Bilirakis' reticence shows lack of passion

Published October 17, 2006

As a son trying to fill his father's shoes, Gus Bilirakis looks to be a man of a few words.

The young Bilirakis was at a church in Tampa on Sunday morning. It's customary, almost obligatory, for Republican candidates to visit nondenominational megachurches.

The minister introduced the Palm Harbor resident, stressing the importance of this year's election and how this son was trying to succeed his father.

Bilirakis, however, seemed to shrink for the occasion. If you bent over to pick up your Bible or were distracted writing a check for the collection plate, you missed his entire speech.

"We share the same values," he told the crowd. "I'm approachable and accessible. I am one of you."

Faster than the congregation could say amen, Bilirakis was back in his seat.

Perhaps there's a longer version of this speech after it's decoded. But Bilirakis' reticence has emerged as an issue in his campaign to fill the 9th District Congressional seat held by his father, Mike, who is retiring after 24 years.

His Democratic opponent Phyllis Busansky, a former Hillsborough County commissioner, has run television ads criticizing Bilirakis as a follower who has trouble saying what's on his mind.

Bilirakis' most recent campaign video on the Internet certainly doesn't do much to dispute that claim. The well-produced ad is a version of the son-father theme that permeates this campaign. We hear from the Bilirakis sons about his work in Tallahassee and what a good dad he is, but not much from the candidate.

That's the way it has been for much of the campaign for voters in west Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough.

Bilirakis has been a no-show at debates and candidate forums. His campaign manager Robert Whitney says the candidate prefers meeting voters one on one, where they can hear his passion for faith, family and education.

The passion I heard in Whitney's voice over the phone has been largely absent from the candidate.

Conventional wisdom is that Bilirakis has a sizable lead in campaign donations and name recognition, especially in Pinellas and Pasco. And he has been playing it safe. It's as if he's trying to sit on his lead and run out the clock. He's calculating that with GOP candidates getting into trouble all over the country, what you don't say can't hurt you.

In his defense, Bilirakis can also argue that if you have the caliber of folks he's had speaking on his behalf, you'd be quiet too.

This year, with Republicans in danger of losing their majority in Congress, the open 9th District seat has taken on added importance. Just look at the big name Republicans who have visited the area to campaign for Bilirakis: former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Vice President Dick Cheney, President Bush and House Speaker Denny Hastert but given Hastert's recent troubles connected to the Mark Foley scandal, the speaker shouldn't expect a return invitation to Tampa.

As the son of a longtime congressman, Bilirakis will always have others to speak for him. But voters of the 9th District must ask, who will speak for them.

Andrew Skerritt can be reached at (813) 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602. His e-mail address is askerritt@sptimes.com.