Uphill climb: Incumbents are in danger this year, but does that include veteran Congressman Bill Young? Charlie Justice hopes so

No political campaign is easy. And when your opponent is incumbent Republican Congressman C.W. "Bill" Young, in his 21st congressional race after 40 years in Congress, it's even tougher. But Democratic State Senator Charlie Justice doesn't seem to be intimidated.

Sure, Young sits on the appropriations committee and is chair of the subcommittee on defense, putting him in charge of the military's pocketbook. Yes, Young has raised more money than Justice. And it is true that no one has won against Young in the last four decades in part because of all the political "bacon" he brings to District 10.

But Justice isn't worried yet. Born and raised in St. Petersburg, he grew up in the district, which encompasses all of southern Pinellas and hugs the coast up to Palm Harbor. His name may not be nationally recognized, but during an interview at the Tavern, a popular hangout on the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus, people stop every few minutes to say hello.

"I hold a different view of public service," Justice said. "It's a sacrifice. It's called service for a reason. You aren't there to make a lot of money to pay back your contributors, and that's not what it's supposed to be about. That's what it has been about for [Young]."

Despite the widespread notion that the midterm elections Nov. 2 will prove bad for the party in power, Justice is confident that in the case of Young, voters will be looking for something different.

"Seventy percent hate their incumbent, and he certainly is an incumbent," Justice said. "He isn't going to go and change how government is done up there. He is the government up there."

(Rep. Young's office did not respond to CL's repeated requests for an interview for this story.)

The bad economy and weakened job market have led to increased voter frustration, most evident in Tea Party demands for decreases in federal spending. In FY 2010, Young earmarked approximately $128 million.

"People are frustrated with what is going on in government now," said Ramsay McLauchlan, chair of the Pinellas Democratic Party. "While in many places that hurts Democrats, the reality is that Bill Young has been in office for 40 years and is clearly part of the establishment of Washington that people are frustrated with."

On a Tuesday evening in St. Petersburg, Justice supporter David Coale hosted a small meet-and-greet with the candidate for friends and residents in Coale's Old Northeast neighborhood. Coale spent his career working for the Department of Commerce and spent some time working on Capitol Hill.

"I don't like the Republican agenda. A good reason we have the deficit today is in part due to these earmarks, and Young is a master at it," Coale said. "He brought the bacon home and set up an environment for others to do the same."

A big blue Justice banner is propped up against the trees outside of Coale's house.

"Charlie has the strongest credentials of anyone who has run against [Young], so we will see what we can do," Coale said.

Earlier the same day, Justice participated in a debate at the Pinellas Tiger Bay Club, but his opponent was a no-show, giving the excuse that he is still in therapy following back surgery this summer. Justice doesn't mind being stood up by Young, but says voters have a right to hear both candidates' views.

"To me that shows he feels so entitled to this office that he doesn't feel the need to defend his record," Justice said. "I think the voters deserve a little a better. I think they should be respected more than he respects them."

Republican Jack Latvala is running against Democrat Nina Hayden for the District 16 Senate seat that Justice is leaving. That has left some Democrats unhappy with Justice for potentially giving up another seat to Republicans in the mid-term election.

In Pinellas County the political demographics have shifted, possibly in Justice's favor.

According to political consultant (and former USF political science professor) Daryl Paulson, Pinellas had been primarily Republican since the 1950s but shifted in 2000 toward a Democratic majority. The current numbers shake down to 231,659 Democrats, 221,233 registered Republicans and 152,430 Independents.

"But there is also a difference between registration and voting," Paulson said. "It's one thing to have a bunch of registered Democrats, it's another thing to get them to show up at the polls."

Paulson is less than optimistic about Justice's congressional bid, but admits that he could be the most serious contender in nearly 15 years. Karen Moffitt lost to Young in 1992 but garnered 43.4 percent of the vote, the highest percentage gained against Young yet. Former Dunedin Mayor Bob Hackworth tried in 2008, but got less than 40 percent of the vote. Paulson theorized that even if Justice doesn't win but intends to make a bid in two years, he'll need bigger numbers than Hackworth's.

"If he wants to run again two years down the road, he needs to get numbers close to Karen Moffitt's," Paulson said. "Otherwise other Democrats are going to want to run and that will make it harder for Charlie Justice."

In any political race, fundraising plays a pivotal role. In the most recent campaign finance reports, Young had raised $572,935 compared to Justice's $291,309. Young listed $10,000 in donations from Boeing Co., Lockheed Martin and Honeywell International. Justice's fundraising efforts are far behind Young's, and it could be too little too late.

But Pinellas Democratic Party Chair McLauchlan cited Kendrick Meek and Alex Sink as candidates who've succeeded despite being outspent by opponents.

"I think with all the money being spent on Bill Young's race, most people say he has the advantage," McLauchlan said. "But we think Charlie Justice has a realistic shot of winning this. The voters are going to make this decision."

But timing may not be on Justice's side, Paulson said.

"Once again, the advantage is to Bill Young and not Charlie Justice because the Democrats are fueling the brunt of voter anger, not Republicans," he observed. "So timing is very important in elections, and... nobody could predict a year or two ago when Charlie Justice [announced his candidacy] that voters would be this angry this year."

The election is less than two weeks away. Money, name recognition and experience aside, Justice says he is realistic but optimistic.

"I don't need a landslide," Justice said. "I just need a majority this time. I'll save the landslide for the next election."


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