One retirement and several competitive races suggest the time is ripe for change in Tampa Bay's congressional delegation. The question is how much. There are the usual policy challenges in Washington that include immigration, health care and the long-term future of Social Security and Medicare. But Congress also should be a check on the worst impulses of President Donald Trump.
Since he was first elected to Congress a dozen years ago, Republican Gus Bilirakis never has been seriously challenged in this district that covers north Pinellas County, all of Pasco County and a portion of northwest Hillsborough County. This year is different. Democrat Chris Hunter is an outstanding candidate who would be a fresh voice for a district where growth is exploding and priorities are shifting, and he could be effective in helping the House serve as a brake on an unpredictable president.
Hunter, 45, is a former FBI agent and federal prosecutor who worked under both Republican and Democratic presidents. He was a local prosecutor in Boston at the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which inspired him to join the FBI. He later joined the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami and then in Tampa, prosecuting health care fraud. Mixed into his experience are short stints in private law practice.
With his law enforcement background, commitment to community service and embrace of American values that transcend political parties, Hunter should appeal to all types of voters in this conservative district. His pledge to support someone besides House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for speaker if Democrats regain control of the House reflects his independent approach.
The Pasco County resident is critical of Trump's policies and personal style. Hunter opposes repealing the Affordable Care Act, which he would seek to improve; the Trump administration's tariffs, which are harming Florida businesses; and expansion of oil drilling, which would threaten Tampa Bay's beaches. He has been endorsed by the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters for his environmental positions.
Bilirakis, 55, provides strong constituent service and focuses on issues benefiting veterans and seniors. He worked across party lines on issues such as flood insurance. He distances himself from Trump by saying he concentrates on local priorities. But Bilirakis regularly supports the president's priorities, including tax cuts that are increasing the federal deficit, repeal of the Affordable Care Act and punitive immigration policies. While he supports the moratorium on offshore drilling, his overall voting record on environmental issues gets low scores from conservation groups.
The Republican has become embroiled in one controversy. In 2016, Bilirakis was one of six co-sponsors of legislation making it harder for the Drug Enforcement Administration to go after drug distributors shipping prescription pills to unscrupulous doctors and pharmacists. Bilirakis received more than $80,000 from the pharmaceutical/health products industry in the 2016 election cycle. Since 2014, he has received $40,000 in campaign contributions from companies Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi is now suing in Pasco County for their role in the opioid crisis. Bilirakis said the DEA did not object before the 2016 legislation became law and he did not know the change would hinder the agency's efforts. He recently filed legislation aimed at correcting the situation.
Bilirakis has represented this district for a dozen years, and his father held this seat for 24 years before his son was elected. It's time for a change, and Hunter is an excellent option. For U.S. House District 12, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Chris Hunter.
In his first term in Congress, U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist demonstrated how civility could be restored in Washington's toxic environment. The St. Petersburg Democrat disagreed with President Donald Trump on issues such as the president's efforts to kill the Affordable Care Act without being disagreeable. And Crist worked across party lines in the House on issues such as federal flood insurance and veterans issues.
The former governor is well-positioned to advance the state's interests by serving on the House Financial Services Committee and the Science, Space and Technology Committee. He helped secure beach renourishment money for Pinellas, advocated for the extension of flood insurance and remained a strong voice to maintain the moratorium on off-shore drilling. He also worked with Sen. Bill Nelson and others to push the purchase of back-up "hurricane hunter'' planes. Crist also paid close attention to other local issues, calling for a federal investigation into the CareerSource job placement centers following abuses reported by the Tampa Bay Times.
Crist, 62, supports the special counsel's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. He also supports normalizing relations with Cuba, comprehensive immigration reform, banning assault weapons and improving the Affordable Care Act by expanding premium tax credits to make coverage more affordable. He wants to let Medicare negotiate for cheaper drug prices, and he has introduced legislation to lift the income cap on payroll taxes to extend the life of Social Security.
George Buck, 62, is a disaster management consultant who lives in St. Petersburg. The Republican is a first-time candidate who opposes a ban on assault weapons and supports repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
This district covers all of St. Petersburg and most of Pinellas County. For U.S. House District 13, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Charlie Crist.
The race for this three-county seat is being viewed as a struggle between powerbrokers in Hillsborough and Polk Counties, home of the two-largest voting blocs. But the real question is who has the vision, experience and core competence to most effectively fill an open congressional seat in a growing and diverse district, which also includes southern Lake County. Kristen Carlson is by far the best choice to fill this vacant seat left by the retiring Republican Dennis Ross.
Carlson, 64, is a Lakeland Democrat with a rich background in government, business and agriculture. A former prosecutor now in private practice, she worked for Florida's Department of Citrus for many years as a senior attorney and general counsel. Carlson knows agriculture as well as the complex world of trade and regulations. She knows how to hold U.S. trade partners accountable without isolating America in a global trade war.
Ross Spano, 42, is a lawyer who was elected to the Florida House in 2012 and spent six forgettable years in Tallahassee. The Dover Republican is a partisan who regularly politicizes the serious day-to-day challenges this region faces. He offers nothing special for jobs, Social Security or other major concerns.
Carlson's long history as an advocate for agriculture and as a public servant protecting the community and the economy gives her a solid grounding to take on Washington. She is well familiar with the growing communities of Plant City, Brandon and Temple Terrace. She also would be a guardian for seniors, farmers and working families across the board. Spano would be little more than another Republican enabler for an unpredictable president.
For U.S. House District 15, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Kristen Carlson.
Democrats believe they have in Sarasota attorney David Shapiro their best chance to unseat the Republican incumbent, six-term U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan. Shapiro's moderate platform and broader feel for the three-county district make him the better choice.
Shapiro, 59, a civil attorney in Sarasota, offers an agenda that mixes traditional Democratic positions with greater attention to local concerns. He would focus on protecting Social Security and Medicare, and veterans services. Shapiro unequivocally opposes offshore oil drilling and supports legislation to protect the so-called Dreamers, younger undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children, even if that requires a comprehensive deal with Republicans on border security. He supports the Affordable Care Act but acknowledges some areas of the law need improving.
Buchanan, 67, is a Sarasota businessman who voted against the Affordable Care Act and for the Republican tax bill last year that will drive up the federal deficit. He is more moderate than his party on some issues. He opposes any expansion of oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, and he has been strong on veterans affairs. Still, his environmental record is lagging; the League of Conservation Voters gave his voting record a score of 9 percent last year.
Shapiro better understands the diverse needs of the district, which includes all of Manatee County, parts of Sarasota and the south Hillsborough communities of FishHawk, Ruskin, Apollo Beach and Sun City Center. His support for improved access to health care and diversifying the jobs base would well serve everyone from working families and veterans to younger professionals. Shapiro also wants new infrastructure spending to safeguard against rising sea levels and other threats from climate change, which pose a danger along the west coast to people, property and incomes.
For U.S. House District 16, the Tampa Bay Times recommends David Shapiro.