PINELLAS PARK — Republican state Rep. Kathleen Peters started campaigning for Congress on Tuesday, promising to fight "the weak-willed, the preening and the posturing men" who have created Washington dysfunction.
But even as she spoke, a more local story line was forming alongside her as a crowd of elected officials stood to back her campaign — in contrast with another crowd of elected officials who support David Jolly, the longtime congressional aide who also is seeking the Republican nomination.
Pinellas County's Republican Party has a battle on its hands — a clash that pits Peters versus Jolly in a special election called after the death of longtime U.S. Rep C.W. Bill Young. It's a sprint of a race, with the primary on Jan. 14 and the general election March 11.
"I am shocked she announced to run for Congress," said Seminole Mayor Leslie Waters, who supports Jolly. "I was hoping that the Republicans of Pinellas County could avoid a congressional primary."
There's another Republican candidate, newcomer Mark Bircher, a retired brigadier general in the Marine Corps Reserve who paid the $10,400 filing fee to enter the race by Tuesday's deadline out of his own pocket. Democrat Alex Sink and Libertarian Lucas Overby also are seeking the seat.
This week, Republican elected officials and activists have mostly been flocking to Peters or Jolly.
For state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, the choice is Peters. He told the crowd that Sink is from Thonotosassa and Jolly "has been an insider in Washington, D.C.," but as far as he knew those two haven't "worked in our community, haven't worked for our charities, haven't coached teams and all the kinds of things that Kathleen has done."
The division can even be seen among Young's family. The late congressman's widow, Beverly, endorsed Jolly, and said her husband wanted him to be the successor. Young's son Patrick also appeared at Jolly's campaign kick-off in support.
But on Tuesday, Young's son Bill Young II appeared at Peters' event, saying she would make an excellent candidate. He got a round of applause when he was introduced.
Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos, who was previously a longtime aide to Young, also backed Peters on Tuesday. He considered running for the seat, but decided against it. So did three others who showed up to back Peters: Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, Safety Harbor Mayor Joe Ayoub and former Pinellas commissioner Neil Brickfield.
"Her breadth is much wider here in town, and I think it benefits the residents of the 13th Congressional District," Cretekos said, but also stressed that both candidates were "excellent."
"I think that Alex Sink and the Democrats really want to make this about women," said Bill Young II. "If Kathleen's up there, that argument's gone and she's going to be a heck of a candidate and at the end of the day we're going to have a strong candidate who's going to beat Alex Sink"
Peters called herself a pragmatic, get-things-done Republican who can find "big solutions to really big problems." She also blasted the D.C. power establishment made up of "the weak-willed, the preening and the posturing men kicking the can down the road, running up bigger and bigger deficits, and inflicting hardships on the American people."
Peters, 52, is married with four sons and four grandsons. While Peters' supporters stress her local involvement as a South Pasadena mayor, Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce official, and a soccer and Little League mom, Jolly's supporters call him a man with firm Pinellas County roots who has worked at an extremely high level in Washington, including serving as general counsel to Young during his chairmanship of the House Appropriations Committee.
Former school board member Nancy Bostock, who supports Jolly, 41, said she has known him for years, and — longer than she has known Peters — and that as an aide to Young, Jolly always responded to her concerns as a county commissioner or School Board member.
"Any time somebody from Pinellas County needed help, David Jolly was there," she said.
Bostock also said she wasn't concerned that Republicans were divided.
"I think we have two class-act candidates," she said, adding that she believes the entire party would support the eventual nominee.
This story has been changed to reflect the following correction: Nancy Bostock is a former Pinellas School Board member. An earlier version of this story was incorrect on that point. Staff Writer Curtis Krueger can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8232. Twitter: @ckruegertimes.