For Pinellas congressional debate, a viewer's guide

Published Feb. 3, 2014

With five weeks and one day until a special election, three candidates will appear on television tonight to explain why they should replace a congressman who served Pinellas County for more than 40 years.

Republican David Jolly, Libertarian Lucas Overby and Democrat Alex Sink will appear in the congressional debate, which will be broadcast on Bay News 9 at 7 p.m.

What will they say and who will win? For that, we'll have to tune in. But here are a few things to consider as you watch:

• This is a race with big-money television ads: Republicans trash the Democrat and Democrats smear the Republican. So how can the candidates make it believable when they say they want to work with everyone? And how does a Libertarian make the case that he can prove effective with both major parties?

• Who wants to talk most about "Obamacare?" Jolly proclaims that he supports repealing it, saying he has heard horror stories from Pinellas residents affected by the law. But Sink is not running away from the Affordable Care Act. She says it saves seniors from problems such as the "doughnut hole" gap of prescription drug coverage.

• Immigration reform, including a possible path to citizenship, is a much-debated topic in Congress that hasn't gotten much play locally. If the issue comes up, are the candidates prepared?

• These are candidates for a federal office, but a member of Congress can become an opinion leader. It will be interesting to see if any candidate weighs in on issues at other levels of government — such as the statewide medical marijuana initiative, or the plan to promote light rail and expanded bus service in Pinellas.

• It's a debate sponsored by the AARP, so a Social Security discussion is a lock. But can candidates get beyond platitudes? Yes you want to protect it, but how, exactly? And if you say you never want to cut any part of it ever, isn't that a false promise? Give us some meat.

The special election is March 11 and was called after the death of longtime Republican U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young. Candidates are running in Congressional District 13, which extends from South Pinellas to Dunedin, with portions of southern and downtown St. Petersburg cut out. An independent write-in candidate, Michael Levinson, also is running.

The forum is the result of a partnership with the Tampa Bay Times, Bay News 9 and St. Petersburg College. It's a special edition of the politics show Political Connections.

The 13th Congressional District forum is hosted by the Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions on the SPC Seminole campus. There will be a small audience, and all tickets have been distributed.

Adam C. Smith, the Times' political editor; Amy Hollyfield, the Times' assistant managing editor/politics; and Al Ruechel, Bay News 9 senior anchor, will moderate.