Bilirakis reflects on career

"I stuck to my guns," he says after 24 years in Congress. That didn't always help him.

Published January 14, 2007

It was 1982. Tourists were flocking to the debut of Disney's Epcot Center, and state law still required a high school course called, "Americanism vs. Communism."

Here in Florida's newly created 9th Congressional District, a fierce midterm campaign took a surprising twist when a field of veteran politicians got a good thumpin' from a 52-year-old first-time candidate.

Mike Bilirakis barely caused a stir when he entered the race. But the Republican lawyer from Tarpon Springs got his television ads up earliest, outcampaigned popular primary opponents and upset a high-powered Democrat - all in an election that overall cost his party 27 seats.

It was not beginner's luck. Over the next 24 years, Bilirakis won 11 more times and became a fixture in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Now the 76-year-old congressman has stepped aside to make way for his successor, his son, Gus, a former state legislator from Palm Harbor.

A few days before the 110th Congress took the oath of office, the elder Bilirakis sat down in a Greek restaurant in Oldsmar to talk about his time in office. He was pensive as he described some of the ups and downs. Lawmaking grew tougher over the years, he said. Conflicting loyalties, pressure from party leaders - he had no regrets, just a stern warning for his son: Be your own man.

Unlike his fellow 1982 freshmen John McCain and Harry Reid, Bilirakis never captured the spotlight with fiery speeches or trailblazing initiatives. But the image of him as a mild-mannered GOP loyalist is not entirely apt. His tendency to cross party lines, particularly on veterans issues, ultimately cost him powerful committee chairmanships, he said.

Today, Bilirakis is a household name throughout north Pinellas, coastal Pasco and the suburbs in Hillsborough. District 9 is dotted with medical clinics, post offices and roads built with money he brought home.

Wary and warm

To critics, Bilirakis was a prickly partisan and lackluster legislator. To supporters, he was a tireless advocate and friend, genuinely warm and accessible.

The oldest of four children, Bilirakis was born to Greek immigrants who left Tarpon Springs in search of steady work, settling in Clairton, Pa., a gritty suburb of Pittsburgh.

Straight out of high school, he went to the assembly lines of US Steel, then enlisted in the Air Force at 21. Four years later, he entered the University of Pittsburgh, studying chemical engineering by day, working at Westinghouse Electric by night.

After short stints at aerospace companies in Washington and Orlando, Bilirakis, Evelyn and their two sons returned to Tarpon Springs for good.

The conversion

In 1970, a speech by a Republican candidate for governor, Skip Bafalis, triggered a political realization, he said. "I used to tell people that I learned to play pinochle in the picket lines, and it was true," he said. "My father had President Roosevelt's photograph up on a wall as far back as I can ever remember."

But the steelworker had become a lawyer with a small practice in Holiday. "I found myself changing. I found myself more in tune with the Republican Party," he said.

It would take the new GOP convert another decade to run for Congress.

He took a hard line on hot-button issues and seldom backed off, whether it was his opposition to abortion, support for the Nicaraguan Contras or work to privatize Medicare drug plans. Yet his popularity transcended partisanship and policy. His margins of victories kept growing.

Bilirakis supporters spoke again and again in interviews about his simple gestures and genuine willingness to help.

John M. Little, president of Pinellas County Council of Firefighters, said the congressman remained the same humble man he had been as a local lawyer struggling to put together Tarpon's first volunteer ambulance service.

"You can take the politics out of it," he said. "He was available to listen and help people out."

Of course, from time to time, politics lent a hand. Consider the "Chamois Truthful Labeling Act of 2005."

The Chamois Act

House Bill 3902 was aimed at blocking the influx of fake chamois from China, a cause dear to the last U.S. manufacturer of the drying towels. Acme Sponge & Chamois Co. in Tarpon Springs is owned by the Cantonis family, a mainstay of Tarpon Springs' Greek community and good friends of their congressman's.

It died in committee. But it demonstrates one way a congressman becomes a patriarch.

Few would classify Bilirakis as an environmentalist, but he went head to head with the Environmental Protection Agency for decades over its weak oversight of the Stauffer Superfund site in Tarpon Springs.

Uneasy with the press

Bilirakis says he never got used to the public scrutiny that comes with holding office.

In May of 2005, a story in the St. Petersburg Times scrutinized travel records that showed Bilirakis had taken eight trips to Las Vegas since 1997, paid for by private organizations with issues before Congress. He still bristles when the subject comes up.

"That hurt," he said. "Let's not get into all that. It's over now."

He said he felt the story cast him as a hypocrite and should have mentioned others in Congress who made the trip. "This is a free country and we have a free press, but you never really get used to it." It hurt his family most, Bilirakis said. And now he worries about his son, who, he said, tends not to take criticism particularly well.

"The biggest reason I have been afraid to talk to the press, quite frankly, is because I'm too darn open, I'm too darn honest," he said.

A special relationship

For more than a decade, Bilirakis chaired the powerful Health Subcommittee, on the front lines of many debates about Medicaid, Medicare and the Food and Drug Administration.

In 2003, he was on the negotiating team that forged the landmark Medicare drug bill, which Democrats and other critics derided as a payoff to the pharmaceutical industry.

"We've done something good for the majority of medicare beneficiaries," he said. "Is it perfect? No, but the minority party is going to oppose anything you do."

While Bilirakis voted with his party between 84 percent and 94 percent of the time, according to Congressional Quarterly, he broke ranks often enough to anger party leaders.

He teamed up with Democrat Sherrod Brown of Ohio to roll back cuts in doctors' rates paid by Medicare and Medicaid, and with former Tampa Rep. Jim Davis to stop nursing homes from evicting Medicaid patients.

But nothing rattled the party bosses more than his veterans advocacy, he said.

A staff sergeant in the Air Force during the Korean War, Bilirakis said the 80,000 veterans in his district were not just a key constituency, they were a personal cause.

"You ask any veteran, and the word 'Bilirakis' has a very emotional meaning," said Tom A. Jones a retired Army colonel from Carrollwood.

His biggest win

In his first term, he got a new outpatient clinic in Pasco, and went on to sponsor bills that increased benefits for widows and created jobs programs. He pressed for an inquiry into sexual harassment and mismanagement at veterans hospitals.

He said his biggest victory came in 2003 - but at a high price. After battling for two decades, he finally got through his bill for "concurrent receipt," a policy that would roll back rules from the mid 1800s that reduced retirement pay for disabled service members.

Veterans were grateful, but some House colleagues were not. "My bill, which is very, very expensive, really angered my leadership," he said.

Bilirakis said the consequences came soon after when he was passed over for the chairmanships of the full Veterans and Commerce committees.

"I stuck to my guns, and it turned out that we got concurrent receipt for veterans, and that makes me feel pretty darn good, and that's more important to me than being chairman of the full committee."

Now, Bilirakis is planning to mix it up - get back to his law practice part time, do some court mediation and volunteer work. But first he and Evelyn said they hope to take their first personal vacation in 24 years.

They are thinking about Greece.

Staff writer Anita Kumar contributed to this report. Robin Stein can be reached at (727) 445-4157 or rstein@sptimes.com.