District 9 shapes up as battleground
With the retirement of popular U.S. Rep. Michael Bilirakis, the fight for his seat should be intense.
By ROBIN STEIN
Published July 4, 2006
After months of quietly courting big donors nationwide, the front-runners for the District 9 congressional seat are turning their focus back to the home front.
The candidates are buzzing across a tri-county swath of the Tampa Bay area, going door to door, doling out bumper stickers and lining up campaign appearances. And that level of activity is unusual for this unwieldy district, which spans northern Pinellas, western Pasco and suburban Hillsborough counties.
It has been decades since District 9 has been the site of a serious contest.
But now, with 24-year incumbent Rep. Michael Bilirakis set to retire and flagging approval ratings for the Bush administration and Republican-controlled Congress, both parties have designated the district an important battleground for building a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.
And both parties have familiar names in the race.
For the GOP, it's Gus Bilirakis, the congressman's son, who will face political newcomer David Langheier in the Sept. 5 primary.
For the Democrats, it's Phyllis Busansky, a former Hillsborough County Commissioner.
One sign of the campaign's intensity is Vice President Dick Cheney's scheduled appearance at a July 21 Bilirakis fundraiser in Tampa.
Another is that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has named Busansky one the party's 22 "Red-to-Blue" candidates, making her race a priority for national fundraising.
Between the national attention and an eclectic field, the race promises to be the most suspenseful District 9 showdown in years:* Gus Bilirakis, 43, is a probate attorney and four-term state representative from Palm Harbor.* The underdog for the GOP nomination, Langheier, 46, is a chiropractor and civics buff from East Lake who has turned his first campaign into a family project.* Busansky, 69, is a Clintonian moderate with a long pedigree in public office and Oprah Winfrey -like magnetism that has united the local party.* Rounding out the field is write-in candidate Andrew Pasayan, 88, of Holiday, an independent who said he will consider interview requests only after the primary elections, but has been a staunch advocate of ostrich farming in past races.
"It's too early. ... I've got a lot of answers I don't want to say now because they'll use it," Pasayan said when reached by phone last week. "They're all running around like chickens with their heads cut off till Labor Day,"
'My own person'
From the start, Gus Bilirakis has enjoyed advantages that made him the presumptive front-runner.
His father, Rep. Michael Bilirakis, has been re-elected 13 times with bigger and bigger margins since his first victory in 1982. In 2002, he won 71 percent of the vote. In 2004, the Democrats did not even put up a candidate.
Among the district's approximately 400,000 registered voters, Republicans increasingly outnumber Democrats.
The 2006 Almanac of American Politics notes that in 2004, Republicans activated a lot of new voters, including many conservative Christians.
President Bush, who won 54 percent of the district's vote in 2000, increased his margin to 57 percent four years later.
And there is little ambiguity about Rep. Michael Bilirakis's ideology. A major proponent of the Bush administration's Medicare prescription drug plan, he has also firmly advocated school vouchers, tax cuts, and bans on same-sex marriage and partial-birth abortion.
The National Journal, which does an annual analysis of congressional voting records, ranks Mike Bilirakis among the most conservative of his colleagues on economic, social and foreign policy issues.
Gus Bilirakis, who has represented state House District 48 for eight years, said he is not just his father's son.
"I encouraged my father to run," he said. "I think it's up to the people to decide. But I've proven in the Legislature that I am my own person."
A jovial, mild-mannered man, Gus Bilirakis has the political sensibility of his father. He was only 7, he said, when he was stuffing envelopes for Louis "Skip" Bafalis' run for governor in 1970.
Gus Bilirakis said his top priority in Congress would be to bolster support for community health centers that treat the uninsured, such as the Clearwater Free Clinic - a longstanding issue for his father as well.
Besides ideological consistency and name recognition, Gus Bilirakis has also stockpiled a powerful cache of endorsements and contributions.
In May, Newt Gingrich came to town and Rudy Giuliani wrote a letter on his behalf. His campaign staff says plans for a visit from Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert are in the works.
Bilirakis had raised $1.2-million in campaign contributions as of March - nearly triple the amount amassed by the other candidates combined, according to Federal Election Commission records.
Despite Bilirakis' financial advantage, his opponents say they firmly believe that District 9 is up for grabs.
'People are frustrated'
Last week, Phyllis Busansky gathered her staff and volunteers to celebrate the official opening of her campaign office, a second-story suite over a fitness center on Dale Mabry Highway.
Taped to the walls were rainbow-colored balloons, T-shirts and bumper stickers that simply read "phyllis!"
"Aren't my voters wonderful?" said Busansky.
Busansky, who has lived in the same house in Old Carrollwood for 27 years, said voters are not happy about the war in Iraq, offshore drilling, Terri Schiavo and no-bid contracts.
"People are frustrated, they're fed up," she said. "I'm running against this Congress."
Busansky said she decided that her decadelong hiatus from public life was over one morning last fall.
"I woke up one day in October and said to myself ... Win, lose or draw - and I intend to win - I just can't bear to watch this any longer."
Busansky said there are several factors that make a Democratic upset in District 9 a realistic possibility: Forty percent of voters are newcomers since the 2000 redistricting, she said. Twenty percent of the district's voters are registered as independents, and 40 percent live in Hillsborough, her home county.
Urging her to join the fray was U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Chicago, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
To win, Busansky said, it will take $1-million to overtake Bilirakis.
"He is going raise millions," she said. "I don't need as much to stay competitive."
As of the end of March, Busansky had collected about $390,000 in contributions, but her campaign staff said fundraising exceeded expectations in the quarter that ended in June.
Now, Busansky said her plan is to hit the streets.
It is sure to be a long, hot but wonderful summer, she said, recalling a day from her first run for the Hillsborough County Commission.
It was the summer of 1988, Busansky said, and so hot that at one point she just stopped walking and simply stood still, staring at a dandelion growing up through a crack in the sidewalk.
"I said, 'If you can do it, so can I.' "
Underdog takes to the road
To compensate for his modest campaign treasury, GOP newcomer David Langheier and his family is on a relentless door-to-door campaign.
Every evening, the entire Langheier clan piles into its two Chevrolet SUVs and visits 75 to 120 homes.
To Langheier, it is not just a campaign strategy, but also a means for returning the party to its populist roots.
Going door to door is less lucrative than fundraising tactics he has seen over the years working on other Republican campaigns.
But these, he said, cater to special interest groups.
"At the end of a 35-minute lunch, the guy has $20,000," he said "And there are 20 people sitting at the table - hello!"
Foremost on Langheier's agenda is shifting the focus from the international arena to the domestic, where people are struggling to keep up with rising costs for insurance, taxes and fuel.
"Why don't we take care of the homefront more?" he said. "What are we doing sending jobs to India?"
He also favors securing the borders with Mexico and Canada, which he thinks will both mitigate the threat of terrorism and stem the flow of illegal immigrants.
Langheier is a member of the Florida chapter of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, but has not participated in the group's border patrols.
For his children, aged 9 to 21, he said the nightly ritual has generated more fun than complaints.
"I highly recommend it for a family project," he said.
Robin Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4157.
DISTRICT 9 AT A GLANCE
Hispanic or Latino: 92,919
Respondents can belong to more than one race.
(2000 vs. 2004)
Republican: 172,000 vs. 190,000
Democrat: 143,000 vs. 156,000
Independent: 80,000 vs. 89,000
Population older than 18: 551,670
Foreign-born residents who are not U.S. citizens: 48,084
Residents older than 5 with a disability: 91,407
Total householders older than 65 living alone: 31,088
Civilian veterans: 80,868
Mean travel time to work, in minutes: 29.3
Median income: $46,964
Percentage of residents below poverty level: 10
Total workers 16 and older: 326,263
1. Education, health care, social assistance: 63,148
2. Retail: 44,599
3. Professional, scientific, management and administrative, waste management services: 44,184
Source: Estimates from U.S. Census Bureau, 2004 American Community Survey.
[Last modified July 4, 2006, 00:33:20]
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