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Bilirakis' challengers face long odds

For most of his 13 years in Congress, U.S. Rep. Michael Bilirakis has built a reputation in this district by paying attention to the little things: Helping an elderly person find a lost Social Security check, cutting the ribbon at a ceremony or simply visiting his constituents.

Bilirakis' power as a seven-term Republican congressman for the 9th Congressional District has been more far-reaching in Washington, D.C., where he has led efforts to reform health care Medicare and championed issues that affect the elderly and veterans.

His power also has been evident in the company he keeps. During a recent telephone interview, Bilirakis, 66, mentioned that he was running late for a meeting with Speaker Newt Gingrich.

So it stands to reason, with his popularity, that Bilirakis' bid for re-election this fall would run its course, without upset. But the congressman will face two challengers, one of them a Republican supporter who says she wants to snatch the primary from him.

"Some people tell me I'm David going against Goliath," said Pam Corbino, 47, a Safety Harbor city commissioner. "What I am going to tell people is that I can beat Goliath because your vote is going to be my stone."

Casting his bid for the seat on the Democratic side will be Jerry Provenzano, 47, a former Oldsmar mayor and council member who will face the winner of the primary race in the general election Nov. 5.

Both Provenzano and Corbino said they are seeking the seat because they don't believe Bilirakis represents his district anymore, that he has become too entrenched in life inside the Washington beltway. The candidates, in separate interviews, criticized Bilirakis for what they said was his inability to effect change and his handling of Medicare reform. They also said he had failed to be true to his stand on term limits.

Bilirakis, known for his affable manner with his colleagues on the House floor, defended his record recently. He said he would give himself a B+ in his handling of the issues. In particular, he said, he has made great strides in trying to save the Medicare system from bankruptcy and pushing for health care reform. He said he is seeking re-election because there is "an awful lot of unfinished business," particularly with health care.

The 9th District, largely Republican, runs from Clearwater to Tarpon Springs in northern Pinellas County to parts of Hillsborough and Pasco counties.

Political analysts say it will be difficult for any candidate to unseat the congressman this year because of his incumbency and the power he holds. "Even if you have the best intentions in the world, your chances of doing that are slim," said Mary Repper, a Clearwater-based political consultant. "It's a tough, tough job."

Bilirakis is an Air Force veteran and native of Tarpon Springs. He served as a municipal and county court judge and as the president of several community organizations, when as an underdog in 1982 he ran against then-state House Republican leader Curt Kiser in the primary for the position, one of four new congressional seats created after the 1980 census. He surprised his opponent, the media and pundits by winning that race and the general election against Democrat George Sheldon, a state representative.

Bilirakis, who was a Democrat until he says he "saw the light" and switched parties in 1970, spent much of his early career working on programs that benefited the district, according to a report in Congressional Quarterly. His initiatives have involved expanding benefits for veterans, their spouses and active military personnel. He has voted primarily along party lines.

In 1994, when Republicans took control of the House, Bilirakis gained considerable power: He was given the chairmanship of the House Commerce Subcommittee on Health and Environment.

The Republican challenger, Corbino, a computer teacher at Safety Harbor Middle School, says she got the urge to run for higher office after meeting with a group of Republican women at a convention a few years ago.

"I spent the whole weekend talking with these women about national issues," said Corbino, who is the daughter of a social worker and hardware store manager from Waterford, La. "I just knew this is what I had to be involved in." Her start in politics was on the City Commission in Safety Harbor, where she is serving her second term.

"Doors are opening for women in every area, in very profession, even so in politics," said Corbino, who was once a Bilirakis supporter. "I think this is the time to run. I think Mike is vulnerable because I think he has lost touch with people in his own district."

The Democrat, Provenzano, got into politics in Oldsmar in the 1980s shortly after building a home there and discovering that the city's water main system wasn't strong enough to feed a shower. He started going to meetings at City Hall and noticed city officials collecting rain water pouring through leaks in the ceiling.

During his tenure in Oldsmar, first as a council member, then as mayor, the city built a new City Hall, a library and paved some of the city's dirt roads. The city also started a Recreation Department and built ballfields.

"I am very proud of the things we accomplished in the city of Oldsmar without raising taxes _ please highlight that _ without raising taxes," said Provenzano, a native of Ybor City in Tampa.

Both Corbino and Provenzano acknowledge that they have a tough fight against the incumbent. Both criticize Bilirakis, particularly on the issue of term limits. In 1992, Bilirakis said he believed in 12-year term limits and would not seek re-election in 1994 unless he was involved in a pressing piece of legislation.

Jerry White, an aide to the congressman, said Bilirakis still supports that 12-year term limit but wants to see legislation enacted to make the limit nationwide for members of Congress.

Both candidates also attacked Bilirakis' involvement in the Medicare issue.

"We have a lot of seniors in this district, and they are certainly not overly thrilled with the $270-billion in proposed Medicare cuts," Provenzano said. "Mike wrote that legislation. That was his. It came through his subcommittee. He shepherded it through, and he thinks it's a great idea."

The congressman helped write a bill last fall that would reduce Medicare spending by $270-billion over seven years by charging beneficiaries more, paying providers less and going after fraud. He said the drastic changes in the Medicare program were the only way to save the system from bankruptcy.