U.S. District 12: Gus Bilirakis wins seventh term in Congress

Tampa Bay Times
November 6th, 2018
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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.