Three Democrats face off in primary to challenge Bilirakis for congressional seat

The candidates for District 12 (left to right): Chris Hunter, a former FBI agent and federal prosecutor who lives in Trinity; Stephen Perenich, a Tarpon Springs tax consultant; and Robert Tager, a criminal defense attorney and former public defender from Lutz. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
The candidates for District 12 (left to right): Chris Hunter, a former FBI agent and federal prosecutor who lives in Trinity; Stephen Perenich, a Tarpon Springs tax consultant; and Robert Tager, a criminal defense attorney and former public defender from Lutz. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published August 9 2018

The three Democrats running in the Aug. 28 primary for the chance to go up against longtime District 12 Republican Congressman Gus Bilirakis have one major pitch in common.

They all believe they can appeal to traditional Republicans in this deeply red district who may be fatigued with their party in the era of President Donald Trump. The district, which covers North Pinellas, all of Pasco and northwest Hillsborough counties, elected Bilirakis six times to the seat his father, Michael Bilirakis, held for 24 years before him.

But how they’ve distinguished themselves in their bid for the nomination varies widely.

Chris Hunter, a former FBI agent and federal prosecutor from Trinity, has been endorsed by several Congressional leadership groups, local elected officials and was held up as a reason why the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee believes the District 12 Republican stronghold has potential to flip blue.

He’s also raised $422,874 as of July 31. Bilirakis has a war chest of $1.33 million. But Hunter, 45, said his resume is what really distinguishes him from his primary opponents: Tarpon Springs tax consultant Stephen Perenich and criminal defense attorney Robert Tager of Lutz.

"I’m the only former federal prosecutor and former FBI agent running for Congress in the entire United States of America," Hunter said. "That background is relevant in the times we find ourselves in. That more than anything sets me apart."

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Tager, 52, who worked as a public defender in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties before opening his private practice in 2003, first challenged Bilirakis in 2016 as the only Democrat on the ballot. He lost the general election, getting 32 percent of the vote, but said he "ran against (Bilirakis) before the wave … when Democrats were getting our brains bashed in."

Now as Democrats across the country see openings in Republican districts amid turmoil in national politics, Tager said his aim to unseat Bilirakis has not changed. Tager advocates for increased funding for Veterans Affairs, supports Medicare for all or a buy-in option, strengthening unions, and publicly funded work programs.

"Most conservatives believe that we need more renewable energy, most believe we need more money in education," Tager said. "There are some Republicans that love Trump that support me, that believe my ideas are good. They’re not mutually exclusive."

But Tager and Perenich have not garnered the same support as Hunter in fundraising. Tager has raised $32,472, according to federal records. Perenich has raised $47,855, at least a fourth of which came from himself and his relatives.

Perenich said the party’s support of Hunter with endorsements and money before the primary election has made it harder for voters to make an untainted determination on all three candidates.

"It’s putting the thumb on the scale," Perenich said.

Perenich, 50, was a lifelong Republican and registered as a Democrat for the first time in 2017, years after he said he began reflecting on economic and social inequity. He compares his campaign to that of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the community organizer who won the primary in New York’s 14th District in June, besting longtime incumbent Joe Crowley with a fiercely progressive platform and a fraction of the money he raised.

Perenich calls himself the "hometown candidate" because his family has roots in Tarpon Springs going back 70 years. But he spent his adult life after high school out of state, returning to the area in 2015. Perenich said his platform is targeted on the middle class, being "honest (that) lowering taxes for large corporations is not going to turn back the blight that has become widespread in our district."

"These are kitchen table issues," said Perenich, who supports Medicare for all and a $15 minimum wage. "If we can rebuild the middle class and find a way to bring prosperity back to hardworking families in District 12, that will be the way forward to rebuild our democracy."

Pinellas County Democratic Party Chair Susan McGrath said the party does not endorse candidates in a primary. But if caucuses, clubs and donors pool behind one candidate, it’s because they "are showing strong, viable campaigns."

"People invest and get excited where they see opportunities to flip seats," McGrath said. "It’s up to each candidate to be able to show Democrats they are a candidate they can believe in and have a path to victory."

Hunter grew up in Pennsylvania, worked as a state prosecutor in Boston after college and applied to the FBI two weeks after 9/11. He worked as a special agent from 2003 to 2005 under then-FBI Director Robert Mueller. He became an assistant U.S. attorney in Miami in 2007 prosecuting economic crimes before joining the Department of Justice in Tampa in 2013 as a senior trial attorney in the health care criminal fraud section.

While with the DOJ, Hunter led the investigation and prosecution last year of the owner and associates of A to Z Pharmacy of New Port Richey, which generated more than $100 million from a compounding pharmacy fraud scheme.

Hunter said he ran for office because he saw American values compromised by the current administration and members of Congress like Bilirakis complicit in that dysfunction.

He believes his platform of improving the Affordable Care Act, restoring "good, honest governance," and strengthening national security is a message that has bipartisan reach in the district.

The $14,250 he’s raised so far from political committees has come from Democratic leadership as opposed to special interest groups, according to federal filings.

In a district that has had a Bilirakis in office for 36 years, he said it’s needed to "win in the 12th against someone who merely shows up to work and collects over half of his money from industry PACs in D.C."

"I’m running for our country," Hunter said. "I’ve run a campaign that is literally forward looking."

Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.