The two leading candidates to succeed the late U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young delivered starkly different views of the role of government Monday night in their first debate. David Jolly embraced the most conservative wing of the Republican Party and sounded out of step with mainstream Pinellas County voters. Democrat Alex Sink offered a more centrist view of issues and sounded better positioned to work on bipartisan solutions in gridlocked Washington. Both offered articulate pitches for their positions and avoided major missteps, and voters in District 13 have a distinct choice in the March 11 election.
The hourlong debate at St. Petersburg College provided far more substance than the slew of negative television campaign ads, including more than $4 million by outside third-party groups.
The starkest lines were drawn on social issues. On the Affordable Care Act: Jolly would vote to repeal it; Sink would work to improve it but supports its considerable progress in enabling Americans, particularly those with pre-existing conditions, to obtain health insurance. Jolly opposes gay marriage and a woman's right to an abortion; Sink supports both. Sink supports the bipartisan Senate immigration reform bill that would both strengthen borders and create a lengthy path to citizenship; Jolly opposes the legislation and a path to citizenship.
On Social Security and Medicare, both Sink and Jolly offered their weakest answers as they pledged to protect the programs. Sink, 65, offered no specifics and said she has earned her Medicare coverage like 170,000 other residents of the district. Jolly, 41, claimed he would only change benefits for those who have contributed to the system for less than 10 years. At that moment, Libertarian Lucas Overby, the third candidate in the debate, provided the best retort: At 27 years old, he'd both lose benefits and end up footing the bill for Jolly's solution.
Sink and Jolly were most in agreement in embracing a delay in a 2012 flood insurance law that has caused rates to skyrocket in Pinellas and elsewhere. They differed on the ultimate solution. Jolly called for the private insurance market to shoulder more of the risk, while Sink questioned the viability of that approach.
Many of the night's exchanges were pointed, with Jolly in his opening remarks calling Sink — a longtime Hillsborough County resident — a carpetbagger for moving to Pinellas County to run for the office. But Overby, who in recent years has lived in Pinellas longer than either Sink or Jolly, was right when he told moderators he didn't think the candidates' residency would be a determining factor for voters. Nor likely will Jolly's former occupation as a Washington lobbyist, though Sink repeatedly returned to that theme.
The final moments of the debate provided one more contrast when it came to foreign policy. Jolly said he wants President Barack Obama to intervene in the Syrian crisis; but Sink said she doesn't have the appetite to put "more boots on the ground" in a conflict where we "don't understand the dynamics."
The debate underscored that this is not an election of nuance. Jolly and Sink offer dramatically different perspectives, and as Pinellas Elections Supervisor Deborah Clark is expected to mail out absentee ballots this week, voters have a distinct choice.