Our choices for Congress
Three congressional races to select representatives for newly drawn districts that divide Hillsborough four ways are contested. In northeastern Hillsborough and northern Polk, popular Republican Dennis Ross has no opposition, but voters elsewhere have clear choices. District 12 The district, which now includes northwestern Hillsborough, Pasco and northern Pinellas, is familiar territory for Republican Rep. Gus Bilirakis. He is seeking his fourth term in Congress after serving eight years in the Florida House. Bilirakis is challenged by Democrat Michael Jonathan Snow and two candidates without party affiliation, John Russell and Paul Sidney Elliott.Snow, 25, is a photo specialist at Walgreens who helped start the Tarpon Springs Young Democrats. He accuses Bilirakis of repeating worn-out GOP talking points instead of helping get the economy humming. Snow wants a federal jobs program and more spending for highways, schools, mass transit and renewable energy, while cutting defense. He brings to the race the enthusiasm of liberal idealism. Bilirakis in contrast is a pragmatic conservative, critical of waste in federal spending programs designed to stimulate the economy. Elliott, a 69-year-old lawyer, promises to balance the budget and eliminate the federal debt, but he doesn't say how. Russell, 56, is making his fourth run for Congress — the three other times he ran as a Democrat. The Dade City area resident, who works as an acute-care nurse practitioner, says he is running without party affiliation this campaign because he doesn't want to be saddled with policies with which he disagrees. Russell's strength is health care. He suggests Americans be given the option of buying into Medicare by paying a premium based upon income, and proposes eliminating Medicaid by enrolling patients into Medicare. Everyone would be required to pay something, even if only $5, he says. And for years he has advocated for a national catastrophe fund, which would greatly benefit hurricane-vulnerable Florida. Bilirakis, 49, is reliably conservative, but has been willing to work with Democrats, especially on issues of local importance, such as supporting MacDill Air Force Base. He co-sponsored with Democrat Kathy Castor of Tampa a bill to discourage tax fraud. A distinguishing characteristic of Bilirakis is an unpretentious attitude rarely seen in candidates, much less incumbents. His constituent service is among the best. Like his father, former Rep. Mike Bilirakis, Gus is a strong advocate for veterans. In District 12, the Tribune endorses Gus Bilirakis. District 14 Redistricting changed Kathy Castor's congressional district number from 11 to 14, but kept it much the same and solidly Democrat. Nevertheless, Republican Evelio EJ Otero, a retired Air Force colonel, is running a spirited campaign in the district that includes Tampa, much of Tampa Bay's eastern shore and southern St. Petersburg. We are impressed by Otero, an independent-minded conservative who opposes the Affordable Health Care Act and is focused on bolstering defense, particularly MacDill Air Force Base, and the Port of Tampa. He promises to do more for the district and pay special attention to its lower-income neighborhoods. He would be a very strong candidate for county commission. We have differences with Castor, who tends to support the Democratic agenda. Yet she is an effective and readily accessible champion of the community who is quick to serve constituents. She has been an energetic defender of MacDill, seeking to block crippling cuts and working to ensure that the base obtains badly needed new refueling tankers. She also is committed to helping veterans and the James A. Haley VA Hospital. She was instrumental in winning funding for the toll road linking I-4 and the port, a project that will boost port business while making local roads safer. She helped Tampa International Airport obtain federal permission for flights to Cuba, making it more convenient and affordable for local families to visit relatives. She has helped win funding for airport projects and is a strong supporter of education, especially the University of South Florida. Castor was a stalwart after the oil spill, working tirelessly to ensure businesses hurt by the spill were compensated and the USF marine science research team's critical work was supported. This year she pushed a bipartisan Gulf of Mexico restoration plan. Castor works well with her colleagues, regardless of their party, and has proved her effectiveness in the Republican House. In District 14, The Tampa Tribune endorses Kathy Castor. District 17 Rep. Tom Rooney is a new face in Hillsborough politics, but he already has established himself as an up-and-coming conservative lawmaker representing a South Florida district since 2008. The redrawn district now includes south Hillsborough and parts of Polk, Manatee and Lee, plus Charlotte, Desoto, Hardee, Highlands, Okeechobee and Glades. Rooney is challenged by Democrat Will Bronson, an erudite former Navy pilot and airline captain with degrees in education and divinity. Bronson, 72, is unhappy about the current level of poverty and unemployment and favors an aggressive public-works program. He tells us he is disappointed that President Obama did not push for a single-payer medical system. A consumer advocate, Bronson supports organic farming and green energy. He wants to break up the media conglomerates and increase support for public media. Rooney's approach is more market-oriented. He served in the Army as a lawyer and once taught constitutional law at West Point. His older brother, Patrick J. Rooney Jr. of West Palm Beach, serves in the Florida House. At 41, Rooney is the youngest member of the House Intelligence Committee. He heads the Agriculture Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy and Poultry, highly relevant fields in Florida's heartland. Like Bilirakis, Rooney puts a priority on veterans' issues, among them his complaint that adequate treatment has not been available for many combat veterans returning home with mental health problems. Rooney supported the budget proposed by Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney's running mate. "We've got about three to five years left before entitlements take up most of the budget," he warns. Rooney, unlike more rigid Republicans, says he's willing to close loopholes in the tax code to raise more revenue. He may be new to Hillsborough, but we expect voters who get to know him will appreciate Rooney's experience and sensible priorities. In District 17, the Tribune endorses Tom Rooney.
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