NEW PORT RICHEY — The overarching issue in the 12th Congressional District race is the same question facing voters across the nation ahead of the November midterm elections: Where do you stand on President Donald Trump?
In their first one-on-one debate Monday night, Democrat Chris Hunter questioned the incumbent Republican, U.S. Rep Gus Bilirakis, about his support of the administration and accused him of being "complicit" with the president.
"Why have you not denounced Donald Trump's attacks on the U.S. Department of Justice, the FBI, the rule of law, decency, honesty and civility?" Hunter said in front of the audience at the Pasco-Hernando State College auditorium.
"Why have you been complicit in all of the attacks and assaults he has made on the free press? Why have you sat silent ever since Donald Trump's presidency has begun while he has wreaked havoc?"
Bilirakis, running for a seventh term in the seat his father held 24 years before him, answered that "there hasn't been any collusion found," referencing the special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections.
"Let him do his job folks," Bilirakis said. "I'm going to focus on what I can do for my constituents, again, reducing drug costs for our constituents, community health centers, bringing down funding for substance abuse, so very important to our constituents."
The political website FiveThirtyEight says Bilirakis has voted 97.8 percent of the time with Trump since January 2017. Bilirakis defended his record of supporting the president, saying he has remained bipartisan in his views and is not afraid to disagree with Trump, noting his opposition to offshore oil drilling and support of benefits for blue-water Navy veterans that the Trump administration has resisted.
Bilirakis, 55, said he doesn't support "(Trump's) style, not so much, not so much, because I wasn't brought up that way, but the policies in most cases, yes."
Hunter, 45, a former federal prosecutor and FBI agent, pushed back, stating 2018 is the year a "yes man" like Bilirakis should be held accountable.
"How about fundamental right and wrong?," Hunter said. "That's what's on the ballot in November."
Hunter said Bilirakis must also be held accountable for co-sponsoring a 2016 bill that made it harder for the Drug Enforcement Administration to go after drug companies that distribute suspicious quantities of prescription pills to doctors and pharmacies. That year the Congressman received $79,000 in campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical and health products industry.
Bilirakis said he supported the bill because elderly constituents told him they were not receiving their prescriptions on time.
But Florida, like the nation, is in the midst of an increase in opioid-related overdose deaths. Hunter called that "reason enough" for his opponent to be voted out of office.
CONGRESSIONAL PRIMARY: Chris Hunter sweeps District 12 Democratic primary
The two diverge in policy: Hunter condemned the Trump administration's family separation policy, while Bilirakis called for an end to "chain migration" but supported allowing immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to "get legal status."
Hunter talked of his support for strengthening the Affordable Care Act through lowering premiums and cost-sharing reductions. Bilirakis voted in 2017 to repeal and replace major parts of the Affordable Care Act but said he now supports maintaining protections for preexisting conditions.
The candidates also diverged in style. Hunter spoke steadily and directly at the audience, "talking about country, community and values," said New Port Richey resident Jeayn Fahey. Bilirakis often glanced at notes, his answers at times straying from the moderator's questions.
In his closing statement, Bilirakis said his style works.
"I'm not sexy, my wife doesn't even think I'm sexy, but I'm a doer," Bilirakis said. "I'm not a show horse but I'm a workhorse."
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.