ST. PETERSBURG — One memory that stands out for Judy Jolly about her youngest son, David, is what he would do when he got home from school when he was about 10 or 11 years old.
Rather than ride bikes or hop on his skateboard the way most boys did, he would grab a box of Vanilla Wafers from the kitchen, flip on the TV, sit down and remain “glued” to the afternoon news.
“I believe even then there was a sense that this was his future,” she said.
It’s hard to know whether one of the faces he saw in those newscasts was District 13 Congressman C.W. Bill Young, Jolly’s former mentor and the man whose congressional seat Jolly is seeking in a March 11 election against Democrat Alex Sink and Libertarian Lucas Overby. But Jolly’s career path certainly befits someone so curious about news and politics at a young age.
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Jolly, 41, was born at Mease Dunedin Hospital on Oct. 31, 1972. His parents lived in Clearwater. His father, Lawson Jolly Jr., a retired Baptist pastor, was serving at Calvary Baptist Church. David Jolly is the youngest of three siblings. His brother, Lawson Jolly III, is director of counseling and career services at Saint Leo University. His sister, Jennifer Rothschild, is an author, songwriter and Bible study teacher who lost her sight at age 15.
The family moved when Jolly was 3 to Miami, where his father preached at West Flagler Park Baptist Church for about 11 years before transferring to First Baptist Church of Dade City in Pasco County.
Though deeply religious and, as Judy Jolly puts it, patriotic, the family never was engaged in politics, save for the youngest.
He was an excellent student, his mother said, but seemed to really take a shine to public speaking, especially with the debate club at Pasco High School. “Growing up in a minister’s family he learned early on that he needed to be able to speak to people,” she said.
Jolly graduated from high school in 1990 and went to Emory University in Atlanta. He majored in history, a subject that always had interested him, especially the Civil War, the Pacific War theater of World War II and the Kennedy assassination.
“I believe God gives you the desires of the heart,” Jolly said. “At one point in college I wanted to be a doctor. I took biology class, and I did terribly.”
After college, he said, he wasn’t sure what to do. He headed to Pensacola, where his family was living, and earned a real estate license before heading to Washington the following winter. As a young conservative, he was excited at the prospect of working for one of the new GOP House members who were part of the midterm wave that in 1994 delivered the House chamber to Republicans for the first time in decades.
But he ended up in the basement of the Republican National Committee, clipping newspaper stories for its archives. “I truly didn’t know anyone in Washington, D.C.,” he said.
Eventually he landed an internship with U.S. Rep. Dan Miller of Sarasota. He would intern during the day, clip newspaper articles at night.
Miller suggested Jolly apply to work for Young. Young had lost a full-time staffer, and it turned out Jolly did know the right people — one, anyway. Charlie Martin, a friend and colleague of Jolly’s father, was pastor at Young’s church, Indian Rocks Baptist, and he put in a good word.
“Next thing you know, I was working as a staff assistant for Mr. Young, just proving that I could answer the phone and say, ‘Yes, sir,’ ” Jolly said.
Young, in his 60s then, wasn’t the kind of congressman Jolly had in mind, but he said he’s better for it.
“I wanted to work with the young Republican firebrands who are really going to shake up Washington,” he said. “Little did I know that I was going to have the opportunity to work with somebody that I grew to call one of the finest legislators in the history of the Congress. And I really mean that. He respected the institution that is the Congress. And he respected the role of legislating.”
After about three years, he enrolled in law school at George Mason University, which suited him well. He went to school at night while still serving as an aide to Young.
“I got to law school; it was like I was meant to be there,” he said. “I never took a single note in a law school class. I sat in the front row every day. I read all the material.”
He specialized in securities and tax law, practicing for an outside firm and serving as Young’s counsel.
About that time, Jolly got married. His marriage to Carrie lasted about 15 years, and their divorce was finalized last month, something about which he doesn’t comment.
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His relationship with Young is a different story. He said he grew close to Young after the Sept. 11 attacks as the congressman focused on military health care issues and the two attended the funeral of Sgt. Will Latham, an Afghan War veteran. Jolly said he was spending so much time in District 13 during the ensuing years that he bought a condominium in Indian Shores in 2005.
“I joked that I was living at the Sheraton Sand Key, because that’s where I would stay,” he said.
He left his full-time post with Young after nearly 12 years in late 2006 because, he said, “it was time.”
He wanted to start his own business and was considering buying a water scooter rental stand at Johns Pass — but was persuaded to do otherwise.
“My wife at the time said ‘absolutely not. If you’re going to do something entrepreneurial, you’re an attorney, go start a law practice, start a private practice,” he said.
He signed on at Van Scoyoc Associates, a Washington lobbying firm that allowed him to work remotely and commute to the Capitol from Tuesday through Thursday. That allowed him to stay near his family, including his dog, a black Lab named Georgia, most of the time. He broke off in 2012 and founded three separate firms, Three Bridges Law, Three Bridges Consulting and Lobbying, and 1924 Communications, all of which are references to bridges that span Tampa Bay (1924 is the year the Gandy Bridge opened).
“Last year I flew about 160,000 miles,” he said. “With all the travel, the best part for me is landing at the Tampa airport, when you circle MacDill and you’re coming over the three bridges. That was when I knew I was home.”
He maintained a working relationship with Young until the congressman’s death in October, serving as his personal attorney. Jolly wasn’t visible in local politics, but he served on boards at Stetson University College of Law, Suncoast Tiger Bay Club, and the Tampa Bay Veterans Alliance, among others. He also helped to found what eventually became the Florida Defense Contractors Association.
It’s a lot for one person, Seminole Mayor Leslie Waters said, but he seems to handle it well.
“What you see is what you get — that pleasantness,” she said. “He never looks stressed.”
He said the campaign trail has been a 24-hour-a-day effort, but that doesn’t bother him much, and neither has being in the national spotlight during the closely watched race.
“I don’t have any frustrations, really, other than I’m disappointed at how sound bites take over and the truth loses out,” he said. “The voters deserve better.”