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March column: Bilirakis, unlike Rubio, finds local town halls 'definitely worthwhile'

Town hall meetings didn’t change his mind on the Affordable Care Act, said U.S. Rep. Gus Bilarakis, but he found it important to hear from constituents who support it.
Town hall meetings didn’t change his mind on the Affordable Care Act, said U.S. Rep. Gus Bilarakis, but he found it important to hear from constituents who support it.
Published Mar. 3, 2017

Lots of Republicans in Congress chose not to hold town hall meetings with constituents during the February recess, worried at facing people angry over plans to end the Affordable Care Act.

Gus Bilirakis held three.

Sen. Marco Rubio called such events no more than a chance for "liberal activists … to heckle and scream at me in front of cameras," and President Donald Trump blamed Barack Obama for organizing the opposition.

Bilirakis disagreed – very diplomatically.

He said more than 600 people attended his three "listening sessions" on health care. In one, a Republican's reference to mythical "death panels" set off a shouting match, and Bilirakis stepped in to calm things down. That, he said, was the closest things came to getting out of hand.

Bilirakis said nothing he heard altered his thinking on the ACA, which he opposes, but, "It confirmed that people are concerned" and that some aspects of the law should be preserved.

"Particularly the ones that have chronic conditions, who have received health care under the ACA," he said. "There were a lot of stories, and they're genuine stories."

Asked about Rubio's comments, he said holding such events is "up to the individual member but I feel personally that I have a duty to listen." Asked what advice he'd give Rubio, he said, "I would tell him what happened with me. I thought it was definitely worthwhile."

Asked whether he thought Obama was responsible for the opposition, he said, "It's possible but I didn't see any evidence of it, and these people have a right to be heard. … I think the majority of the people there are truly concerned about access to quality health care."

Bilirakis's 12th District is in Pinellas and Pasco counties, and a small slice of Hillsborough.

Beckner angling for civil service job

Former Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner is applying for a job as director of the Hillsborough County Civil Service board, and if he takes the position, he says he'll be staying out of elective politics for the indefinite future.

Term-limited in his countywide commissioner's seat last year, Beckner challenged Clerk of Court Pat Frank in a Democratic primary but lost in a hard-fought race that created enmity among Democrats on both sides.

In an interview, Beckner said he's looking at several career alternatives. He has obtained a real estate license, he could return to elective politics, or he could try for an "executive position" in county government, such as the civil service job, which pays $115,000 to $140,000.

But Beckner's no shoo-in for the job. He said there are more than 200 applicants to replace Director Dane Petersen, who's retiring after 30 years.

The Civil Service Board, among other things, hears appeals of disciplinary action by employees of county government and county agencies. The seven-member board is appointed by the governor.

Young keeps implied puppy promise

Newly elected state Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa, famously campaigned with puppies, including a litter or so in campaign ads, and now she's fulfilling the implied promise with canine-friendly legislation.

Teaming up with Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs, Young has introduced a bill that would allow pet owners to sue for emotional damages, not just the market value of the animal, in cases of wrongful death.

Last year, she successfully spearheaded legislation to allow good Samaritans to rescue dogs from closed cars without liability for damage to the car.

The political subtext: Young faces a potentially tough re-election in 2018, possibly a rematch with Democrat Bob Buesing or a bout with state Rep. Janet Cruz. It never hurts to champion voter-friendly issues, and so far, Young's doing just that.

Besides a bill banning fracking in Florida, an issue in the 2016 campaign, she also introduced legislation to help the popular craft brewing industry.

Contact William March at wemarch@gmail.com