Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R)
Florida 9th District
Half a century ago, the land north of St. Petersburg and Tampa was scarcely inhabited. Behind the barrier island of beaches, the land along the Gulf shore was swampy. Further inland was dense, semitropical forest spotted with lakes. Over the years, development has moved up the coast and inland via the major highways, first to Clearwater and Tarpon Springs in Pinellas County and then up the once-empty coast of Pasco County. Much of this area originally was designed for retirees, offering everything from condominiums to garden apartments to trailer parks. In 2000, Clearwater, in Pinellas County north of St. Petersburg, had a higher percentage of senior citizens than any other city over 100,000. It also has the spiritual headquarters of the Church of Scientology, which has transformed the city’s downtown by redeveloping a dozen buildings, transforming five waterfront acres into a luxury condominium complex and building a 384,000-square-foot religious center. There are about 12,000 Scientologists in the city. Before the recession hit in 2007, businesses were sprouting in northern Pinellas County and inland off the Interstate 75 corridor. Nearly half of Pasco County’s workers commute to jobs in other counties. The people who settled here in recent decades brought their ancestral political beliefs with them. In the 1950s and 1960s, only white-collar retirees could afford to buy new places in Florida, and they were heavily Republican. As Florida retirements became more feasible for people with modest incomes in the 1970s and 1980s, the partisan balance shifted toward Democrats. In the 1990s, young immigrants with professional and technical backgrounds flooded the area. Their political independence has turned this into one of Florida’s most politically marginal areas. In 2004, Republican organizers brought out a lot of new voters, many of them Christian conservatives. Republican President Bush won the district that year with 57%. Four years later, Democrat Barack Obama’s campaign worked to increase turnout in this area, which was vital to his statewide win in Florida. In Hillsborough, Obama got nearly 59,000 more votes than Democrat John Kerry had in 2004, while Republican John McCain got 9,000 votes less than Bush in 2004. John McCain narrowly won the district with 52%.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
The 9th Congressional District of Florida covers an area north of St. Petersburg and north and east of Tampa. It includes the string of towns on the coast of Pasco County—Holiday, New Port Richey, Bayonet Point, and Hudson. In Pinellas County to the south, the 9th includes Clearwater, Tarpon Springs, an old resort first settled by Greek sponge divers a century ago, the affluent neighborhoods of East Lake, the young commuter families of Oldsmar, and the bayside community of Safety Harbor. The district also includes the northern Tampa suburbs in Hillsborough County and much of the eastern part of the county, including part of strawberry-growing Plant City (named not for plants but for Tampa pioneer Henry B. Plant). The area produces 90% of Florida’s strawberry yield. From 2000 to 2007, the geographically confined Pinellas had a net loss of 4,000 people, while the more spacious Hillsborough gained 176,000, up 18%. Also noteworthy, the share of senior citizens in the district dropped from 20.5% to 17.5%. The vote in the district is distributed among Hillsborough, with about 45%, Pinellas, with 30%, and Pasco, with 25%.
Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R)
Elected: 2006, 2nd term.
Born: Feb. 8, 1963, Gainsville .
Home: Palm Harbor.
Education: Attended St. Petersburg Jr. Col., U. of FL, B.A. 1986, Stetson U., J.D. 1989.
Religion: Greek Orthodox.
Family: Married (Eva Lialios); 4 children.
Elected office: FL House of Reps., 1998-2006.
Professional Career: Intern, U.S. Pres. Ronald Reagan, 1983; Intern, NRCC, 1984; Aide, U.S. Rep. Don Sundquist, 1985; Teacher, St. Petersburg Col., 1997-2001; Practicing atty., 1989-2006.
The congressman from the 9th District is Gus Bilirakis, a Republican elected in 2006 to succeed his father, 12-term Republican Rep. Michael Bilirakis. Bilirakis (bil-uh-RACK-iss) joined Republican Connie Mack and Democrat Kendrick Meek in the Florida delegation as members who followed a parent into Congress. Bilirakis remembers stuffing envelopes at age seven for Republican Louis “Skip” Bafalis, who lost his 1970 bid for governor but was elected to five terms in Congress. In college, Bilirakis interned in the Reagan White House and went on to earn a law degree from Stetson University. He worked for former Rep. Don Sundquist, a Republican who went on to become Tennessee’s governor, and later was a probate lawyer and estate planner. In 1998, he was elected to the first of four terms in the Florida House. Bilirakis’ career has always been closely tied to his father’s. (On Election Day 2002, the two were campaigning together on a street corner when a driver lost control of his car and struck the younger Bilirakis, leaving him with bruises and just missing his father.)
|Gus Bilirakis (R)||216,591||(62%)||($1,542,347)|
|Bill Mitchell (D)||126,346||(36%)||($394,756)|
|Gus Bilirakis (R)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (56%)
When Michael Bilirakis decided not to seek a 13th term, his son was presumed to be the favorite for the seat and drew only nominal opposition for the Republican nomination. Gus Bilirakis was not shy about running on the family name. He appeared on the ballot as Gus Michael Bilirakis and raised money from many political action committees that supported his father, who had had a seat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Bilirakis’s campaign website praised his father’s patriotism and integrity and declared, “There is no one better suited to carry on the mission than Gus, who has been instilled with these vital attributes.”
Democrats recruited Phyllis Busansky, a former 8-year member of the Hillsborough County Commission and the first executive director of the state’s welfare-to-work program. Busansky played up her background in health care and senior citizens’ issues. Bilirakis pointed to his own credentials as a lawyer who specialized in elder law. In the Legislature, he had also spearheaded legislation supporting community health care centers that treat the uninsured. Bilirakis’ soft-spoken style contrasted with Busansky’s assertive personality. She ran television ads portraying Bilirakis as a follower and accused him of ducking public debate and relying heavily on his father’s reputation. She trailed in the polls for much of the campaign, but gained some momentum in October after criticizing Bilirakis for his “deep and lucrative ties” to GOP leaders who had early knowledge of sexually explicit emails sent by disgraced Republican Rep. Mark Foley of Florida to congressional pages but who had failed to act. The national Republican Party did not leave this race to chance. President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Speaker Dennis Hastert all stumped for Bilirakis and helped him raise money. He outspent Busansky $2.6 million to $1.4 million, and won 56%-44%.
In the House, Bilirakis established a voting record placing him near the center of House Republicans. He distanced himself from partisan fights and focused on his legislative agenda. Soon after taking office, he voted to increase the minimum wage and implement the homeland-security recommendations of the bipartisan 9/11 commission. In 2008, he worked with Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Texas Democrat, to win House passage of a “silver alert” bill to assist states in finding senior citizens who disappear. Bilirakis was spurred by the case of an 86-year-old Largo woman who was found dead in the Intracoastal Waterway after she disappeared from an assisted-living facility. He was also a lead cosponsor of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Paralysis Act, which was designed to improve treatments for paralyzed people and which passed the House in 2007. Bilirakis is the ranking Republican on the Management, Investigations, and Oversight Subcommittee of the Homeland Security Committee.
He had a surprisingly easy re-election against lawyer and former Naval submarine Officer Bill Mitchell, who criticized Bilirakis’ opposition to the bailout of the financial markets and to a bill extending the renewable-energy credit, calling him “a friend of Big Oil.” Bilirakis largely ignored the attacks and won handily, 62%-36%.