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Bilirakis challengers debate their differences

TAMPA — With the primary just two weeks away, three Democratic contenders in the 9th Congressional District race debated Social Security and energy policy Tuesday in a campaign forum.

The Democratic winner faces incumbent Republican House member Gus Bilirakis in November, and the GOP first-termer drew criticism on energy policy.

Anita de Palma, John Dicks and Bill Mitchell addressed about 25 Democratic activists at a meeting of the Tampa Bay chapter of the Democratic Professionals Council at Mise En Place. All three candidates said they oppose offshore drilling.

De Palma said oil companies should tap the "68-million acres of leased land" they have.

Mitchell, a Tampa lawyer, said Congress needs to investigate possible collusion by energy speculators, and promote alternative power sources.

Dicks, a former Plant City mayor, said he would increase in the margin requirements on futures trading and promote research into alternative fuels. He questioned whether Bilirakis' July trip to the Alaskan Arctic National Wildlife Refuge indicates he's about to reverse his stance on offshore drilling.

Bilirakis' political director, Nick Hansen, said Bilirakis "went to ANWR and the Renewable Energy Lab to get the facts to solve this crisis and to hear from Alaskans about their experiences with drilling. He has consistently said we must protect our beaches and coastlines. If and when we can drill safely, it would be irresponsible to not, at least, be open to the possibility."

On Social Security, de Palma said the first step was to get every American worker, including federal employees and elected officials, into the system. Dicks and Mitchell both said the system needs to be streamlined to speed up payments to the disabled.

Mitchell has said that Social Security will rebound along with the economy. Only Dicks supported a gradual rise in the minimum retirement age.

District 9 spans parts of Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties.

Rita Farlow can be reached at farlow@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4162.

Bilirakis challengers debate their differences 08/12/08 [Last modified: Monday, August 18, 2008 4:54pm]

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