A question is emerging amid the political maneuvering over Pinellas County's open congressional seat: Who is David Jolly, and will the local Republican establishment rally around him?
Jolly, 41, a lobbyist, lawyer and former aide to the late U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, announced on Saturday he is running to fill the congressional seat Young held for nearly 43 years.
He is the first major Republican candidate to charge full-steam into the race, but other well-known hopefuls are considered on the brink of entering, setting up the possibility of a dogfight for the GOP nomination. On Monday, Safety Harbor Mayor Joseph Ayoub added his name to those considering it.
Meanwhile on the Democratic side, former gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink has begun her campaign for Congress, challenging St. Petersburg lawyer Jessica Ehrlich. Libertarian Lucas Overby already is campaigning.
Because Young died Oct. 18, a special election has been scheduled with a primary barely two months away — Jan. 14. The general election will be March 11.
Unlike some other potential candidates such as former Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard and Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, Jolly has not run for local office before and is not widely known.
"I really don't think the timing is right for a Washington lobbyist to move to our district and run for Congress," said state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater. Latvala added, "I will guarantee you there will be another candidate besides him."
Jolly sharply denies Latvala's characterization as someone who just moved into the area. He said he's a Pinellas County person who also happens to be the best-qualified Republican for the job.
"I was born in Dunedin, with deep family roots, and for the past 20 years I've worked on behalf of the county and lived in the county full-time since '06," Jolly said in an interview Monday. He said he lives in a home he owns in Indian Shores.
Though he cited local roots, Jolly also stressed his Washington experience, which he said was geared toward helping Pinellas.
As general counsel to Young, including the time Young chaired the powerful U.S. House Appropriations Committee, Jolly said he helped as the congressman supported local beach renourishment projects, improvements to the University of South Florida's College of Marine Science in St. Petersburg, U.S. 19 and the Bay Pines VA Medical Center.
"In a lot of ways, no other candidate understands the issues of this community as they play out in Washington because they haven't been there," Jolly said.
Jolly said his father was a pastor at Clearwater's Calvary Baptist Church, and then moved the family to Miami, and then to Dade City, where he was at First Baptist Church. Jolly graduated from Pasco High School and then from Emory University in Atlanta.
"Somewhere in college, I just became very passionate about not so much politics, but public policy," he said.
He landed a bottom-rung job in Young's Washington office in 1995 and was fortunate to quickly move into a job as a legislative aide. He began taking night classes and graduated with a law degree from George Mason University.
He left for a year to work for a Washington securities firm, but the events of 9/11 moved him to return to government service, he said. He went back to Young's office as general counsel, at a time when "Mr. Young was in a remarkable place in a remarkable time in history."
He moved to Pinellas and in 2006 headed Young's district office for about a year, which he called "the best job in Congress."
But then he left the staff and joined a Washington consulting firm, while maintaining a Pinellas residence. He later founded companies specializing in communications, law and lobbying. He remained an attorney for Young and friend to the family.
On the personal side, Jolly said he has been married for 15 years but is in the midst of a divorce. He has no children.
Politically, Jolly scored an endorsement from Young's widow, Beverly, who praises his knowledge of Washington's inner workings and his regular visits to comfort injured soldiers. She pondered running for the seat herself, but acknowledged, "David knows 100 percent more than I do." Mel Sembler, former U.S. ambassador to Australia and Italy, also endorsed Jolly on Monday.
Jolly said he plans a campaign kickoff event soon and said he is not worried about "paid political sharks that are trying to paint me as a political insider."