Former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker announced Saturday he won't run for the late U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young's congressional seat, depriving Republicans of the candidate some considered their strongest potential competitor for the position.
With Baker out, David Jolly, lobbyist and former staffer for Young, said he will run for the District 13 seat in Pinellas County.
“I've worked on behalf of the people of Pinellas County for the last 20 years,” Jolly said. “I believe I'm uniquely qualified to step in on day one and do the job.”
Jolly, who was counsel in Young's office and later lawyer for the Young family, immediately receiving backing from the longtime representative's widow, Bev Young, who said her husband wanted Jolly to run for the seat and carry on his work.
Bev Young, who earlier said she was interested in running for the seat herself, said she won't do so.
In a statement, Baker thanked friends who had urged him to run, and said he will “likely consider a return to public service at some point — but not now. I intend to focus my near term efforts on my family and my work with Bill Edwards to make our great city and state even greater.”
“I look forward to enthusiastically supporting the Republican nominee for this congressional seat.”
In an interview, Baker said there was no single reason he decided not to enter the race, but that family, work and “other opportunities that might come up down the road” all were involved.
Baker works for The Edwards Group, which is developing Bay Walk, runs the Mahaffey Theater and owns the Treasure Island Yacht Club and other commercial real estate.
Asked if he will back any particular candidate, Baker said: “I may, but we have to see who files. I think we have a very strong group of candidates.”
“To me the real test for any candidate is who can follow in Bill Young's legacy,” Baker said. “He was the type of elected official we need in Washington right now — he could work to build consensus, reach across the aisle and get things done. He was of this county and knew the county.”
The District 13 seat, with no incumbent running in a swing district that can turn to either party, is one of a handful of competitive seats nationwide that could decide control of the U.S. House.
It is virtually certain both national parties will campaign and spend heavily in the race.
A special election has been set to replace Young, with a primary Jan. 14 and a general election March 11.
That leaves little time, said state Sen. Jack Latvala, for any candidate to build name recognition.
Many Republicans believed Baker's well-known name and popularity from his term as mayor were their best shot at holding the district. It has a plurality of registered Republicans but has gone Democratic in top-of-the-ticket races in the last three elections.
No other prominent Republican has entered the race, and Jolly said several Republican leaders had told him they hope for “a simple and friendly primary,” or no primary contest at all.
On the Democratic side, Alex Sink of Tampa has announced she is moving to Pinellas County and will run for the seat. St. Petersburg lawyer Jessica Ehrlich, who lost to Young in 2012, also is running.
Jolly said he is among the Republicans who believed Baker would have been a strong candidate, and that he wouldn't have run if Baker was in the race.
He said he expects to make a formal announcement Tuesday or Wednesday, and that following a series of conversations in the past week with Republican political leaders and major campaign donors and fundraisers in Pinellas County, “I expect some key endorsements.”
Jolly is president of Three Bridges Advisors, a Washington lobbying firm, but said his homestead residence is in Indian Shores.
Jolly said he has served the county “in Washington as a member of Mr. Young's staff, and in private practice as a lobbyist, lawyer and consultant, representing colleges, universities, non-profits, small and large businesses who asked for my assistance in working with the fed government.”
Jolly said in several conversations dating back to 2009, when Young first considered retiring, Young expressed the wish that Jolly would run for the seat and promised support.
Bev Young confirmed one of those conversations, which she said happened Oct. 16, just before Young died, in his hospital room in Washington, where Jolly was present with family members.
“After he started throwing up blood and knew he had a blood clot, Bill knew he was going to be coming home on the wings of angels,” she said.
She said Young told Jolly, “The first thing I need you to do is to take care of my wife, and the second thing I am going to ask is that you run for my seat. I don't want all the hard work I have done being lost and forgotten.”
“He said he wanted Pinellas County not to miss a beat over his death and felt David could be the one to do that.”
She said Jolly has “the inside knowledge of how to work the things that need to be worked,” and she will be involved in his campaign if he wishes.
“It is definitely important to me that Bill's legacy not die with him. I know that David will not let his legacy die.”
Howard Altman contributed to this report