In an election year that should bring change, don't expect it in the Tampa Bay congressional delegation. Gerrymandered districts and the power of incumbency largely discourage credible challengers.
Incumbent Ginny Brown-Waite cultivates her image as a conservative Republican with an independent streak - and she can point to a number of examples.
Brown-Waite, 65, supports a national catastrophic insurance fund even as President Bush and Sen. John McCain oppose it. She voted to raise the minimum wage and expand federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. She was one of the first House Republicans to call for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' removal following the political firings of U.S. attorneys.
But more often than not, Brown-Waite embraces the conservative hard line. Even in this economic crisis, she wants to make Bush's tax cuts permanent. She clings to the discounted notion that private competition will make health care more affordable and accessible. She urges an "all-in'' energy strategy that includes drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and off Florida's Gulf Coast, which would put the state's tourism industry at risk.
Too often, her angry rhetoric inflames rather than enlightens. She voted against the $700-billion economic bailout and called it "extortion." She called Puerto Ricans "foreign citizens" in a news release. Brown-Waite is proud of her constituent service and pays particular attention to veterans in the 5th Congressional District, which covers all or parts of Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties. But voters deserve a more thoughtful option.
Democrat John Russell, 52, a nurse practitioner from Dade City, is challenging Brown-Waite for the third time. He has some good ideas about health care and supports universal coverage. But in temperament and experience, he is not a credible alternative.
In the 5th Congressional District, the Times recommends Ginny Brown-Waite.
The time to break the family hold on the 9th Congressional District was two years ago, when Gus Bilirakis won a competitive race for the seat his father held for 24 years. Now the younger Bilirakis is the familiar incumbent facing an unknown Democrat with tepid support from his own party. Against an unvetted opponent with no public track record, the first-term Republican is the only viable choice.
In Washington, Bilirakis has settled into the family business after eight years as an undistinguished state legislator. He hired some of his father's top aides. His low-key personality and aversion to partisanship have led to some modest successes. The Palm Harbor freshman claims credit for helping to raise pay for the military and improve benefits for veterans. He has sponsored ''silver alert'' legislation that would help states establish notification systems to locate individuals suffering from dementia. He has continued his father's tradition of being particularly attentive to his constituents.
Bilirakis, 45, touts his independence. He supports creating a national catastrophe fund that President Bush and John McCain oppose, and he backed the increase in the minimum wage. But too often, he follows the party line or offers a superficial approach. He opposes setting a timetable on withdrawing troops from Iraq and voted against the expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program vetoed by Bush last year. He supports making Bush's tax cuts permanent and opposed the recent economic bailout - but offers no creative thinking on the economic crisis or the soaring federal deficit.
Bill Mitchell, 61, a Tampa lawyer, won the Democratic primary with the help of a last-minute sleazy campaign attack against a more highly regarded opponent. He is a former Republican who switched parties because of his opposition to the war in Iraq. His background in economics and federal regulatory policy give him some grasp of the financial crisis. But Mitchell has never held public office, and his record of community service is thin. His tactics in winning the primary turned off party members who should be rallying around his uphill fight.
Voters deserve an alternative to the incumbent who can offer solid credentials and more creative, sophisticated ideas grounded in the reality of the challenges facing the nation. But Bilirakis is a known quantity who works hard and will not embarrass his constituents.
In the 9th Congressional District, the Times recommends Gus Bilirakis.
C.W. Bill Young
Time finally may be gaining on C.W. Bill Young, the venerable Indian Shores Republican seeking his 20th term. The House's longest-serving Republican has thought about retiring, and he faces his most credible Democratic challenger in years. But in uncertain times at home and abroad, Young's experience, nonconfrontational style and moderate approach remain particularly useful for Florida and the country.
In key areas, Young's long view and knowledge of the ways of Washington continue to be important contributions. He has long protected gulf beaches from offshore drilling and can be counted on to do all that he can, even with the end of the drilling moratoriums he inserted into federal budgets for some 25 years. He has a clear-eyed view of the economic pressures facing Social Security and Medicare and favors the appointment of a commission similar to one that tackled the problem in the Reagan years. As the top-ranking Republican on the defense subcommittee of Appropriations, his experience will be helpful in determining how to re-equip the military and reform procurement policies.
Young, 77, has brought hundreds of millions in federal dollars to the Tampa Bay region and to Florida. He has worked tirelessly for veterans, and he considers health care - not defense spending - his legacy. The bone marrow donor agency he created, for example, has saved countless lives.
But there are signs time and tenure are having an effect. Young voted against the economic bailout and lacks a sense of urgency in dealing with the crisis. Earlier this year, he failed to appreciate that his direction of millions in federal dollars to Pinellas firms that employ two of his sons creates a perception problem for an elected official who always has maintained high ethical standards. He brushes off questions about how to balance rearming the military with soaring budget deficits and pressing domestic needs.
Dunedin Mayor Bob Hackworth, 53, switched from Republican to Democrat earlier this year and is a serious candidate. He has been a leader in civil rights and the environment in Dunedin. He supports a responsible withdrawal from Iraq and universal health care. But he has not made a compelling argument for sending Young into retirement.
In the 10th Congressional District, the Times recommends C.W. Bill Young.
Kathy Castor's political and personal skills have helped the first-term Tampa Democrat quickly shoot into the ranks of her party's leadership. Her focus on health care, veterans services, the environment and housing are the right priorities for this diverse, working-class district, which includes Tampa, south St. Petersburg and a piece of northern Manatee County. Her political antenna and timing can cut both ways, but she is the clear choice in this race.
The 42-year-old attorney was a voice of reason during her four years on the Hillsborough County Commission, and she brought much of that same agenda - ethics, environmental protection and health care - to Congress. Castor has worked to get the disabled their benefits in a timely manner. She fought the congressional effort to expand oil drilling off Florida's Gulf Coast. She has worked to improve care at Tampa's James A. Haley VA Medical Center.
Castor curiously plays it safe at times and loses sight of the big picture. After working closely on a badly needed expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program, she voted against it on the House floor over concerns about paperwork and the funding formula. After the bill passed and President Bush vetoed it, she switched course and voted to override his veto - which fell just short. She also voted against the bailout plan the Bush administration proposed to ease the economic crisis. Castor said the bill did not do enough to aid struggling homeowners, but that is no comfort to her constituents who cannot sell their houses and are watching their retirement accounts decline.
Legislation is rarely perfect. Castor knows enough about the lawmaking process to realize that even flawed legislation can be a starting point and helpful in emergencies.
Eddie Adams Jr., 55, a Temple Terrace Republican, has no agenda and no real campaign.
Castor is off to a strong start in Congress and is well-positioned to move up. She treats people with respect and conducts herself with integrity.
In the 11th Congressional District, the Times recommends Kathy Castor.