Monday, November 20, 2017

Five in Pinellas race for Congress stress local roots, national views


Pinellas County is about to send a new representative to Congress and the race so far seems centered on two questions:

Who's really from Pinellas County? Who can really get things done in Washington?

Five candidates are running, with three facing off in a Republican primary Jan. 14. The GOP nominee will then go up against Democrat Alex Sink and Libertarian Lucas Overby in the March 11 general election.

The special election was called after the death of longtime Republican U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, and the candidates are scrambling to ramp up their campaigns in the district, which extends from south Pinellas to Dunedin, with downtown and southern St. Petersburg cut out.

Here's a look at how they are beginning their campaigns and where they stand on important issues such as the controversial changes to flood insurance regulations, the recent government shutdown, and "Obamacare."

The Republicans

David Jolly, 41, was born in Dunedin and graduated from Pasco High School. After college, he moved to Washington, D.C., and spent most of his career working for Rep. Young. He rose to become Young's general counsel, including while the congressman chaired the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

Jolly has lived in Pinellas since 2006, often commuting to Washington, where he also has worked as a consultant, lawyer and lobbyist. Is this a true Pinellas background? He says yes. Even in Washington, he was helping Young on Pinellas issues, he said.

This race, Jolly said, is about "electing somebody who can be effective for the people of Pinellas County on Day One," adding that, "the others will need to learn the job as they go along and I won't have that problem."

Fixing flood insurance — the recently modified system that is causing skyrocketing rates for some homeowners who have never experienced flooding — is a top priority, he said. He proposes a national disaster program, combining insurance for multiple forms of disasters nationwide that would spread risk and be more solvent.

He blames President Barack Obama for the government shutdown, but noted that he would have voted to keep the government open. As for Obamacare, he said he "would have voted against it every step of the way."

State Rep. Kathleen Peters, 52, is a former South Pasadena mayor and city commissioner who was elected last year to the Florida House. She worked until recently for the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Peters said her experience — from the Little League fields to the state capital — makes her a better candidate more in tune with Pinellas residents.

Peters, who is married with four boys, said Jolly might have worked on projects for Rep. Young, but that didn't provide the necessary insight into the county.

"I know our county," she said. "From a small-business perspective, from a health and wellness, from recreation, from early learning, from education … I know Pinellas County."

As an example, she cited her work to create a middle school program designed to prevent juvenile crime.

On flood insurance, she said she would not support the idea of simply delaying the rate increases for a year as that would just extend the misery. A more comprehensive approach is needed, she said, noting that she likes an initiative proposed by U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor.

Peters said the government shutdown was not a good solution and "what I would have done is try to get some sort of resolution before that deadline."

She opposes Obamacare because of the requirement that certain people must buy insurance if they don't have it.

Mark Bircher, 60, is a retired brigadier general from the Marine Corps Reserves, and also is an airline pilot and lawyer. He has lived in Pinellas County for 12 years and acknowledges not having extensive local experience.

But he also said he thinks he'll be a good congressman because "I'm used to running large organizations. I'm used to learning things I don't know."

He supports a plan to delay the flood insurance changes for four years and says there should be extensive studies on flood maps and FEMA data. He said state governors should "formulate a plan that would phase out federal government involvement in the flood insurance process," and find solutions in cooperation with private providers.

As for Obamacare, it "should be scrapped," he said.

"My primary initiative as a member of Congress will be a return to the founding principles of limited government, fiscal responsibility and individual liberty."

The Democrat

Alex Sink, 65, spent more than 25 years as a bank executive before she was elected in 2006 as Florida's chief financial officer. She was the Democratic nominee for governor in 2010, losing to Rick Scott.

Sink has lived Thonotosassa in eastern Hillsborough County, but is now moving into a rented condo in the Feather Sound area to establish a residence in Pinellas. She said she had plenty of dealings in Pinellas over the years in banking and as CFO. On Saturday, she opened a campaign headquarters on Ulmerton Road.

"The people of this district know about me, they know how I've advocated particularly for seniors and veterans and supported them. I have a good record to run on.

"Washington's broken. I'm quite confident that I'm going to be able to go to Washington and represent the people."

She said the government shutdown helped propel her to run for Congress "because I saw how it hurt people." She said she supports Obamacare with some modifications.

As to flood insurance, she said, "It is unacceptable that Pinellas residents have paid eight times more into the flood insurance program than we've claimed."

She said "Congress needs to immediately prevent the rate hike for residents and instruct FEMA to complete the affordability study that was promised," which will provide guidance on how to move forward.

The Libertarian

Lucas Overby, 27, is a commercial diver who has worked on various grass roots causes, but whose website calls him the "quintessential political outsider."

He has spent most of his life in Pinellas, graduating from the Center for Advanced Technologies program at St. Petersburg's Lakewood High School. Pinellas roots are important, he believes, "because I'm not sure of any other way to know your community."

Although government shutdowns can be a valid tool, he said he "was opposed to this last shutdown simply because the Republicans did not take the opportunity to present meaningful alternatives and solutions" to the Affordable Care Act.

He agrees health care costs are a "massive problem," but doesn't think Obamacare addresses them. He said reducing over-regulation and promoting tort reform would be better measures.

As to flood insurance, he said a national fix still needs to be developed but "I am in favor of assisting Florida in creating a private market to deal with the issue long term."

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