A decade ago, during his first campaign for the state Legislature, a volunteer came up with U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis' slogan: Gus is for Us.
It may not be the sexiest motto, but Bilirakis said he's kept it because it speaks to his primary mission: remembering the constituents back home each time he steps on the House floor to cast a vote.
"I want to continue to live up to that because it means I'm fighting for the people in my district," Bilirakis said.
In the freshman incumbent's bid to retain his seat, Bilirakis has name recognition on his side. His father, Mike, held the seat from 1983 to 2006.
But Bilirakis, 45, could have some heavy competition this year in U.S. House District 9, which covers northern Pinellas, western Pasco and suburban Hillsborough counties.
John Dicks, 55, has caught the attention of Democratic Party strategists.
First the former Plant City mayor will take on Tampa lawyer Bill Mitchell and Hispanic advocate Anita de Palma in next month's primary. But Bilirakis' name recognition — and the money he's been able to collect — could prove to be the greatest hurdle for challengers in this historically conservative district.
Based on the June 30 campaign reports, Bilirakis has raised $1.05-million in contributions.
Dicks has brought in $104,651 and loaned himself another $320,000.
Mitchell has collected about $70,000 in contributions and loaned his campaign another $100,000.
De Palma, has raised the least, $23,340 in all, including a $20,500 loan to herself.
Dicks' campaign has gained attention from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which named it one of the "top 20 emerging races" nationwide.
"Those are races where ... we believe the candidate there is generating excitement," said Kyra Jennings of the DCCC. "With his time as mayor of Plant City, we think he's in line with the values of the district and is able to connect with the voters."
During his nine years on the Plant City Commission, Dicks, a business and real estate lawyer, helped shave more than 10 percent off the city budget and dealt with record population growth without raising taxes, he said.
Dicks supports the creation of a national catastrophe fund to lower homeowners' insurance rates and opposes offshore drilling. A former trustee for Hillsborough Community College, he advocates smaller class sizes and increased vocational education opportunities.
Mitchell, 61, ran for the same seat in 2006, but dropped out at the request of officials from the state Democratic Party, who feared he would split the Democratic vote. In 2002, he ran as a Republican for state House District 47, but changed parties in 2005 because he found himself at odds with the Bush administration's handling of the war and the push to privatize Social Security, he said.
A Navy veteran who serves on the board of directors of the Tampa chapter of the Military Officers Association of America, Mitchell said his service and work with veterans gives him better insight into the "human cost" of war.
His time spent investigating "big oil" for the Federal Trade Commission and litigating against insurance companies has prepared him to take on major issues, he said. "I don't think my opponents have any of that experience," he said.
De Palma, 71, is a past state president of the League of United Latin American Citizens. She lobbied against the Central America Free Trade Agreement, and helped establish domestic violence and young readers programs.
All three Democratic candidates have criticized Bilirakis as ineffective, based on his abysmal power ranking last year (429th out of 435 members) from the nonpartisan Congress.org, an affiliate of a nonprofit congressional directory publisher.
Bilirakis said the rankings are stacked against freshman GOP members in the Democratic-controlled House.
"I've been told the elitists in Washington, D.C., don't consider homeland security and veteran affairs powerful committees, but I knew those committees would serve me well, and more importantly, serve my constituents well," he said.
Bilirakis said he has crossed the aisle to garner support for language he's authored that has made it into legislation to enhance border security and increase pay for the military.
Bilirakis said he has gotten bipartisan support for his proposed Silver Alert bill that would establish an Amber Alert-like system to help find missing seniors with dementia and Alzheimer's.
"My attitude has always been 'Never say never.' Even as a freshman in the minority, I've been getting things done," Bilirakis said.
Three other candidates have emerged for the November election.
• Richard O. Emmons, 57, of New Port Richey, owns a company that sells and services magazine subscription contracts. The platform for the self-dubbed Term Limits for the United States Congress Party calls for limits that would prohibit members of Congress from serving for more than 12 years and for referendums on national issues.
• John "Johnny K" Kalimnios, 42, who spent more than 18 years with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and the Tarpon Springs Police Department, said he's "not a politician, nor am I a lawyer. I'm just a middle-class person who's hurting as much as anybody else is."
The father of two teenage sons said he's focused on unemployment and the energy crisis. Kalimnios said he is working on a comprehensive alternative energy plan. Kalimnios, a former Republican, said he considers himself an independent.
• Write-in candidate Andrew Pasayan, 90, of Holiday, ran against the elder Bilirakis in 2002 and 2004, and against Gus Bilirakis in 2006. Pasayan could not be reached for this article.
Rita Farlow can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4162.