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Is the I-4 corridor finally gaining clout again in Washington?

Lawmakers from the Tampa Bay and Orlando areas will have critical new roles in the Democratic-led House of Representatives. Will they flex that power to help the region?
SCOTT KEELER   |   Times
Left to Right: US Rep., Kathy Castor, D- Tampa, US Rep., Charlie Crist, D- St. Petersburg, Grace Nelson, wife of US Senator Bill Nelson, D- Orlando, greet US Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D- Massachusetts, at Williams Park, St. Petersburg, Tuesday, August 7, 2018. The Congressmen  were  joined by local residents and healthcare advocates to call on elected officials to protect the Affordable Care Act and Floridians' access to affordable healthcare — fighting attempts to undermine protections for those with pre-existing conditions, holding "Big Pharma" accountable for rising prescription drug prices, and calling on Florida to expand Medicaid.
SCOTT KEELER | Times Left to Right: US Rep., Kathy Castor, D- Tampa, US Rep., Charlie Crist, D- St. Petersburg, Grace Nelson, wife of US Senator Bill Nelson, D- Orlando, greet US Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D- Massachusetts, at Williams Park, St. Petersburg, Tuesday, August 7, 2018. The Congressmen were joined by local residents and healthcare advocates to call on elected officials to protect the Affordable Care Act and Floridians' access to affordable healthcare — fighting attempts to undermine protections for those with pre-existing conditions, holding "Big Pharma" accountable for rising prescription drug prices, and calling on Florida to expand Medicaid.
Published Jan. 15
Updated Jan. 15

WASHINGTON — The Democratic takeover of the House has brought influential roles for lawmakers representing the Tampa Bay and Orlando areas, which some hope could mean a new era of clout for the Interstate-4 corridor.

Representatives from the two metro areas nabbed highly coveted positions on House committees and in the Democratic caucus when assignments were finalized last week. St. Petersburg Rep. Charlie Crist will join the Committee on Appropriations, the panel that controls the purse strings of the federal government. Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Winter Park is on the Ways and Means Committee, which writes the tax code.

Meanwhile, Tampa Rep. Kathy Castor was tapped by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to lead a highly anticipated committee on climate change. And two Orlando lawmakers have influential new assignments: Val Demings will lead candidate recruitment for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Darren Soto will serve on the Energy and Commerce Committee, a panel that will address health care in the new Congress.

Combined, it represents the most power the region has held in Washington since the passing of legendary Rep. C.W. Bill Young in 2013.

“It’s a big boost to Florida and the I-4 corridor,” Crist said. “The synergies between these committees, on climate change, infrastructure, health care — all the major issues facing our state and nation — are significant.”

The vaunted I-4 corridor carries special weight in Florida and national politics during election seasons. But for much of the past 50 years, its influence in the halls of Congress was almost entirely a byproduct of Young’s power as chair of the appropriations committee and the relationships he built over 42 years in Washington.

When Young died, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn remarked that “whoever replaces him will never attain that seniority. We just have to find someone that can fill that role in a different capacity, but there will never be another Bill Young."

It may take all five people to fill that void — and shared goals that extend beyond each lawmaker’s district.

The Tampa Bay and Orlando metropolitan areas each gained more than 50,000 people in 2017 and are two of the fastest-growing regions in the country. The metro areas inch closer every day as their populations grow, and a proposed high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando could further unite them.

Transportation and infrastructure are areas that could bring collaboration. Castor hopes to use her new platform with the climate change committee to encourage green energy businesses in the region and the state.

With local representatives on schedule to lead the Florida House and Senate in coming years, too, Buckhorn said Monday that Tampa-to-Orlando is positioned to become the economic engine of the state.

“We are the bookends of what will be one of the fastest-growing megalopolises — if that’s a word — in the country," Buckhorn said. "But we need to develop an agenda to take advantage of this for the entire I-4 corridor. What’s going on in Orlando is very comparable and complimentary to what’s going on in our area, but we need to get on the same page and maximize this moment in history.”

The five Democrats bring vastly different experiences to the job — Demings is a former Orlando police chief, Crist was once a Republican governor, Murphy is a former national security specialist for the Pentagon — and varying paths to power in the Democratic caucus.

Castor has risen through the traditional route: longevity and loyalty. Now in her seventh term, she’s in Pelosi’s inner circle. Murphy and Soto, meanwhile, have quickly gained clout after just two years in D.C. by sometimes fighting party leadership as members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group working toward pragmatic fixes, and leveraging their independence into key roles.

Still, none of them carry the seniority of Young, who even in the minority was an effective legislator, said former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker. Baker’s tenure overlapped with Young’s turn as appropriations chairman, an especially fruitful time for the Tampa Bay area. Young helped to secure funding for several Midtown projects and to turn U.S. 19 into a north-south connector, among many other local priorities.

Lawmakers today have another disadvantage. Republicans barred earmarks — funding for local projects tacked onto bills — during their eight-year reign. That makes it difficult for members of Congress to secure money for projects in their districts.

There has been some speculation Democrats could reinstate earmarks, though they remain politically unpopular.

Baker said the true test of the strength of these local Democrats will be how well they can convince the two Florida Republicans in the Senate, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, to support local initiatives.

“It’s always good to have a good delegation,” Baker said. “We haven’t had a Bill Young since he passed, and I don’t think we have that now. We’ve had significant representation on the Republican side and now we’ll have it on the Democratic side.”

“But,” Baker added, “We’re not there yet.”

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