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Justice labors for votes as Young ignores the underdog

Charlie Justice, center, talks with Philip Reed of Gulfport, right, in Gulfport. At left is Gulfport Vice Mayor Michele King.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

Charlie Justice, center, talks with Philip Reed of Gulfport, right, in Gulfport. At left is Gulfport Vice Mayor Michele King.

ST. PETERSBURG — Perspiration collecting on his polo shirt, Charlie Justice walked up to yet another door in a west St. Petersburg neighborhood. Ding-dong.

No answer.

Justice, a state senator from St. Petersburg, found himself alone, again, searching for voters to sway.

But they're not the only people ignoring the underdog, who is running against 20-term U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young.

So far, Young has continued his track record of largely ignoring challengers, refusing to debate Justice and rarely responding to his many attacks.

"It's not like I'm a fringe candidate," said Justice, 42, as he walked door to door recently, calling Young's treatment atrocious.

Justice won three elections to the Florida House before winning perhaps the toughest 2006 legislative campaign for a Florida Senate seat. On paper, he represents the biggest challenge to Young in two decades. He's a married father of two daughters with earnest Boy Scout manners. He's a Democrat in a district that favored Barack Obama for president in 2008.

But Justice hasn't been in the same place with the Indian Shores Republican in months. The Suncoast Tiger Bay Club plans an Oct. 12 debate, with no promise Young will attend.

Young, 79, is still recuperating from back surgery he had this summer. He has communicated by phone with top officials in Washington, and promises he could return with a day's notice if needed.

"I think we already have a schedule of therapy on the 12th," Young said.

His low profile shouldn't be chalked up to apathy. Young has been sending mailers and buying TV ads that Justice can't afford to match.

As August began, Young had $641,000 on hand to Justice's $23,000, according to the most recent finance reports. The fundraising period that ended Thursday wasn't expected to alter that margin.

Some of Justice's campaign tactics have irked him. Young said it was unfair for Justice to compare Young's record to mobster Al Capone. As did a running list of "indictments" trying to tie campaign contributions to Young's trademark: federal spending appropriations.

Young said he won't respond to the attacks, except to say:

"He should run his campaign. I'll run my campaign. And we'll count the votes on Election Day."

The two disagree on broader policies like President Obama's health care overhaul — Young voted no, Justice would have voted yes. But the core of Justice's campaign has attacked Young for focusing on earmarks, and for behaving as if he is entitled to the job.

Justice jumped into the race three months after Obama took office, and amid rumors that Young might retire. He would have had a leg up on any Democratic challengers for an open seat.

Except Young re-enlisted.

But even before Young's decision in February, Justice's bid failed to create enough excitement to get national party backing. Though he's raised nearly $300,000, his fundraising and organization in 2009 never caught fire.

"This is a candidate — and a credible candidate — whose timing ended up being possibly as poor as possible," said supporter Karl Nurse, a St. Petersburg City Council member.

While friends and supporters acknowledge that Justice gambled, he dismisses that notion. He insists he would have run anyway.

"I think in this particular campaign, he sees himself as an underdog maybe more so than in the past. I think it's energized him to work harder to get the message," said Rob Lewis, 42, a volunteer and friend since seventh grade.

It's not like Justice is a fire-breathing campaigner, either. Whether it's at Stella's Deli in Gulfport or the floor of the Senate, the most consistent reaction is: He's nice.

As a Democrat in the Republican-controlled Legislature, passing bills is a rarity. Sometimes victory is defeating a bill, or making it less onerous, Justice said.

He counts his top achievement as fighting to fund benefits for the state's nationally certified teachers, a point he uses to emphasize his interest on education policy in Congress. He got a law passed barring governments from using tax money on political campaigns. And he's stood up with residents in the Azalea neighborhood angered by polluted water, though he couldn't get a related bill passed.

He hasn't been averse to seeking money from appropriations, either. In 2008, for example, he filed requests for $9.3 million in spending, mostly for an Oldsmar water plant. He highlights landing funding for nonprofits like Gulf Coast Family Services.

He's quick to point out that his funding requests were transparent, not tucked into bills as an earmark behind the scenes.

But Justice's interests and record in the legislature don't provoke the kind of headlines and public attention to give his campaign momentum. That leaves him working, voter by voter.

As Justice worked Precinct 231 in the Eagle Crest neighborhood of west St. Petersburg, he treated it as an old playground — which it was. He lived in a Ninth Avenue, single-story house that still has the concrete pavers he installed years earlier, from age 5 to his 20s.

He used to play football in a nearby lot. The dry cleaner is still there, though neighbors have changed.

"It's a strong Democrat precinct," he said.

It voted for him when he ran for the state House.

It voted for Young, too.

As he walked up Seventh Avenue, Bev and Glen McKelvey, both Republicans and 53, stood talking on the sidewalk outside their home. When she told Justice she was a prekindergarten teacher, he lauded the state's legislation supporting it.

As he went to the next door, the McKelveys said they liked what they heard. Young has been in office a long time, they said, new blood is good. But then there's Young and his record, and that's hard to ignore, too.

"He's done a lot," said Bev McKelvey.

Justice labors for votes as Young ignores the underdog 10/02/10 [Last modified: Saturday, October 2, 2010 11:40pm]
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