David Jolly campaigns as a C.W. Bill Young Republican, but which one?

He sees himself as "a Bill Young Republican," and hopes to carry his mentor's values to D.C.

Published March 4 2014
Updated March 5 2014

LARGO — David Jolly, the Republican nominee to succeed the late Rep. C.W. Bill Young, says he is "a Bill Young Republican."

What does that mean? It's an important question because David Wilson Jolly has roughly even odds of being elected next Tuesday, and he remains something of a mystery four months after announcing his first campaign for public office.

For much of his four decades in the U.S. House, Young showered Tampa Bay with federal spending projects. Jolly won't be that Bill Young Republican; the money and earmarks are gone.

Jolly, 41, seemed to suggest at the start of this Pinellas County special election that being a Bill Young Republican meant being a staunch conservative, even in a district that twice elected Barack Obama.

In the primary, the lawyer-lobbyist-businessman scoffed at his main rival for wanting to have an alternative to Obamacare in place before repealing it. At a televised debate after easily winning the nomination, that Bill Young Republican called for military action in Syria, overturning Roe vs. Wade, pulling out of the Common Core education consortium, and opposing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

More recently, Jolly's campaign messages suggest he's the independent-minded, maverick Bill Young Republican.

He says he would be one of the few Republicans to support raising the debt ceiling this year and would have voted against House Republican budgets.

This Bill Young Republican prefers to talk about the exceptions he supports for abortions — rape, incest, life of the mother. Instead of invoking the Old Testament when asked about same-sex-marriage, he says he is fine with states allowing it.

Jolly insists he has not changed a single position since the campaign started, reporters are just asking different questions. To him, being a Bill Young Republican mostly is about civility.

"When I talk about being a Bill Young Republican," Jolly said, "that is absolutely true — both on civility and when I talk about being a gentleman and when I talk about wanting to represent everybody in Pinellas County: Republicans, Democrats and independents."

Barely an hour earlier, Jolly had declared Democrat Alex Sink unfit for office because she had referred to undocumented immigrants filling hotel housecleaning and landscaping jobs in Pinellas. "Bigotry," he called it.

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The youngest child of a Baptist minister, Jolly was born in Dunedin in 1972, moved to Miami at 3, then to Dade City for eighth grade. He was Pasco High's student body president, and his oldest sister, Jennifer Rothschild, recalls he always had a keen interest in current events.

Rothschild is a bestselling author, Bible study teacher and inspirational speaker. She lost most of her sight at age 15 to retinitis pigmentosa and believes that had a lasting impact.

"I can remember him just as a little kid walking me places, always looking out for me," said Rothschild, who lives in Missouri. "It demanded that everyone in the family becomes other-centered. That was definitely a tenet of our faith already, but then it became more personalized."

After Emory University, Jolly in 1994 had hoped to land a job with one of the conservative, young barn burners eager to upend Washington with Newt Gingrich. Instead, he got an entry-level job with Young.

The congressman became a mentor, and Jolly's responsibilities increased. Some family members dispute it, but Jolly says Young told him privately he wanted Jolly to succeed him.

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Jolly is a well-informed and often thoughtful candidate. He does not smile easily but is polished and amiable. He looks like a congressman, right down to the graying temples, but also like the quintessential Washington insider his critics depict him as. He dons well-pressed suits, shirts with cuff links, and flawless half-Windsor knots. (Even, oddly enough, at a Phillies spring training game last week.)

This may be his best shot at winning the seat in Congress he has been eyeing at least since his former boss flirted with retiring in 2009: more prominent Republicans took a pass, and a special election generally means much lower Democratic turnout.

Amid a torrent of goodwill, Jolly grabbed the Young mantel, advertising his support from Beverly Young, the congressman's widow.

Since the primary, Mrs. Young has been invisible on the campaign. She recently lamented in an email to dozens of friends that Jolly seemed to view her as a liability since a Tampa Bay Times article about Young's estrangement with his children from an earlier marriage. People keep asking her, she wrote, "Why did David kick me to the curb."

Jolly declined to discuss Mrs. Young's role in the campaign.

In some ways, Jolly is an unlikely candidate, an intensely private man in a nationally watched campaign. "Oh, come on! I'm not going to let you talk to any of my friends," he said.

He announced his candidacy while in the midst of divorce proceedings with his wife of 15 years. He has been dating a former employee at his lobbying firm, 27-year-old Laura Donahoe, but declined to say whether that relationship had anything to do with his divorce.

Jolly owns a condo in Indian Shores, as well as a larger apartment in Washington that he calls his secondary residence. Because Sink only recently started renting a condo in Pinellas, he suggests she's an outsider — an outsider running against the closest thing to another Bill Young.

"If you put Bill Young and I next to each other on paper, in most areas we are in agreement, and in some areas I'm probably more moderate than he was," Jolly said.

Young, though, almost never faced serious opposition over 43 years and rarely faced questions about hot-button issues.

"As a first-time candidate, I have been asked questions across the board that I have had to answer," Jolly said. "It would be a mistake for my opponent's camp or in the media to simply take where I stand on the issues and suggest that's going to paint me in a corner. We didn't do that to Bill Young."