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GOP steps back as Bill Young steps up

CLEARWATER — U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young is forcing a lot of fellow Republican politicians to sit on the bench. Again.

Ever since Young, 79, confirmed at a Republican Party fundraiser Feb. 20 that he's going for term No. 21 in the U.S. House, other Republicans have resigned themselves to waiting another year for their shot at Congress.

Among those poised to run: Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard and County Commissioner Karen Seel. A pair of former aides, Clearwater City Council member George Cretekos and lobbyist David Jolly, also were mentioned. County Commissioner John Morroni's name came up, though his recent battle to overcome cancer caused him to shoot down serious thoughts.

Young now faces a tea party styled newcomer, Eric Forcade of Palm Harbor, in the Republican primary.

Seel downplayed the lost opportunity, saying she has plenty of work to do locally. Plus, she said, Young has succeeded in Congress and she never seriously made an effort to run.

"It's just been a gut feeling that he would continue," Seel said.

For Republican leaders, the dashed ambitions of the would-be successors' pale against another backdrop: opening up a seat that has been in Republican hands for five decades against state Sen. Charlie Justice, D-St Petersburg.

Despite paltry fundraising in late 2009, Young entered this year with $396,000 on hand. A newcomer would have had a late start at raising money.

"It's been almost six decades that Republicans have held that seat — they didn't want to spend a penny on that race that could be used in other places," said Darryl Paulson, a retired political scientist from the University of South Florida.

In fact, some Republicans started sensing Young was running again at a December holiday party. At the Republican dinner last month, Young contributed $40,000, worth four tables, for the event, chairman J.J. Beyrouti said, noting that Young really needed no support from the party to campaign.

"I don't think anyone in this county can fill Bill Young's shoes," Republican consultant Jack Latvala, who is running for Justice's seat, said to cheers at a county GOP meeting Monday night.

Plus, local Republicans risked other races.

Seel and Hibbard's posts could open, triggering jockeying in their Clearwater areas, for example. Cretekos and newly elected City Council member Bill Jonson are possible candidates to be mayor.

Key to Young's support in GOP ranks is his success bringing federal money for buildings, roads and other spending in Pinellas.

That penchant, however, is exactly what Justice hopes to use to oust him. The goal is to engage Young, who traditionally avoids debates with opponents, on his own record.

"Young has had a long history of not wanting to debate his opponents one on one," said Paulson, who has followed Young's career. "There's going to be little opportunity to debate Young. … And how do you get your message out against a very popular congressman in this area?"

Justice, 41, is trying to re-invigorate a nearly year-old bid after Young's announcement caused a spasm of conventional wisdom among national analysts that the seat was likely to remain Republican. National Democrats released the first round of their top 13 candidates as part of their "Red to Blue" effort for competitive races Wednesday. Justice, whose campaign entered the year with $91,000 on hand, wasn't on it.

He acknowledged falling short of fundraising levels, but said the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee hasn't told him it's backing off after Young's decision.

"This race is going to be won or lost in Pinellas County, not Washington," he said. "From the very beginning, this was not about me running only if he didn't."

At the Pinellas Democratic Party's Kennedy King Dinner on Feb. 27, Justice exhorted party members to help his campaign in a district Barack Obama won in 2008, in a year that's dangerous for incumbents.

"This district is dead even — dead even," Justice said afterward. "He has not had a real race in, can we say, ever?"

Justice has begun a running list of "indictments" of Young's earmarks, This week's hit: Young received $145,000 in donations since 2006 from tenants at the county's STAR Center industrial complex, after writing in $33 million in federal spending for it. That includes $100,000 with ties to Raytheon, which is embroiled in a contamination case in St. Petersburg.

But Paulson and Republicans warn that a local earmark looks a lot different outside the county than it does inside.

"The widening of U.S. 19 is an earmark. Do people really not want U.S. 19 widened?" Latvala said.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

GOP steps back as Bill Young steps up 03/10/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 10, 2010 9:52pm]
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