U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis won a seventh term in Congress Tuesday, prevailing over a challenge from Democrat Chris Hunter, a former FBI agent and federal prosecutor.
Bilirakis, a Republican from Palm Harbor, has been a reliable backer of President Donald Trump, a stance he said affirms support of his leadership from constituents in the 12th Congressional District that covers northern Tampa Bay.
“It means I can go back up here to Washington D.C. and represent my constituents and fight for them, fight for our veterans, our children with rare diseases,” said Bilirakis, who declined an invitation from WFLA Channel 8 to debate Hunter on air. “I’m a workhorse, not a show horse, and I think people appreciate that.”
Bilirakis earned nearly 60 percent of the voters over Hunter in the district that covers northern Pinellas, all of Pasco and a sliver of Hillsborough counties, according to unofficial state results as of press time.
Hunter, who quit his job at the Department of Justice in December to run for office, said the results are a reflection of one of the most solidly Republican drawn districts in the state, which Trump won by 19 points in 2016.
The Bilirakis name is also a staple in the district. Before Bilirakis, 55, was elected in 2006, his father, Michael Bilirakis, served in the seat for 24 years.
“What I hope for the future of our state and our country is that we move beyond merely voting based on partisan allegiance,” Hunter said. “I hoped that would be something that would happen in this Congressional race. It didn’t, but that doesn’t mean it can’t or it won’t, and I maintain my optimism for the future.”
Bilirakis’ victory came in the face of considerable controversy during his last term. In 2016 he co-sponsored a law that made it harder for the Drug Enforcement Administration to intercept suspicious shipments of narcotics while he accepted campaign donations from drug companies who pushed the law.
But like many competitive House races across the country, District 12 in many ways could be seen as a gauge on Trump. Ed Schenk, 57, athletic director at Citrus Park Christian School, said he voted for Bilirakis despite his support of the opioid industry because Bilirakis is “a Republican and supports Donald Trump.”
“A lot of Republicans take money when they shouldn’t,” Schenk said. “Is it wrong? Yeah I believe it’s wrong. But Gus is not pushing socialism, communism and open borders.”
Elaine Sarris, 57, of Tarpon Springs, said over Bilirakis’ 12 years in Congress, there had never been a strong challenger to offer voters an alternative to the “entrenched incumbent” until Hunter. After she cast her vote on Tuesday, she said the struggling middle class in Pasco and Pinellas counties could benefit from Hunter’s leadership on supporting health care and protecting the environment.
“We’re so overdue for change,” said Sarris, owner of Bayou Vintage in Tarpon Springs. “We need people who are more progressive, who think more about constituents than what benefits them.”
Bilirakis raised $1.8 million for his re-election, with about half coming from political action committees and special interest groups, according to the Federal Election Commission. Hunter raised $721,331, with less than five percent from PACs, most of which were tied to party leadership.
Bilirakis said his priorities for his seventh term would be creating a bipartisan committee to strengthen Medicare and Social Security. He also pledged to work to expand the types of veterans who qualify for benefits under presumptive status.
“I do support, for the most part, Donald Trump’s policies, but it’s very beneficial to my constituents and I think they agree with me,” Bilirakis said. “I have a good relationship with the administration and it’s already paid dividends,” he said, noting federal funding secured for dredging of the Anclote River and combating opioiod abuse.
“I just want to roll up my sleeves and get to work,” Bilirakis said.
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (WFLA) – Alarmed by an 8 On Your Side investigation of a veteran mistreated by the VA, Florida Congressman Gus Bilirakis made a beeline to his home state to get answers and offer help.
The Pinellas County Representative wants to know why VA doctors couldn’t figure out what is wrong with veteran Mike Henry.
“This is a veteran, we’ve got to give him the best possible treatment you can get,” Congressman Bilirakis stated.
Last week, 8 On Your Side revealed Henry languished in pain for months under VA care.
That changed quickly when Henry visited Tampa General Hospital, where he was diagnosed with a neurological disorder within an hour.
Henry suffers from a condition in which nerve cells in his brain trigger uncontrollable muscle contractions in his face, neck and shoulder.
It causes intense pain and swelling.
“It actually feels like somebody has a knife, a steak knife in here, and they’re just slowly twisting,” Henry said as he pointed to his temple.
According to Henry, one Bay Pines doctor called him a faker and accused him of being after drugs.
“Then he grabs me right here, my neck was swollen and he’s shaking me around. And then I said, ‘what are you doing? Are you crazy?’ He goes, ‘oh you’re talking normal now, you’re just a faker, I told you that’s what you were,'” Henry recalled.
Henry explained what he experienced at the VA’s C. W. Bill Young Medical Center at Bay Pines to Congressman Bilirakis.
“We want to help them. I told them I’ll help them, whether they want to stay with the VA at Bay Pines or transfer possibly to Haley or get private care, I’m here to help,” Congressman Bilirakis said.
The home visit left Mike and Shelly hopeful, especially since Bilirakis offered one of his staff to accompany Mike.
“He would like to go with Mike to his next VA appointment and he’s going to follow up with us,” Shelly Henry added.
Henry has a medical background. He hopes to sit with the VA to discuss mistakes he thinks the Bay Pines made.
“Then maybe that would let them know, ‘ah ha, maybe this is something we need to look at,'” Henry explained.
The Henrys are thankful someone is watching out for them.
“I will be forever grateful for you guys for doing this and hopefully you guys aren’t just covering my case, you’ll help some of the other veterans and let the people know they have a voice,” Henry added.
“You have been wonderful,” Shelly Henry said. “Thank you so much, I really hope this helps other veterans.
Now that a Congressman is watching over Mike Henry’s case, he is hopeful a more meaningful dialogue will take place with Bay Pines about his care and treatment.