After two years of gridlock, a new Congress will face familiar challenges such as reforming immigration and addressing climate change. It also has pressing national security issues to address as the nation fights new terrorism threats in the Middle East. Two Tampa Bay incumbents, Reps. Gus Bilirakis of Palm Harbor and Kathy Castor of Tampa, were re-elected without opposition and most of the others lack credible opponents.
Richard Nugent District 11
Rep. Richard Nugent of Spring Hill says he did not go to Washington to continue kicking the can down the road. That is the Republican incumbent's rationale for voting against raising the debt ceiling to end a government shutdown in October 2013. And two months later, he still voted against a bipartisan budget deal crafted by Republican U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan that Nugent says treated military veterans unfairly.
That strong support for veterans is one of Nugent's top attributes. He also advocates for stronger mental health programs across the country, a position championed in the U.S. Senate in a bipartisan bill by Democrat Al Franken of Minnesota.
Nugent, 63, preaches bipartisanship but doesn't always practice it. The former Hernando County sheriff's unwillingness to bend in areas ranging from health care reform to immigration to federal spending illustrates why Congress is deadlocked. Voters in the 11th Congressional District, including Hernando, Citrus and Sumter counties and a portion of Marion County, should demand a more pragmatic approach to governing from Nugent.
Democrat Dave Koller, 43, runs an Ocala business that trains people to work with the developmentally disabled to become more independent. He acknowledges he is only running because nobody else would. The government shutdown in 2013 motivated Koller to volunteer for Nugent's opponent until he discovered there wasn't one. Koller supports the bipartisan immigration reform passed by the Senate and the Affordable Care Act that has provided coverage for hundreds of thousands of Floridians. Unfortunately, he cannot match Nugent's experience and commitment to public service.
For U.S. House District 11, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Richard Nugent.
David Jolly District 13
Less than seven months after winning a hard-fought special election to succeed the late C.W. Bill Young, David Jolly has a remarkably smooth path to re-election. Democrats failed to field a candidate for this Pinellas County seat, and Jolly has made a smooth transition from Washington lobbyist and former Young aide to U.S. House member.
The Indian Shores Republican has demonstrated an occasional independent streak. Jolly fulfilled a campaign pledge by becoming just one of 12 Republicans to vote against a budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., because of its changes to Medicare. He also recently voted against giving President Barack Obama the authorization to train and arm Syrian rebels, arguing that Congress should have been asked for broader authorization of military force.
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Jolly, 41, has focused on continuing Young's legacy of strong constituent service and work on veterans' issues. He voted for a Veterans Affairs Department reform bill but wants to go further in allowing veterans to seek care outside the VA system and experimenting with allowing a private management company to run a VA region. His questioning during a committee hearing last month led a VA official to acknowledge that delays in treatment in Phoenix contributed to the deaths of veterans there. Jolly also has worked on local issues ranging from beach renourishment for Treasure Island to a housing project for Clearwater. Lucas Overby, 28, is a Libertarian Party candidate who received less than 5 percent of the vote in the special election and chose to run again only after no Democrat came forward. The commercial diver supports conservative economic policies, marriage equality and ending the Cuban embargo.
For U.S. House District 13, the Tampa Bay Times recommends David Jolly.
Rep. Dennis Ross has a conservative voting record that doesn't match his more moderate rhetoric. But the Lakeland Republican is better prepared and more attuned to this district that covers parts of Hillsborough County and Polk County than his opponent.
Ross, 54, is an attorney and Lakeland native who was elected to Congress after serving eight years in the Florida House. He is a staunchly conservative voice in this heavily agricultural district, though he has shown support for key port investments and privacy and environmental issues. Alan Cohn, 52, is a former journalist who lives in north Tampa. He calls for tougher consumer protections, comprehensive immigration reform, a higher minimum wage and new investments in clean energy. But Cohn cannot match Ross' knowledge and experience.
Ross has shown more sensitivity to urban challenges since the district was redrawn in 2012 to include dense Hillsborough neighborhoods. His recent selection as a deputy whip for House Republicans should not be used as a platform to increase the partisan divide. It gives Ross an opportunity to move the Republicans beyond the party of "no" and create opportunities to pass more substantive legislation.
For U.S. House District 15, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Dennis Ross.
This election reprises the race from 2012, when incumbent Republican Tom Rooney beat Democrat William Bronson with 57 percent of the vote. He is the best choice again to send to Washington.
Rooney, 43, is a budget hawk and opponent of the Affordable Care Act who too often aligns with President Barack Obama's reliable Republican critics in Congress. But the Okeechobee attorney has been a strong advocate for major constituencies in the 10-county district, including veterans, the military and the agricultural industry. He is right to fault Obama for opening a bombing campaign in Syria without first having sought congressional approval.
Bronson, 75, is running a low-budget campaign. The retired commercial airline pilot from Lehigh Acres is pushing a broad agenda of progressive causes, from reducing the role special interests play in political life to expanding access to health care and middle class opportunities. But the Democrat hasn't reached out across the district or learned since the last election to tailor his message to local needs.
Rooney has raised his profile in the Hillsborough portion of this district, which includes the southeastern communities of Sun City Center, Fish Hawk and Riverview. He has been strong on veterans issues and recognizes the strategic and economic value of Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base. His colleagues also credit Rooney for his support of federal research into public health and the citrus industry.
For U.S. House District 17, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Tom Rooney.
Candidate replies The Tampa Bay Times offers candidates not recommended by the editorial board an opportunity to reply. Candidates for Congress should send their replies no later than 5 p.m. Tuesday to Tim Nickens, editor of editorials, Tampa Bay Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL, 33731; or through our website at www.tampabay.com/letters. Replies are limited to 150 words.
Read all of the Times' recommendations at www.tampabay.com/opinion