Democrats, Rep. Young start campaigns early
ST. PETERSBURG - Undeterred by past failures, Democrats say they’ll take another run next year at unseating U.S. Rep. C.W. “Bill” Young of Indian Shores, Florida’s longest-tenured and most solidly entrenched member of Congress. The battle over Young’s seat – from an increasingly Democratic-leaning district Republicans hold mainly because of his political stature – is part of an effort by Democrats and President Barack Obama to end the partisan stalemate in Washington by retaking the House majority. St. Petersburg lawyer Jessica Ehrlich, who lost to Young in 2012, has already started a 2014 campaign. She contends that after 22 terms in the House, Young “has become a symptom of what’s broken up there, and lost touch with the folks here at home.” The national and state Democratic parties are targeting Republicans including Young, who hold districts Obama won in 2012.They’re hitting him, like the other Republicans, with billboards, robocalls and a blizzard of news releases on issues including his opposition to the Affordable Care Act and his support for the budget plan of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan. Young, they contend, has been co-opted by the tea party movement and is no longer the pragmatic moderate he used to be. Young, in response, is intensifying his typically relaxed campaign efforts, starting fundraising and campaigning six months earlier than usual. For years, Young, 82, has been the subject of speculation in each election cycle that he might retire, leaving his seat vulnerable to a Democratic challenge. He typically doesn’t make public announcements about his political plans until the start of the election year, but said in an interview last week he’s moving his schedule up about six months because of the Democratic attacks, and already has campaign fundraisers scheduled. “My answer is the same as always, but a little bit earlier – I am always being prepared,” he said.
Young called criticism launched by the national Democrats “trash” and “lies.”
“This is a relatively new phenomenon for me the last few years,” he said. “In the past I’ve let it run off my back and didn’t really respond to it. But this year they started earlier. I’m going to respond to the misrepresentations and lies for what they are.”
Without Young, and without the Republican state Legislature’s remapping the district to keep it as Republican as possible, his district would be a major battleground and likely a Democratic seat.
Young first won it in 1971, when Pinellas was a thoroughly GOP-dominated county.
But the district in south and central Pinellas County is growing more Democratic as the St. Petersburg area grows more urban.
In 2002, the Legislature sought to halt the slide by moving a chunk of the Democrat-rich inner city into the already Democratic Tampa district across the bay.
Still, the Young district kept turning bluer, going from 42-36 percent Republican-Democrat in 2002 to 38-37 percent in 2010.
The 2012 remapping moved another 22,000 St. Petersburg voters into the Tampa district, where they can’t endanger Young and can only increase Democratic Rep. Kathy Castor’s already large majority.
That left the district with 37 percent Republicans to 35 percent Democrats. But the district voted for Obama in both 2008 and 2012, and in 2010 for Democrat Alex Sink for governor, even while she lost statewide.
Famed for bringing home federal bacon and tightly connected to the defense contracting industry with its wealth of political campaign money, Young typically wins by huge margins even as his district votes Democratic in other races.
In 2010, he raised and spent less than $700,000 but still beat former state Sen. Charlie Justice, now a Pinellas commissioner, by a whopping 66-34 percent.
Jessica Ehrlich’s 58-42 percent loss in 2012 was the closest a Democrat has come to Young in decades.
Ehrlich, 39, a lawyer and St. Petersburg native, is the daughter of a prominent St. Petersburg lawyer who has worked as a congressional aide and business consultant. She returned to St. Petersburg to care for her father and wind down his practice after his death in 2010.
Her 2014 race, she said, will be an improvement over her late start in 2012.
“I had basically seven months for the whole campaign,” she said. “This time we have 18 months to reach out to all the voters.”
She appears to have the Democratic side of the field to herself.
Nina Hayden, former Pinellas school board member who sought to mount a campaign in 2012, said she’s not interested in trying again. Democrats including the county’s party Chairman Mark Hanisee said they’re not aware of any prominent Democratic challenger.
How much support Ehrlich gets from the national party could determine whether she can seriously challenge Young.
She wasn’t included in a group of eight “Jump Start” Democrats highlighted by the party’s congressional campaign arm as newcomers who may take over GOP seats. Former Florida Gov. Bob Graham’s daughter Gwen Graham, running in a Panhandle district, was included.
But Ehrlich did get a nod from Emily’s List, the powerful national fundraising group that backs pro-choice Democratic women candidates.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, a campaign group, likely will watch Ehrlich’s fundraising to determine whether her candidacy is worth investing in, insiders say.
“This is a seat Democrats can win,” was about all committee spokesman David Bergstein would say of her prospects.
A crucial test will be Ehrlich’s campaign finance report for April-June. Ehrlich wouldn’t predict how much she’ll raise, but said, “I’ll raise enough to be competitive.”
She took in $530,000 for her 2012 race – a respectable total for a newcomer, but not nearly enough to unseat a respected incumbent in an expensive media market.
Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, held a fundraiser for Ehrlich in Washington this week.
Young, meanwhile, raised $1 million without breaking a sweat for his 2012 drubbing of Ehrlich, and said this year he’ll raise “whatever’s necessary.”
Ehrlich acknowledged Young “has done things to help this area, but it’s really time for a change. He’s not working and voting as the moderate that he declares himself to be.”
She mentioned Young’s support for the Ryan budget, which includes changing Medicare into a voucher program; his opposition to equal-pay-for-women legislation; and his co-sponsoring a 2011 bill against abortion funding with controversial Missouri Rep. Todd Akin, widely condemned during last year’s campaign for comments on rape and pregnancy.
[email protected] (813) 259-7761