Economic woes take center stage at Pinellas Congressional debate

02/25/14 Janelle Irwin
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Tags: David Jolly, Lucas Overby, Alex Sink, Bill Young, Pinellas County, oil drilling, Social Security, Chamber of Commerce, Congress


From left, debate moderator Dr. Susan McManus, Alex Sink, Lucas Overby and David Jolly at the Capitol Theater in downtown Clearwater.

photo by Janelle Irwin

There are only two weeks left until the Pinellas County special congressional election and the three candidates on the ballot are fiercely fighting for votes.

During a debate Tuesday hosted by area chambers of commerce, David Jolly, who is barely leading in the polls, urged supporters who are sick of campaign robo-calls to turn in their ballots ahead of the March 11 election.

“One point, if you will mail in your absentee ballot, all those phone calls will go away.”

The candidates tackled a wide range of issues at the Capitol Theater in downtown Clearwater during an hour-and-a-half debate. Many of the responses had a similar theme – the economy. For example, Jolly has criticized his closest opponent, Democrat Alex Sink for supporting the Affordable Care Act. He’s said since day one that he’d join other Republicans in Congress in voting to repeal it.

“We have employees who are on the lower side of the wage scale who are having their hours reduced from 40 hours to 28 hours because for an employer to keep them employed they have to reduce their number of hours below the regulations imposed by Obamacare.”

Jolly and Sink are also facing a Libertarian candidate, Lucas Overby. Though he’s polling far below both opponents, Overby has held his own during multiple debates spinning his third party handicap into a potential breath of fresh air for voters frustrated with constant Congressional gridlock.

“We push things back, we keep kicking the can down the road in so many things in D.C. because nobody is willing to sit down and actually get it fixed. That is going to continue to stall middle class jobs. You hear a lot about the gap in income equality. Well, the gap is supposed to be filled by middle earners and they don’t exist anymore. They are mostly being pushed down to low-wage or unemployed. We fix unemployment by bringing the middle class back. You bring the middle class back and I bet you they don’t feel like they’re in a recession anymore.”

Overby blamed the decline of the Middle Class on things like the federal healthcare law and uncertainty surrounding flood insurance rates. Asked whether or not the country was still in a recession, Sink, the Democratic candidate said Florida is in a good place now with tourism back to pre-housing bubble vitality. But she added, the state is a first in, last out region.

“We have to wait for everybody else’s homes to get more equity in it so that the retirees can continue to move here. Remember the days when we had 1,000 people a day moving into Florida?”

The candidates were also asked about tax code reform. All three agreed that it’s way too complicated. Jolly’s answer – make the tax code small and simple. But he also suggested a mandatory maximum tax that would cap how much individuals would pay the federal government – a number he said could be worked out later.

“Every time a person is taxed a dollar by a taxing authority they are giving away their freedom, their liberty to make their own decisions to somebody else.”

Sink instead bashed tax loopholes for wealthy corporations while taxing the pants off small business.

“Some of these companies actually get credits back in addition to paying zero federal income tax for years on end. These are the people that have access to the big lobbyists who carry favor, who get things put into the tax code to benefit them. Who’s the voice for the small business?

Sink’s response mirrored her Libertarian challenger, Overby, in that corporate welfare has got to go. How it got that way in the first place is where they differ.

“It’s not the lobbyists. It’s the Congress men and women who go up there who are already bought and paid for. Those are initiated in Congress to pay back friends and family and that’s why our tax code is so big. The tax code wasn’t big because the IRS got bored. The tax code gets big because we pass new laws, we pass new regulations and it gets stacked on top and stacked on top. Let’s end that. No more loopholes, no more cutbacks, no more kickbacks.”

Other contentious issues in this race have been social safety nets. Sink has accused Republican David Jolly of supporting the so-called Ryan Budget that critics say would gut Medicare and Social Security. Sink says both need to be preserved. Jolly’s plan would lock in the two entitlement programs for people already enrolled in the programs, but would move toward privatizing them for those who aren’t yet. Jolly defended his stance against claims that his plan would leave baby boomers in a black hole of uncertainty.

“At the end of the day we have to provide a guarantee for people who depend on Social Security and Medicare. And let’s talk about the younger generation. Nobody is talking about eliminating Social Security for the younger generation. We’re talking about making sure that it’s there.”

Jolly also differs with Sink on oil drilling, but not as much as some Republicans. Jolly supports a 230-mile ban that would keep oil rigs from getting too close to Florida shores, but otherwise thinks it should be up to states to decide whether further regulations are appropriate. Overby agrees. But Sink, the Democrat, said she is adamantly against any oil drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

“What about oil drilling in Louisiana and Texas? Well, you know what? The people of Louisiana and Texas decided that they wanted oil drilling and that’s the basis of their economy. The basis of our economy are these beaches.”

The three candidates are vying to replace Bill Young who passed away in October. The Republican served in Congress for 43-years. Lengthy congressional careers like that have begged the question about whether or not the U.S. House should have term-limits. Both Jolly and Sink said no, that term limits are implemented at the ballot box. Overby, the Libertarian, disagrees arguing that many districts are owned by incumbents.

“It’s very difficult for people to break in and be effective at the ballot box, especially inside of the two large parties. I’ve worked with and helped several people that challenged Congressman Young that you’ve probably never even heard of and that’s a shame.”

One issue that didn’t come up in Tuesday’s debate was news yesterday of a car accident 25-years ago in which then 16-year old David Jolly struck and killed a pedestrian. A 1989 news report of the incident said that the victim was wearing dark clothes when the accident occurred late at night and that no charges were filed against Jolly. Jolly responded on WTSP, saying whoever leaked the tip was heartless.

“Look, this is real for me, so the tragedy is that a man named Blair lost his life and a woman named Sandra lost her boyfriend and it was a tragedy.”

According to the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections website as of today, more than 78,000 mail-in ballots have been returned. Of those, 41% were from registered Republicans and 37% were from Democrats. The special general election is March 11. Early voting runs from March 1-9. Michael Levinson, an independent, is running as a write-in candidate.

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