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Newcomer takes on Bilirakis legacy

In the Republican primary for U.S. House District 9, David Langheier, a chiropractor, launches negative TV ads. Gus Bilirakis, his opponent, seems to be holding his fire.

By ROBIN STEIN
Published September 4, 2006


Special interests, scandal, corruption.

Just some of the problems that will continue to taint Congress, says a new television ad, if Gus Bilirakis is elected.

Spliced into a montage of photos, floating money signs and an ominous electronic drone, the message was created by David Langheier, the candidate facing Bilirakis in Tuesday's Republican primary in U.S. House District 9.

Langheier's ad targets both Gus Bilirakis and his father, District 9 incumbent Rep. Mike Bilirakis, who is stepping down.

Yet it has sparked no television spots, no news releases. Just three clipped sentences from Rob Whitney, Gus Bilirakis' campaign manager.

"We've seen the ads. He's trying to grasp at something," Whitney said. "He needs to first establish his own credibility."

Langheier is a political novice, while Bilirakis has spent eight years in the Florida Legislature.

But Langheier is not simply competing against Bilirakis' record - he is up against a powerful legacy.

With visits from Vice President Dick Cheney and U.S. House Majority Leader Dennis Hastert, endorsements any Republican would envy, Gus Bilirakis has raised $1.8-million.

The threat of a Bilirakis was enough to dispel ambitions of several prospective Republicans, including former state House Speaker Johnnie Byrd and former state Senators John Grant and Jack Latvala.

Langheier, however, seems unfazed.

"This is not because my opponent is necessarily what the people want," he said. "It's because his father is a congressman."

Langheier, whose campaign has raised just over $100,000, said he has instead relied on a shoe-leather approach. Since May, he has spent nearly every night going door to door across parts of Hillsborough, north Pinellas and west Pasco counties to drum up discontent over taxes, scandal and illegal immigration.

District 9 encompasses some 800 square miles. It is home to nearly 187,000 registered Republicans, according to the Florida Division of Elections.

Until the polls close on Tuesday night, both Langheier and Bilirakis will be moving from Tarpon Springs to Plant City, waving signs, shaking hands, meeting and greeting as many people as possible.

But clearly, Bilirakis is holding his fire for the big fight, the general election contest against independent Andrew Pasayan and Democrat Phyllis Busansky.

After all, the House seat is open for the first time in 24 years. The race has attracted national attention from Republicans and Democrats.

While both parties' numbers have been steady, the district's boundaries and demographics have shifted significantly in recent years.

Since 1998, independents and alternative parties have increased their ranks by nearly 40 percent. Pinellas, once home to 50 percent of the District 9 voters, now contributes just 33 percent, while the contingent from Hillsborough has doubled.

In anticipation, Bilirakis has begun shooting footage for TV spots. Recent campaign finance filings show he has paid $38,000 to Stevens Reed Curcio & Potholm, the Alexandria, Va., media consultant that created the Swift Boat Veterans ad campaign. The firm made national news again this summer when U.S. News & World Report wrote about a spot for Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio that used doctored images of the twin towers.

Busansky's media consultant is Washington's Struble Eichenbaum Communications, said her campaign manager, Robert Becker. The company produced a NARAL Pro-Choice America spot about then-Supreme Court nominee John Roberts, which was pulled off the air after critics complained it was misleading and unfair.

Both companies have client lists that stretch from coast to coast.

Langheier lacked the special interest money to fund a big budget ad campaign, his wife said, explaining that they tapped a local consultant, George Chacanias.

His ad's graphics feel stilted, and the voice-over seems to echo. In the last shot, a faded line of text appears.

"It's time to make things right in Congress," it reads.

THE JOB

U.S. representatives serve two-year terms and are paid $165,200 annually. U.S. House District 9 covers North Pinellas, west Pasco and suburban northern and eastern Hillsborough.

THE CANDIDATES

Gus M. Bilirakis, 43, grew up in Tarpon Springs, lives in Palm Harbor and is a probate lawyer based in Holiday. He attended St. Petersburg College, earned a degree in political science from the University of Florida and graduated from Stetson University College of Law. He was an adjunct professor teaching American government at St. Petersburg College during the 2002-03 academic year. Since 1998, Bilirakis has been a state representative for House District 48, which covers northern Pinellas and part of southern Pasco. He is a member of the Commerce Council, the Health Care Regulation Committee, the Military & Veteran Affairs Committee, and the Transportation and Economic Development Appropriations Committee. He is chairman of the Economic Development, Trade & Banking Committee. He is married and has four sons.

ASSETS: House in Palm Harbor, securities, joint business venture, property in Holiday where law practice is located, stock in law practice and title company, bank accounts and prepaid tuition accounts for four sons.

LIABILITIES: Mortgage.

SOURCES OF INCOME: Probate law practice, title company, state representative's salary.

WEB SITE: www.gusbilirakis.com

David D. Langheier, 47, has a chiropractic practice in Clearwater and is a consultant to Criterion Inc., a medical device manufacturer. He and his wife, Vicky, live in East Lake with their four children. Originally from Buffalo, N.Y., Langheier moved to Tampa in the late 1970s to attend the University of South Florida and returned to the area after attending Life University College of Chiropractic in Georgia. This is his first time running for office, but Langheier has lobbied in Washington on behalf of chiropractors. Langheier served as president of the Florida Chiropractic Association.

ASSETS: Office, home, 401(k), vacant land.

LIABILITIES: Mortgages.

SOURCE OF INCOME: Salary.

WEB SITE: www.godave06.com