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War chest, tactics separate U.S. House race candidates

Jon Duffey has little money. Incumbent Mike Bilirakis has a lot, but he's not taking any chances.


© St. Petersburg Times, published November 6, 2000

In a race for Congress that has captured little public notice, the stretch run campaigning from incumbent U.S. Rep. Mike Bilirakis and upstart Reform Party candidate Jon Duffey is a study in contrasts.

Much of it has to do with money.

Duffey has practically none. Election records show that he has raised and spent less than $14,000.

Duffey spends half his campaign time trying to reach voters via the Web and the other half on his "walking campaign," going door to door to shake hands and make his pitch.

Bilirakis, an 18-year veteran as the 9th District's representative, hasn't done any door-to-door campaigning, nor does he intend to, said campaign manager Doug Menorca.

Since Jan. 1, 1999, Bilirakis has raised $477,434, mostly from political action committees. Bilirakis has used much of that money on a cable television and radio ad blitz begun two weeks ago.

Menorca said that's a sign Bilirakis doesn't take any candidate -- even a third-party one with little money -- for granted.

But in the waning days before the election, Bilirakis' campaign schedule is focused on working to elect other Republican candidates.

Menorca said Bilirakis' work on behalf of several other candidates has some important ramifications for Bilirakis as well. If Republicans hold their majority in the House, Bilirakis is in line to lead the Veteran Affairs committee.

But if Democrats capture the House, Bilirakis would only be a ranking member of a committee.

"You don't get to set the agenda as a ranking member," Menorca said.

In his 18 years in Congress and as the current chairman of the Health and Environment Subcommittee, Bilirakis said he has learned that while even a freshman legislator has a voice, those in leadership positions have extra power.

"In the sense, you become part of leadership and can chair committees, you have more influence, yes," Bilirakis said recently. "The committees you're on play a big part in what your priorities are."

Menorca said Bilirakis has steered money from his campaign to those of other Republicans on the Health and Environment Subcommittee as well as to U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw of Fort Lauderdale. This weekend, Bilirakis also planned to stump on behalf of GOP Senate candidate Bill McCollum.

Duffey has reined in his hopes for the campaign in recent weeks. He says he has no illusions about winning. But then, he said, "there is something bigger than the election at stake."

Duffey is setting his sights on four years down the road. He hopes his candidacy is the beginning of a grass-roots effort to reform the political process.

Tops on his list for reform: campaign financing.

"What has happened is that corporations with a vested interest have gotten control of the House and Senate and White House so that viable solutions to such things as education, health care reform, energy and the environment stop, because the special interests step in and say, "Hey, that's going to hurt our business.' "

Duffey is convinced Bilirakis has become more beholden to campaign contributors than constituents. He has criticized Bilirakis for accepting contributions from the parent company of Stauffer Chemical, which is responsible for cleanup of a Superfund site on the Pasco-Pinellas border.

Bilirakis, who calls PACs "democracy in action," notes that he helped forge an agreement between the government and the company to shelve the controversial cleanup plan pending further testing. That has garnered Bilirakis favor with several opponents to the cleanup plan.

While Duffey has called for elimination of PACs, Bilirakis favors campaign finance rules that facilitate full and prompt disclosure of campaign contributors. Then, he said, voters can hold legislators accountable.

Duffey says that he has been unable to goad Bilirakis into debating him. Menorca said Bilirakis did not plan to attend a candidates forum this weekend in Pasco County. Duffey said he planned to bring a cardboard cutout of Bilirakis to give him something to debate.

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