WASHINGTON — David Jolly's close association with C.W. Bill Young is his biggest asset as he tries to replace the late congressman. It may also be his biggest liability.
Jolly parlayed his work as an aide to Young, the powerful appropriator, into a lobbying career, the quintessential Washington revolving door story.
As he pursues the GOP nomination in the Congressional District 13 special election, running as a "Bill Young Republican," opponents have seized on Jolly's lucrative profession.
"The choice is clear: A Washington lobbyist who has put his special interest clients first or a local community leader who has put Pinellas families first?" GOP rival Kathleen Peters states in her first television ad.
Hundreds of former congressional aides have left for K Street jobs over the years, returning to Capitol Hill to ply a system they know intimately. But it's rare for a lobbyist to run for office and those who do face the same attacks as Jolly is now.
"I stand by it," Jolly said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times. "The work I have done in private practice has been assisting companies and organizations to work with an incredibly complex federal government. I'm proud of the impact I've had for these organizations, including organizations here in Pinellas County."
The criticism, he said, amounts to "cheap political shots."
Still, Jolly tacitly acknowledged the risk by terminating his lobbying contracts as of Nov. 1, according to a letter he sent to the clerk of the House and Senate.
"I didn't want any appearance of impropriety, even though there would not be any," he said.
In a newly filed financial disclosure, Jolly reports $5,000 in lobbying income from his Three Bridges Advisors company this year, down from $97,000 he said was earned in the first five months of 2012.
That will not stop his opponents from hitting him with the lobbyist tag. Peters has most visibly raised it, as has Peters' ally, state Sen. Jack Latvala. Democrats helping candidate Alex Sink have signaled they will make it a top issue, too.
The critics have their own lobbying ties. As political office holders, Sink, the former Florida CFO and 2010 candidate for governor, and Peters, a state representative, have taken money from lobbyists. Latvala is a Washington lobbyist, having earned more than $1 million in the past decade.
Peters said she understands lobbyists have a role and can help educate lawmakers. "The difference is I've spent my political career pushing the agenda of the citizens. David Jolly has spent his career pushing the agenda of his clients. That's a big difference."
The lobbying work is problematic for Jolly on another level because his opponents have cast him as an Washington insider disconnected with the local community, a claim the Dunedin-born candidate disputes.
Jolly, 41, worked for Young from 1995 to the end of 2006, with a one-year break in between when he worked for a Washington securities firm. He rose to become general counsel to Young, chairman of the House appropriations committee.
Jolly then became a lobbyist with Van Scoyoc Associates, a major Washington firm. For the past three years Jolly has operated his own practice under the Three Bridges Advisors name (the name comes from the Gandy, Howard Frankland and Courtney Campbell bridges that a plane landing in Tampa flies over.) The firm earned $1.2 million over the past three years, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
His clients have ranged from defense contractors to colleges in Florida and Colorado, and Mount Desert Island Biological Lab. Jolly emphasized that he also did pro bono work for the father of Jessica Lunsford, the slain Florida girl, obtaining federal money so U.S. marshals could go after sex offenders.
Like other former Young aides who have become lobbyists, Jolly gravitated to defense firms, which sprang up in Tampa Bay due to access to funding from the congressman.
Jolly helped secure funding for various defense firms, including Mikros Systems, STS International, SRI International and DRS Technologies. DRS' parent company, Finmeccanica, was in the news this summer after Wikileaks published emails showing it sold radio equipment to Syrian police. The sale took place before the violence broke out, the company said. Jolly said he had no role in Finmeccanica and had not heard of the issue.
He said he helped one company, Alakai Defense Systems, add jobs in Florida by securing competitive contracts for technology that allowed service members in Afghanistan to examine roadside bombs from a safer distance.
Though Jolly is not a registered lobbyist for Alakai, he earned nearly $28,000 from the company this year, according to his disclosure. Jolly said he is an in-house consultant for the Largo company.
His largest source of income, $229,000, came from Boston Finance Group, a private equity company in Clearwater that he joined in 2012 as a vice president.
Jolly's campaign is playing up his connection to Young — Young's widow says the lawmaker tapped Jolly as his successor on his deathbed — and the candidate says it gives him the experience for the job.
As a lobbyist, Jolly said he kept a distance from Young, joking that another former top Young aide, Doug Gregory, crowded out the market access. But he said that some of his work for defense contractors put him in contact with his old boss.
"I did not build my practice around Mr. Young, not in any stretch," Jolly said.
In recent years, budget "earmarks" have been banned, limiting the funding lawmakers can direct to their home districts. In a career spanning four decades, Young was one of the all-time earmark kings, securing hundreds of millions for the Tampa Bay area.
As a lobbyist Jolly worked both sides of the aisle, giving money to Democrats as well as Republicans. "My political giving has merely followed my relationships."
Times staff writer Curtis Krueger contributed. Contact Alex Leary at [email protected]