CLEARWATER — Pinellas County's congressional candidates got aggressive during a debate Tuesday, with Republican David Jolly accusing Democrat Alex Sink of lying in an ad and Sink calling Jolly a flip-flopper.
Only Libertarian candidate Lucas Overby remained unscathed in the second of the candidates' three debates, sponsored by local chambers of commerce and held in Clearwater's Capitol Theatre.
The debate was not televised live, but more than 200 people attended, along with several local and national journalists, giving voters another chance to learn more about the candidates before the March 11 special election.
In such a hard-fought and close race, supporters of both Jolly and Sink were poised to seize on any potential stumble, and that seemed to come for Sink in response to a question about immigration reform.
In response to a question, Sink said immigration reform is important because "we have a lot of employers over on the beaches that rely upon workers and especially in this high-growth environment, where are you going to get people to work to clean out hotel rooms or do our landscaping?"
Republicans took to Twitter to skewer her and circulated a video clip of Sink's comment, which some termed offensive.
During the debate Sink also said it doesn't make sense to penalize people like the young man who graduated from Florida State University's law school but can't practice law because his parents brought him here illegally when he was 7.
Jolly said it's not fair to grant a "pathway to citizenship" for people who entered the country illegally when some who come legally don't have that option.
Campaign spending on television ads in this election now tops $8 million, an unprecedented media blitz for Pinellas County.
Jolly said Sink has misrepresented his position on Social Security with ads claiming he supports privatizing it. "Some of the most vulnerable people in our community right now on TV are being scared by falsehoods," he said.
PolitiFact Florida evaluated a Democratic robocall to voters that said Jolly supported privatization and ruled the call's claim Mostly False.
But after the debate, Sink stood by her advertising, saying that Jolly had lobbied for Free Enterprise Nation, a group that had suggested significant changes to Social Security.
What Jolly has said is that he supports protecting Social Security for all current recipients and workers with more than 10 years paid in. He has said he wants to have a wide-ranging discussion on how to keep it solvent for the long term, and private accounts should be part of the discourse.
After the debate, Sink continued to hit Jolly, saying: "I heard a number of flip-flops today and you'll just have to go back and check the record."
For example, Jolly said in the debate that he acknowledges humans' role in climate change, but Sink said Jolly "is on record saying he doesn't believe in climate change and we shouldn't be paying attention to it."
Jolly denied flip-flopping, and both he and Sink pointed to the same Tampa Bay Times story as proof. The story quoted Jolly as saying the Earth's climate changes over time, and people have had an impact. It also quoted him saying, "I don't think the impact that humans have had on our climate is so dramatic that it requires a significant shift in federal policy."
On taxes, Jolly said the tax code should be "fairer, flatter and simpler."
Sink decried the number of big corporations that pay no income tax.
Overby called for an end to "corporate welfare."
Jolly and Sink do not favor term limits; Overby does.
On the critical issue of flood insurance, Sink said she wants to go to Washington to ask tough questions of FEMA, which came up with skyrocketing new flood insurance rates that have hurt Pinellas homeowners.
Jolly congratulated U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, whom he called a friend, for standing up to House Republican leadership in an effort to find a solution to the problem.
Overby said a state solution would be better.
Moderator Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida professor, asked the candidates to identify the most needed leadership quality for members of Congress today. And in a move that would challenge any politician, she asked for one-word answers, with elaboration afterward.
"Being able to have the proven ability to work together with Republicans and Democrats," Sink said. MacManus gave her "extra credit" for her extra words.
"Listening," Overby said. When asked why, he said "not only do members of Congress not listen to each other, they very seldom listen to their constituents. … I think listening has been missing for a very long time." The answer won him applause.
"A heart of service," Jolly said, adding that the late Republican U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, who represented the area for nearly 43 years, exemplified it.
Forum sponsors included the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce, the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce, and the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce. The winner of this election will fill out the term of Young, who died in October. A write-in candidate, Michael Levinson, is running as well.
Another election will be held later this year, with an Aug. 26 primary and a Nov. 4 general election. The winner of that election will serve a full two-year term.
Joshua Gillin contributed to this report.