Pinellas Democratic congressional candidates Nina Hayden and Jessica Ehrlich were introduced in an intriguing manner recently at the Tiger Bay Club.
Invoking the Old Testament, University of Tampa political science professor Rich Piper, an active Pinellas county Democratic party member, wondered if “Goliath” (aka GOP incumbent Bill Young) would be vulnerable “to the slingshot of a dynamic, youthful but experienced female challenger?”
Or, he posited, would the winner of the Democratic primary prove to be a “proverbial lamb led to the slaughter this November?”
The odds against either candidate dethroning Goliath, most observers believe, are formidable.
That’s despite the fact that voter registration in CD-13 (slightly reconfigured after redistricting) has become increasingly Democratic. And that Young, 81, was first elected to represent Pinellas in Congress four years before either Ehrlich or Hayden were even born.
In Washington this year, a number of octogenarians in Congress are in serious re-election trouble. Most famous of these is Manhattan Democrat Charlie Rangel, who, like Young, was first elected in 1970. Redistricting has put him in a more Hispanic neighborhood, and he is struggling in the Democratic primary taking place next week.
In San Francisco’s East Bay, 80-year-old Pete Stark is considered to be extremely vulnerable in his general election against a fellow Democrat this November. Another 80-year-old, GOP U.S. Senator Richard Lugar, lost to a Tea Party candidate in his primary race in Indiana last month.
For the last decade or so, the question of whether Young would retire or run for another term has come up every two years, never more than after the 2008 election, when Barack Obama won Florida and Pinellas County.
According to former USF Political Science professor Daryl Paulson, Young was definitely ready to call it quits at that point. But Republicans in Washington, led by the Tea Party and resistance toward President Obama, began to see a path in late 2009 to take back the House, and that meant asking Young to stick around for at least one more race.
That race was against Charlie Justice, who had been an up-and-coming legislator representing Tampa and St. Petersburg in the state Senate. But Justice could not convince anyone that he was a serious contender, and he struggled to fundraise.
That doesn’t seem to be a problem so far with Ehrlich, who raised over $100,000 in the first quarter of this year. That pales next to Young’s $400,000 plus, but there’s no question that she’s getting the love from a multitude of D.C. groups, such as Emily’s List.
Hayden hasn’t raised nearly that much, and in fact for a week was disqualified from the race after an error in filing her paperwork to run. The Maryland native has seemed to be in a hurry after winning a seat on the Pinellas County School Board in 2008. But instead of running for re-election two years later, she alienated some Democrats by taking on the formidable Jack Latvala in a state Senate seat that no other Democrat had challenged. She lost badly, and as she now runs for Congress, she’s aware of the perception that she’s too ambitious.
“It’s up to the candidate to decide when their time is, and I don’t mind people commenting and having their opinion,” she told CL at a campaign kickoff fundraiser held on her behalf last month at the Hilton at Carillon in St. Petersburg.
“They’re more than welcome to their opinion, but for me it’s a personal decision that has to be made.” Hayden says that she’s an advocate for the community, and there was no one “locally that was stepping up to the plate that was going to run for this Congressional seat. And I believe I’m a viable candidate.”
Jessica Ehrlich is local, having graduated from Shorecrest Preparatory School, an elite school in the old Northeast part of St. Pete. She then left the area to attend Vanderbilt University in Nashville and later law school at SMU in suburban Dallas. After working as a judicial intern to U.S. District Court Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich in Tampa, she assisted her father Charles’ law practice in St. Pete. She then spent two years on Capitol Hill, first working for then South Florida GOP Congressman Clay Shaw on the Social Security Subcommittee of the Committee on Ways and Means, and then moving on to serve as counsel for Massachusetts Democrat Stephen Lynch on the Financial Services Committee.
She has been relentless in attacking Young for being out of touch with the district, specifically targeting his votes for the House GOP budget plan that bears the imprimatur of Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, the Budget Committee chairman. That budget includes controversial reforms to programs like Medicare, which Ehrlich has seized upon to portray Young as Ryan’s much older doppelganger.
“He’s voting in lockstep with this rigid, partisan agenda that is just divisive and is not moving us forward,” she said after an appearance with House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer at her campaign office in May.
Although a first-time candidate, Ehrlich had the D.C. Democratic talking points about the Ryan budget down cold.
“We’ve always protected our seniors, we’ve always believed in a strong middle class and support small businesses that have been the base of our economy. And that is not what this budget does. It will hurt those middle-class families, it will hurt those small businesses, and it doesn’t invest in our infrastructure and our future the way that we need to. And I think that people are really ready for a change.”
But are they?
Recently the Florida Consumer Action Network (FCAN) held a rally in front of Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), a large defense contractor that has received millions of dollars in federal earmarks over the years.
SAIC also happens to be the employer of Young’s son Patrick, 24, hired in 2008.
That’s the same year that the Tampa Bay Times reported that companies employing Young’s older son Billy had benefited from millions in appropriations earmarked by Young.
The fact that Young has been one of the biggest advocates/abusers of Congressional earmarks is not an unknown fact in Pinellas County, but Young always seems to catch a pass from Pinellas voters.
Two years ago Charlie Justice began issuing press releases attacking Young for steering federal monies into certain projects, including ones not even in Pinellas County. Justice called Young’s behavior “corrupting.”
The result? Young abused Justice in the fall election, beating him by a 66-34 margin (though in fairness to Justice, it’s been 20 years since a Democrat got as much as 40 percent of the vote against Young).
Ehrlich so far doesn’t appear to be going that far in her criticisms. In fact, all she has said about earmarks is that since they are no longer allowed in the House of Representatives, it has lessened Young’s power in Congress.
At Tiger Bay she said that Young has “obviously served with great distinction,” but added that times have changed. “The way you help your community is not the same.”
But Young is an institution nevertheless, which makes it very hard for any opponent. He has a number of buildings and bridges named after him, including the Tampa Bay Water reservoir in Southern Hillsborough County and a marine science complex, leading former USF professor Peter Betzer to tell the Tampa Bay Times’ David DeCamp that “Pinellas County ought to have a sign: the C.W. Bill Young Complex.” At the Tiger Bay Forum earlier this month, Nina Hayden said it was an unfair advantage for an incumbent to have so many buildings named after him.
Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, a Democrat, says that Young’s reputation in St. Pete is similar to that of former mayor Rick Baker, where people don’t associate party label with the personality. And Welch, who was recruited by D.C. Democrats to run for the seat last year but begged off, says it will be a challenge for either Democrat to make the case against Young without coming off sounding too negative.
“There has to be a focus on dealing with the problems in a substantive way, instead of talking about the past or appealing to the partisan nature on either side.”
Former USF Poli-Sci professor Daryl Paulson says one of Young’s greatest strengths is his ability to get votes from both sides of the aisle, and he says that offsets the reality that the district is trending Democratic.
Then there is the fact that Young has served in Washington for nearly 42 years now. People say they’re weary of “career politicians,” but there’s a sensitivity factor at play among his opponents, an unwillingness to appear ageist — although that didn’t stop the promoters of Tiger Bay’s Hayden/Ehrlich debate from musing whether Young would be “too sick” to campaign.
Few Democrats will say on record that they believe Ehrlich can win this November, or tip their hand about whom they support in the primary.
Former St. Pete mayoral candidate Scott Wagman backs Ehrlich and told CL that the “stars are kind of aligned” for her to do well, saying the disgust with Congress, the fact that Young used to be “more vital, more energetic, more on top of his game,” and that Ehrlich has an “effervescent personality” could be the ticket.
Then again you have the wisdom of political blogger Peter Schorsch, who says bluntly, “If you count up all the buildings with Bill Young’s name on them and everybody working inside them voted for Bill Young, I don’t think she could get more votes than that.”
Paulson believes that Democrats who have run against Young in recent years knew their chances were slim, but that it put them in a good position to run again when Young inevitably retires, to become the heir apparent. But that scenario hasn’t worked out as planned, as no Democrat who lost in the past has had the audacity to run again.
What does Jessica Ehrlich think about that? We’re not sure. Throughout the nascent part of her campaign, her staff has been extra careful in managing her media appearances. Calls and emails sent to both the candidate and her campaign were not returned last week, though we did receive an email confirming that St. Pete Democrats Rick Kriseman and Daryl Rouson were endorsing her — three days after Nina Hayden’s ballot problems were announced. No word on whether they will pull back from that now.
Adrian Wyllie was not mentioned. He is running for Governor.
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