Florida and Tampa Bay will never have another member of Congress to match C.W. Bill Young's remarkable record of selfless public service. He served with eight U.S. presidents over parts of five decades. He brought home projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars that created jobs and helped define the region as a hub for military contractors, marine science and public education. And he represented his nation and his constituents with dignity, humility and grace even in periods when the nation's capital was torn by partisanship, anger and distrust.
Young, who announced Wednesday he will not seek re-election next year, was first elected in 1970 and is the House's longest-serving Republican. He was never seriously challenged in an election, and only twice did he win his Pinellas-based district with less than 60 percent of the vote. His consistency, constituent service and ability to bring home federal money made him as well-liked and respected here as he has been with defense secretaries and his House colleagues in Washington.
The sweep of Young's influence over a half-century is hard to grasp in this era of Twitter and instant analysis. As a young state senator and member of Congress, he and his allies led the transformation of Pinellas County into a moderate Republican stronghold that is just now starting to elect more Democrats. Theirs was a centrist philosophy based on clean-government reforms, fiscal conservatism, quiet social tolerance and vocal support for the environment. That machine sent Pinellas Republicans into county offices, the Legislature and Congress who would be considered too liberal and compromising by tea party supporters now. Young, for example, remains the rare Republican who still acknowledges that the responsible answer to reducing the federal deficit is a combination of spending cuts and new revenue.
As House appropriations chairman in earlier years and as chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee more recently, Young often was able to gain support for budget deals where others failed. He has maintained close ties for years with the nation's military leaders and its soldiers. He and his wife, Beverly, have devoted themselves to quietly visiting the wounded and helping their families in immeasurable ways.
A master at placing earmarks for local projects into the budget before the practice was banned, Young brought to Tampa Bay hundreds of millions in federal money and defended earmarks even as he was criticized nationally. His name is on the region's reservoir, education buildings and any number of programs. But he also benefited the region in many other ways, from building up the local defense industry to working for decades to protect the beaches from any additional offshore drilling.
In recent years, Young has been pulled further to the right by the more conservative House Republicans. He voted for budgets that cut too deeply and did not reflect his long track record. He reliably went along with fruitless efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. But Young still found occasions to be an independent voice of reason. He changed positions and called for the United States to withdraw from Afghanistan last year after a soldier who had sought his help was killed by an improvised explosive device. Last week, he said he told House Speaker John Boehner it was time to end the government shutdown over the budget stalemate and vote for a clean spending bill that does not harm the Affordable Care Act.
Now 82 years old and battling health issues, Young has made another pragmatic decision to retire on his terms. His redrawn district is no longer a Republican lock, and the Congress he will leave is unrecognizable from the one he first joined. But his legacy in shaping Florida is secure. Young's contributions to the nation and to Tampa Bay, to countless constituents and to military veterans who sought his help, will endure for generations.