Bob Hackworth was a political nobody when he beat a respected longtime incumbent for the Dunedin City Commission in 2002.
Now he's up against a congressman who may be Pinellas County's most revered politician, a 38-year incumbent who has scattered his name and millions of dollars across his district.
Hackworth, who won the Democratic primary against two opponents this week, believes he can beat U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young by tapping into voters' desire for change in Congress. He senses a parallel between this race and his first in Dunedin, where the mood on issues had shifted and voters turned against the incumbent.
But the Dunedin mayor doesn't doubt it will be a tricky and difficult campaign. Young, who has a war chest of more than $600,000, is known for helping local officials and responding to constituents' needs.
"I'm able to not be intimidated by the challenge before me," said Hackworth, 53. "I trust that people will respond to a legitimate difference of policy positions. I also am confident in the people to hold their elected officials accountable."
Young, 77, has represented the 10th Congressional District, which includes most of Pinellas County, since 1970. A plurality of its registered voters are Republicans, but not by much. According to the latest statistics on the district, Republicans make up 39 percent of registered voters, Democrats represent 37 percent, and 19 percent are independent.
Need for party help
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which targets competitive races with financial support for Democrats, considers it a swing district. Hackworth is making a pitch to the committee that it should support his candidacy, but Young is a formidable obstacle.
"The area is in play in a presidential year," said Kyra Jennings, the Democratic committee spokeswoman. "We always want to have the strongest candidate possible in every race in the country at a time when people are looking for change."
Whether the national Democrats decide to pick up his race will be a key factor in the race's competitiveness. As a challenger, Hackworth needs money to get his name and message to voters, said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. She said there is a "double whammy" that will make fundraising difficult this year. For one, the economy is poor. Second, if voters are willing to donate, it more likely will be to the high-profile presidential candidates.
Campaign by bike
Hackworth said he was disappointed in his fundraising in the primary. He ended up with about $97,000, of which $60,000 came from his own pocket.
But the former professional bicycle racer thinks his strategy of riding his bike around precincts to knock on doors will help offset weak fundraising. He said he reached about 13,000 residences in Pinellas County during the primary campaign. Hackworth said the precincts he walked match up with the precincts he won in the primary, in which he received 10,420 votes — about 47 percent.
It's an old strategy made famous in Florida by former Gov. Lawton Chiles, who walked a 1,000-mile trek across Florida in 1970 to win a U.S. Senate seat.
Hackworth plans to tread carefully in talking about Young, fearing that going too negative could backfire. He says he will keep the dialogue respectful because he wants to honor Young's work in Congress.
"You're never going to beat congressman Young by attacking him," said Democratic state Rep. Darryl Rouson, who said Young was helpful and responsive when Rouson led the local NAACP. "He's just too popular for that."
Nevertheless, the mayor says Young should be held accountable for what he calls the failed policies of the Bush administration, including the poor economy, the cost of health care and the war in Iraq.
Karl Nurse, a St. Petersburg City Council member and Hackworth supporter, said Young's strength is somewhat of an unknown because he hasn't faced a serious challenger in more than a decade. He said the key message will be Young's long tenure in Washington.
"Thirty-eight years is enough," Nurse said. "I think with the presidential campaign at its back, that could make it a close race."
Hackworth is betting that Sen. Barack Obama will turn out new voters who may be less loyal to Young.
He looks to Young's last race as a measurement of how far he has to go. In 2006, when Democrats regained control of Congress in an anti-incumbent sweep, Young's opponent, Samm Simpson, received only 34 percent of the vote in District 10.
"It's a big job," Hackworth said.
Stephanie Garry can be reached at (727) 892-2374 or [email protected]