Last week, the Seminole Chamber of Commerce held a candidates' forum next door to U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young's office. They invited the 81-year-old congressman to attend along with his Democratic challenger, Jessica Ehrlich.
Young failed to show. So, following legal advice from the League of Women Voters, the forum's organizers did not allow Ehrlich a turn at the microphone either.
League of Women Voters officials say the no-show is typical behavior for Young, now seeking his 22nd term in Congress. Young has not shown up for a league-sponsored candidate forum in the past 25 years, according to Mary Berglund, who has helped organize forums for the league since 1986. Young always says he has other commitments and can't participate, she said.
"We just feel he doesn't want to debate," Berglund said. "I don't think he feels he needs to. It's very disappointing."
Times archives show Young debated Democratic challenger Karen Moffitt at a Suncoast Tiger Bay Club meeting in 1992, but there are no articles about him debating anyone else in any other forum in the 20 years since. Opponents in 1996, 2006 and 2010 all complained about him not debating them. They were all soundly defeated by Young.
Young insisted he's not trying to duck any debates. But when asked to name the last time he debated an opposing candidate during one of his re-election bids, he paused and then said, "I don't know. I can't remember."
Young said he's not afraid to debate, explaining, "I've debated with presidents. I debate with some of the great debaters in Congress."
Young said he's just too busy for debates, "because of the fact that all my opponents have been located full-time in this area, while I am in Washington, which is where the job takes me a good part of the time."
However, the Indian Rocks Beach congressman with the distinctive silver hair said he returns to Pinellas County every weekend to meet with business and civic groups. "Even when I go to the grocery store, I have two or three meetings with people," he said.
Ehrlich, 38, a former congressional aide who grew up in St. Petersburg, said she has urged Young to make time to debate before the Nov. 6 election. "I am optimistic and hopeful he'll do it," she said.
The problem with Young's no-shows at forums, say league officials, is that they cannot allow his opponents to speak to the crowd.
"We're just trying to follow election law," explained league president Darden Rice. "If the league and the Seminole Chamber were to give Ehrlich the floor for 15 minutes without giving Bill Young a chance to speak, we'd have to account for an in-kind contribution to the Ehrlich campaign."
A Federal Elections Commission regulation on federal races says a debate is allowed only if it includes at least two candidates and the sponsor "does not structure the debates to promote or advance one candidate over another."
But Young said it wouldn't bother him a bit if his opponent gets to talk to the voters alone.
"Let them have their time," the veteran congressman said. "As far as I'm concerned, they can have my time too."
Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Craig Pittman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org