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  1. Florida Politics

In Pinellas, House District 68 candidates say Duke needs to shape up

Speaking to the media in January, state Rep. Dwight Dudley, backed by supporters, calls for a repeal of a tax that charges customers for energy they are not receiving.
Speaking to the media in January, state Rep. Dwight Dudley, backed by supporters, calls for a repeal of a tax that charges customers for energy they are not receiving.
Published Sep. 14, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG — State Rep. Dwight Dudley says comparing Duke Energy to a flock of vultures just wouldn't be fair — to the vultures.

"Vultures have the common courtesy to fly off when the bones are cleaned, unlike Duke," said Dudley, who in two years has arguably become the Florida Legislature's leading critic of big utilities

Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, has blasted Duke for a series of well-publicized messes that include botched repairs, charging customers for plants that were never built and changing billing cycles. But he now faces a challenge of his own.

Bill Young, a genial Republican best known as the son of the late longtime Republican U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, hopes to unseat Dudley on Nov. 4 in House District 68, which covers much of northeast St. Petersburg and eastern Pinellas Park.

Like many legislative contests, this race pits a Democrat versus a Republican, and one man's experience versus another's.

But Dudley has set himself up as Duke's antagonist-in-chief, and also as an advocate for fundamental change in Florida utilities. And while Young has a well-known name, he is not nearly as well known as his father, a towering local figure who spent more than four decades in Congress.

The utility issue gives Young a chance to carve out his own positions at a time when complaints about Duke's practices have become intense.

Dudley, 60, did not hold back in a recent interview, accusing Duke of "pure corporate greed," and branding the state Public Service Commission as "toothless lapdogs." He advocates for a special legislative committee to study how Duke recently changed its billing cycles in a way that overcharged customers and a truth-in-billing law that would force utilities to reveal hidden fees. He also wants to repeal the law that allows power companies like Duke to charge customers in advance for nuclear plants that aren't built and give a property tax break to businesses that install renewable energy devices, similar to a law that already exists for homeowners.

On Thursday, Dudley held a news conference calling for more transparency from Duke and the Public Service Commission on refunds the utility is paying to make up for its widely criticized billing cycle maneuver.

Young, 30, criticized the move, not for the message as much as the timing. "In the Young family, we believe that days remembering American sacrifice are for just that and not for campaigning," he said, referring to the 13th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Utility reforms weren't mentioned on Young's campaign website last week, but in an interview he too criticized the energy giant.

"To be quite honest they can't be having predatory practices that are hurting consumers like you and I," he said. As to Duke's billing cycle change, Young said, "If I'm lucky enough to be elected to Tallahassee one of my first bills will be to ensure that this doesn't happen again in the future." He said he believes the Republican-led Legislature will agree.

Young also said he would make it a priority to eliminate the nuclear cost recovery fee.

Asked to size up the PSC's oversight, Young said, "I think they could step up their game a little bit, but I think that they're taking the right steps now in terms of how they're handling this Duke issue," referring to the billing cycle change.

Dudley doesn't think much of Young's stands, saying they are like "deathbed conversions," or positions he might forget after the election.

He also pointed to Young's campaign contributions, which include $500 from Duke's Florida president, Alex Glenn, and $500 from another Duke official.

"How he would align with them in accepting their contributions is beyond me," Dudley said.

Young said he didn't know Glenn was Duke's Florida president, and said those contributions and two from TECO probably came in because they know he is a "pro-economy" candidate.

For his part, Young doesn't think much of Dudley's approach. "Aside from holding press conferences, what has he accomplished?"

Young added, "My dad taught me very early on that you don't accomplish things by holding press conferences and pounding your fists on a podium. You accomplish things by sitting down and finding a solution … this district deserves an effective representative who can sit down and find a solution."

In the campaign, Dudley has out-raised Young in contributions, $202,040 to $155,692. This is a competitive district: 37.6 percent of registered voters are Democrats, 34 percent are Republicans and 29.3 percent are independents or members of smaller political parties.

Dudley, a criminal defense attorney, was elected two years ago after beating former Republican state Rep. Frank Farkas. He is married with three children.

Young is running his first campaign, and defeated another Republican in the August primary. He works in business development for the National Forensic Science Technology Center in Largo, and is married with two young sons.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Curtis Krueger at ckrueger@tampabay.com or (727) 892-8232. Follow @ckruegertimes.