U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young has been in Congress since 1970. That was the last time he faced a Republican opponent in a primary, too. Every Democrat who has tried to unseat him has lost badly.
Thanks to his longevity and his savvy at funneling federal money to his district, Young has literally become part of the Tampa Bay landscape, with several government buildings and a 15.5-billion gallon reservoir named after him.
Now, for the first time in 42 years, the 81-year-old political veteran is facing Republican opposition.
Young has drawn not one but two Republican challengers for Tuesday's primary. Both Darren Ayres, 53, and Madeline Vance, 78, are first-time candidates with religious backgrounds whose campaigns are affiliated with the tea party. Both contend it's time to send someone different to Washington.
"Congressman Young, you have outlived your time in Congress," Vance wrote on her website. "Our founding fathers never envisioned career politicians."
"The choice in 2012 is between a 42-year career politician who has been a part of the problem, versus a statesman like our founding fathers envisioned," Ayres wrote in his response to the Times' editorial endorsement of Young.
Young says he's not worried by this dual challenge to his re-election — or by gibes about him being an octogenarian.
"If they want to use age as an issue, that's up to them," Young said in an interview. Except for some problems with his back two years ago, which he said resulted from a plane crash years before, he said he's in fine health, adding, "I'm just as aggressive as I've ever been."
And he says he is not doing anything to deal with the Republican candidates that he hasn't done in any previous campaign involving Democratic candidates.
"I run based on what I am and who I am," he said.
But Young has already made one misstep, one that garnered national attention. After a Treasure Island campaign appearance, a local activist with the Florida Consumer Action Network asked Young if he supported raising the minimum wage. Young's peevish reply, caught on camera, quickly went viral.
"How about getting a job," Young told Andrew "Pepe" Kovanis. "Why do you want that benefit? Get a job."
Young later said he was "frustrated" by all the people pushing and shoving around him and he may have misunderstood the question. But Young stuck by his answer, prompting Ayres to say that "if this is the best level of representation he is now capable of, perhaps it is time to send an alternative."
The biggest difference between Young and his Republican opponents is not ideology but background. During the decades Young has spent in Washington's marbled hallways mastering the arcane budgetary arts, Ayres and Vance were working in the private sector.
Vance, who describes herself as "madder than a wet hen," is the daughter of Italian immigrants. She wrote a religious textbook and worked as a Bible college teacher. She said she never reads newspapers, preferring TV, and began to be concerned about the nation's direction four years ago.
Ayres grew up on a farm in Kansas, managed a fast-food restaurant, served in the Air Force, coordinated volunteers for the Billy Graham Crusade, ran a tour bus business (for which he briefly served as the driver for the band Journey) and from 2008 to 2011 he was a chaplain with the Florida National Guard.
While both have embraced Glenn Beck's 9/12 movement and boast tea party affiliations, neither has been able to turn that into a cascade of campaign contributions. Federal Elections Commission records show that while Young has already raked in more than $522,000, Ayres has collected just $40,000 — $10,000 of which came from his own pocket — and Vance's contributions total zero.
Ayres has tried some unusual tactics — touring the district overnight to meet voters who rarely encounter a candidate, and sending his volunteers out to rotate the locations of his 700 campaign signs so they always seem freshly planted. He said he's heard from what he called "a couple of national conservative groups" that appear interested in his candidacy, but they're waiting to see who wins the primary before backing anyone.
"It is an unfortunate reality that most organizations want to jump on a bandwagon that someone else has started rolling," he explained. "Very few want to do the hard work of pushing off the starting line."
While Young's opponents are using his decades in office as an argument against re-electing him, Young contends that because of his experience he knows his district far better than they do. Ayres, for instance, just rented a place in Indian Rocks Beach less than a year ago, and Pasco County records show he still has a homestead exemption on his house in Land O'Lakes. Ayres points out that Young owns a home in Virginia as well as keeping a condo in Indian Rocks Beach.
Young is busy making his usual rounds of veterans' groups, defense contractors and other friendly venues, reminding everyone of how he's fought for them and their issues. He says it's something he does even when it's not an election year, even though it garners him no headlines.
"Nobody in the media covers what I do, which is fine," Young said.
The winner of this election will go to the general election in November to face another first-time candidate, Democrat Jessica Ehrlich.
Times staff writer Mark Puente and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]