His announcement shortly before his passing that he would not run for re-election in 2014 set off a scramble that has now left a set of candidates that are definitely “not the usual suspects,” to quote former Pinellas County Commissioner Nancy Bostock.

Those not running on the Democratic ledger include Pinellas County Commissioners Ken Welch and Charlie Justice. Most poignantly, the list also does not include Jessica Ehrlich, the 39-year-old attorney and former congressional staffer who ran a credible campaign against Young in 2012. Though she lost by 16 percentage points, it was actually the second best performance by a Democrat against Young since he was elected in 1970.

But Ehrlich saw the writing on the wall after Sink announced she would run. The Democratic establishment in Washington bailed on her, a subsequent poll showed her getting creamed by the former CFO — and voila, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had their ideal candidate, and without a nasty primary.

But don’t be surprised if the eventual GOP nominee ends up talking about Ehrlich’s sad demise, with allegations that Democratic bully tactics from Nancy Pelosi, Debbie Wasserman Schultz et al took out an indigenous figure.

Across the aisle the early consensus formed around former St. Pete Mayor Rick Baker. But he opted to stay in the private sector, where he toils under one of the city’s most powerful corporate players in Bill Edwards. Into the void immediately came David Jolly, a 41-year-old Dunedin native best known for his longtime work as a staffer for Congressman Young in Washington and in Pinellas County. His coronation seemed apparent after he was immediately endorsed by the late congressman’s wife Beverly, as well as by Baker.

By all accounts Jolly and Young were extremely close. “I think Bill Young almost looked at David Jolly as another one of his children,” says former USFSP political scientist Darryl Paulson, who knew Young well.

“Without question we were family,” Jolly told CL in an interview last week. He describes Young as both a father figure and professional mentor, starting from the time he began working for him in June of 1995 in a variety of roles, including district director.

He then left in 2007 for a career that some say he’s now running away from — a Washington D.C. lobbyist. In 2013, it’s not the most popular thing to have on your resume, even though he says his Washington experience makes him most qualified.

The “D.C. lobbyist” epithet hasn’t been thrown at him by Democrats (some of whom have received campaign contributions from Jolly over the years) but by Pinellas GOP major domo Jack Latvala, who declared after Jolly entered the race that “I really don’t think the timing is right for a Washington lobbyist to move to our district and run for Congress.” For good measure he added, “I will guarantee you there will be another candidate besides him.”

But when the next potential nominees in line, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, also declared they wouldn’t run, Latvala called State Representative Kathleen Peters, saying, “Everybody’s out. And nobody from Pinellas County is represented who truly understands our community.”

Peters says that after consulting with her advisers, the most important voices giving her encouragement weren’t Latvala but Gualtieri and the late congressman’s son, Bill Young Jr., who unlike his mother, isn’t backing Jolly.

Peters officially filed to run the day before qualifying ended. And somewhat unusually, after concluding her announcement speech in Pinellas Park, she handed the mic to Latvala, who then introduced all of the officials standing behind him who had come out in support of Peters.

But she bristles when asked about the perception that she is Latvala’s hand-picked choice, saying, “It was by no means a coronation kind of concept.”

Former Pinellas County Republican chairman Paul Bedinghaus says he believes the compressed election schedule is one reason other candidates didn’t get into the race. “It’s a daunting task.” And he says they may also have been put off by the perception that Washington is simply too dysfunctional.

With a little over a month to go before the January election and the holiday season in full gear, the Republican primary candidates face a challenge in getting their message out, and differentiating themselves from each other. That appears to be why Peters is seizing on her local roots as a reason Pinellas Republicans should vote for her.

“How can you possibly understand what my needs are if you don’t live in the community?” she says, referring to Jolly. “His full-time job is in Washington. His wife’s full-time job is in Washington. They are Washington residents, they are not Pinellas County residents. The work he’s done here, he did for clients. The work I’ve done here, I’ve done for citizens. That is a huge difference.”

Not true, counters Jolly, who says he’s been active in quiet but effective ways over the years. He says he “regrets” having to fact-check Latvala, but says the criticism would be valid if he had worked for, say, a California congressman over the past two decades, rather than a representative of Pinellas County.

Former County Commissioner and School Board member Nancy Bostock supports Jolly and says she doesn’t subscribe to the Latvala-Peters narrative on who’s the more grassroots candidate. She met Jolly 10 years ago while on the school board, and first encountered Peters in 2010 when she was working with the Clearwater Chamber of Commerce advocating against Amendment 4. “So the story is supposed to be she’s the hometown girl and he’s the DC lobbyist?” she questioned.

So where do these candidates stand on the issues? Both call themselves “Bill Young Republicans,” which can be translated into representing traditional mainstream conservative values — more Bob Dole than Ted Cruz. But Young was no moderate, as he annually scored high as a conservative in rankings from publications like Congressional Quarterly. “Bill Young was a pragmatic conservative who always saw that the big picture was winning,” says Paulson, who adds that the congressman wasn’t always a purist who followed ideological lines.

That was never more apparent than in September of 2012, when Young stunned many by saying in a Tampa Bay Times editorial board meeting that the time had come for the U.S. to pull its troops out of Afghanistan.

When asked if he agrees with Young’s awakening, Jolly defers. “The important thing is to stay on mission” and “if there are terror cells in Afghanistan and Iraq that provide a threat to the U.S., then we need to be there.”

But the U.S. pulled out of Iraq in 2011 and doesn’t appear to have any intentions of returning. What about getting out of Afghanistan now? “It’s easy to go back 10 years and reexamine the intelligence and we always have a responsibility to do that, but we can’t lose the fact that their sacrifice made us safer.” Still no response, so I move on.

Jolly admits that no one can replace Young’s experience on Capitol Hill, and in fact Republicans have now come to disdain “earmarks,” congressional funds designed for specific projects or districts, at which Young was considered a master. But while saying those days are gone, Jolly says he’s the next best thing for Pinellas County and the defense industry.

“The ability to know how to work the process in Washington to protect regularly funded programs that directly impact industry and jobs here in Pinellas County — we can’t lose that. So when people use the term ‘powerful’ with Mr. Young, I like to use the term ‘effective’ when it comes to talking about the next member of Congress.”

Jolly straddles the Republican hard line, trying to sound reasonable in a party that has gone far to the right. On immigration, an issue that the next Pinellas Representative could be voting on next spring, he talks tough. “If I break a law down the street, I expect to be penalized for it. Immigration is no different.” But he adds that we can do this without being inhumane. He doesn’t support the Senate’s bill passed this summer that would create a lengthy pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, but says, “We’re a loving, caring nation. We can’t tear families apart.”

On immigration, Peters sounds a little less harsh, saying she supports a comprehensive solution.

The 52-year-old state Representative is intense in explaining to me why she opposed Medicaid expansion in Florida. Although the program covers low-income and financially needy people, including those over 65 who are also on Medicare, Peters chooses to focus on Medicaid as a benefit for children and the disabled, and thus called several pediatricians to get their opinions last spring. She said most of them told her they did not take Medicaid patients because of delays in payment and the degree of administrative burden involved in getting paid.

She segues from that discussion into why she disdains the Affordable Care Act, calling it “government overreach.” That’s the same term she uses in describing why she joined with Democrats in Tallahassee earlier this year in voting against two anti-abortion measures.

Not to be discounted is Retired Marine Brigadier General Mark Bircher, making his first run for elective office. He’s only 10 points behind the two better-known candidates according to a recent poll — and he may provide an alternative for the Pinellas Patriots crowd. At last week’s Tiger Bay meeting, Bircher said he thought the Republican Party had lost its way in recent years, claiming the choice now for most voters is “big government vs. bigger government.”

Waiting in the wings while the Republicans settle their internecine battle is Sink. Although the GOP will hit her hard on a number of fronts, Democratic political consultant Mitch Kates says the Republicans had better be ready.

“This congressional race is going to be yet another example of the organizing that we’ve learned as a party since 2008,” he says. Kates ran Charlie Justice’s unsuccessful congressional campaign against Young in 2010 but says that Democrats throughout the state are now running much more effectively in Florida. “That whole field mentality is going to show up in this race, and it’s going to be awesome to watch.”

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