A week after U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young surprised the Tampa Bay area with his plans to retire, an aide confirmed Thursday that the nation's longest-serving Republican congressman has become "gravely ill."
"Rep. C. W. Bill Young's condition turned for the worse over night and he is gravely ill," read a family statement. "His doctors say his prognosis is guarded."
Young, 82, has been at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. He announced his retirement there last week, effective after his current term expires in 2014. He was first elected to Congress in 1970 and is the longest current serving Republican in either chamber.
Young's illness was initially attributed to back issues, but it has become clear since then that he is in serious condition.
He is surrounded by family and friends. On Wednesday, Young got a call from former President George W. Bush, who thanked the lawmaker for his support of the U.S. military as former chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and current head of the defense subcommittee.
News of his more serious illness spread among political insiders Wednesday night and Thursday morning, and then blew up when a local blogger and national news sites erroneously reported that Young was dead.
But the gravity of his illness does raise the prospect of what will happen if Young dies before the end of his term.
If a seat in Congress becomes vacant in Florida, Gov. Rick Scott must call a special election but the law does not specify a timetable.
By law, Scott must set the date of the special election in consultation with Secretary of State Ken Detzner. Scott's order would set dates for a special primary and a special election, as well as a deadline for candidates seeking to qualify by collecting voters' signatures on petitions rather than paying a filing fee, and deadlines for reporting campaign contributions and expenses.
A flurry of attention broke out from media and political people Thursday after local blogger and political consultant Peter Schorsch sent a Twitter message to more than 6,000 followers saying: "A relative of Congressman C.W. Bill Young tells me the iconic Republican lawmaker has passed away." He later tweeted the news was "Now confirmed with multiple sources."
But before the day was out, he posted an item on his blog titled "How I got it wrong."
Schorsch later said in an interview that two Young family members had sent him direct messages via Twitter saying Young had passed away. Later, Luke Russert of NBC News also tweeted that Young had died. Fox News went on air with the death report, later apologizing for the error. Schorsch said the Russert report plus the two family members formed the basis for his tweeting that "multiple sources" had confirmed Young's death.
The dangers of rapid-fire, breaking news have become apparent in recent cases, such as the major media institutions that erroneously reported the U.S. Supreme Court had struck down the Obamacare law. But Schorsch did not think this episode carried any larger lessons.
"I think I followed protocol. I had two sources and then I saw a major national news source put something out there. . . . I don't think there was an error in journalism here."
Schorsch noted that he has worked in Young's campaigns and greatly admires the congressman. "I don't think I've ever been happier to be wrong about a tweet than I was today."
Young changed the political landscape with last week's retirement announcement, as about a dozen potential candidates declared interest.
The potential Democratic candidates include former gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink; Pinellas commissioners Charlie Justice and Janet Long; and St. Petersburg lawyer Jessica Ehrlich.
Potential Republicans include Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos, former Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, former State Rep. Larry Crow, Pinellas commissioner Karen Seel, former Pinellas commissioner Neil Brickfield, former Young general counsel David Jolly, campaign worker and consultant Nick Zoller, and Young's son, Bill Young II.
In a telephone interview with the Tampa Bay Times last week, Young cited his health and a desire to spend more time with family. Young also recalled a conversation years ago with Sen. John Stennis in which he asked the Mississippi Democrat when Young would know it's time to leave.
"You'll know when it's time," Stennis told him.
"I'm taking that advice now," said Young.
Curtis Krueger can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8232.