Democrats target Young's seat

The national party is trying to recruit a challenger for Congress.

Published March 16, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - National Democrats are aggressively working to recruit someone to run for C.W. Bill Young's Congressional seat, pegging it as one of their top targets in the country.

A recruiter with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently met with prospective Democratic candidates from St. Petersburg including former state House Speaker Peter Wallace, former state Rep. Lars Hafner, and businessman and neighborhood activist Karl Nurse.

Even if the 76-year-old Republican Young runs for a 19th term, Democrats contend the seat is ripe to be picked.

"Regardless of whether he retires, we think this is a highly competitive seat. It's definitely one of our top targets," said Kyra Jennings of the DCCC. "After 37 years in Washington people get out of touch with their district and don't represent it the way the people deserve."

The Florida Democratic Party is already ramping up its attention on Young's district, hammering the Indian Shores Republican for not doing more to fix problems at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

"Rep. Young was more worried about the potential public relations disaster than he was about the wounded soldiers falling out of their beds and sleeping in their own urine at the nation's premier military hospital. His silence on this issue is a moral outrage," state Democratic Chairwoman Karen Thurman said Thursday in an e-mail directing people to a new anti-Young section of the party's Web site.

Is Young considering retirement?

"I'm not prepared to respond to that at this point. But I can guarantee I would not consider retiring in view of a major smear campaign because it's based on a big lie," said Young, a longtime volunteer at veterans hospitals. "It would look like I was running away."

He also fired off a letter to Thurman, his former House colleague, challenging her to name anyone who has done more for wounded troops than he and his wife. "You know that I brought the problems that I knew about to the proper authorities and made sure those I could fix were fixed," he wrote.

Young's district went to Gore in 2000

Congressional District 10 covers most of Pinellas County, and, according to political analyst Taegan Goddard, is the country's most Democratic U.S. House seat now held by a Republican. Al Gore won it with 51 percent of the vote in 2000, and President Bush won it with 51 percent in 2004. Democratic chief financial officer candidate Alex Sink won it by 9 percentage points in 2006.

"Now that Democrats are in control of Congress it's attractive and something to certainly consider," said Hafner, a St. Petersburg College administrator who served in the state House through the 1990s.

But taking on a popular 37-year-incumbent is a vastly bigger challenge than running for an open seat. By some accounts, a strong but unsuccessful challenger to Young in 2008 would be well positioned once Young does retire. But ambitious local politicos have wrongly predicted Young's imminent retirement year after year.

"I'd be very surprised if a highly competitive campaign could be run against him," Wallace said of Young. "But it's not unlike statewide politics. You help yourself immensely if you're willing to go out and lose the first time."

Is Wallace interested? "I've never been motivated to seek a position in Congress and that hasn't changed," said the St. Petersburg attorney.

Candidate should be a money maker

Democratic broadcast producer Samm Simpson, who received 34 percent of the vote against Young in 2006, said she's likely to run again, but national Democrats have not reached out to her. They're looking for a candidate capable of raising big money on his or her own.

"You really have to be able to raise $150,000 a quarter for two quarters to show them you're the real deal, and then the national spigot turns on," said Nurse, who added that he would be unlikely to run.

Other Democrats drawing speculation are state Reps. Bill Heller and Rick Kriseman, and state Sen. Charlie Justice, though they just won their legislative offices in November.

"I'm very happy doing the work of the 16th state Senate district," Justice said.

"If next May he announces he's going to retire or something else happens, I would never say never."

Nurse said he told the DCCC to think big and reach out to community leaders, including developer Craig Sher of Sembler Co., and Bayfront Medical Center CEO Sue Brody. She declined to comment, and Sher dismissed the idea.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727)893-8241 or asmith@sptimes.com.