Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Politics

U.S. Rep. Bill Young's fingerprints are everywhere in Tampa Bay

Master of the appropriations game, godfather to his Pinellas district, U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young has for more than four decades been Tampa Bay's greatest defense against being forgotten in Washington.

Young's fingerprints are on everything from MacDill Air Force Base and the flourishing local defense industry, to Florida's beaches and construction along U.S. 19. His planned retirement in 2014 is likely to be felt far beyond the boundaries of the 13th congressional district.

From his perch as chair of the U.S. House Appropriations Committee from 1999 to 2005, the Republican from Indian Shores — the longest-serving Republican in Congress — funneled millions of dollars to his Pinellas district. His name adorns the marine science complex at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and the currently closed Tampa Bay Water reservoir in Lithia.

Asked to measure Young's influence on the Tampa Bay area, local elected officials found themselves stammering, not for lack of examples, but for where to begin.

"I can say with certainty: But for him and his service, MacDill Air Force Base as we know it now wouldn't exist," said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who worked with Young in 1991 to fight off a federal commission's recommendation to close it.

Young persuaded members of the commission to take a tour of MacDill, said former Republican U.S. Rep. Michael Bilirakis. During the tour, he said, it was clear their visitors weren't aware that U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as across the Middle East, was located on the base.

MacDill came off the closure list. "That was his shining moment," Bilirakis said.

Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, who led Central Command from 2010 to 2013, said he was heartbroken that Young was retiring. Many MacDill officials credited Young with securing federal funding for the command's new $75 million headquarters.

"He gave us a building where we could focus totally on the mission," Mattis said. Young was there to dedicate it in November 2011, his face beaming amid the flags and camouflage of some of his favorite constituents.

In Pinellas County, all one needs to do to feel Young's influence is go for a drive down U.S. 19, a traffic-clogged artery that has been under construction for years, much of it paid for with federal funding Young secured to turn a 12-mile segment from Enterprise Road to 118th Avenue into a limited-access highway.

Young also could be counted on to lavish funding on the state and county's beaches, which, over the years, have required millions of dollars in cosmetic surgery to fight off erosion and replace sand lost to storms.

"The whole defense industry in Pinellas County has been fostered by him," said Republican State Sen. Jack Latvala.

Away from the capital, Young still found time to rub elbows with local politicians. He shied away from politicking, but found quiet ways, such as positioning a candidate prominently in a group photo, of giving a boost to people he liked.

Even as his influence began to wane with the official end of earmarks, he remained the man local elected officials called when federal issues, such as flood insurance hikes, left them begging for Washington's ear.

"To be able to pick up the phone and call him . . . not having that will be huge," said Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala.

Staff writers Richard Danielson and Patty Ryan and news researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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