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.”