ST. PETERSBURG — U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, who announced recently that he'll retire from Congress next year at the end of his 22nd term, was “gravely ill” and in guarded condition Thursday following surgery for back problems that have plagued him for years, a representative of the Young family said.
“The congressman took a turn for the worse last evening – he is gravely ill and his condition is guarded. He remains at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center,” said David Jolly, a former Young staffer who is attorney for the Young family.
The 82-year-old congressman, the longest-serving Republican in the U.S. House and a political icon in Florida and the Tampa area, said last week he had decided, “It was my time” to leave the post he's held since 1970, citing his health problems and desire to spend more time with his family.
That set off furious speculation and jockeying by potential candidates to replace him as Democrats see one of their few chances nationwide to pick off a formerly Republican seat.
Thursday, the Tampa area buzzed with rumors and incorrect news reports that Young had died.
It appeared to start with a posting on a local political blog, but Fox News' Gretchen Carlson also reported on the air that Young had died, airing a correction soon afterward. NBC reporter Luke Russert also reported in a tweet, later retracted, that the congressman had died.
Young, who represents a south Pinellas County district, has been plagued with severe back problems since he was involved in the crash of a small plane in 1970.
In an interview with the Tribune a week ago, just before the most recent of a series of surgical procedures on his back, he said his decision to retire had been percolating for years.
“It never goes away,” he said of the pain from his back.
In 2011, as he opened his campaign for his 2012 re-election, he told a crowd of Pinellas County Republicans that three months in the hospital and two operations on his back had caused him to lose 50 pounds and four inches in height, but not his commitment to politics.
On Thursday, Jolly wouldn't answer any questions about the nature of Young's current illness or whether it relates to his back problems or his recent surgery.
Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos, another friend and former staffer, said he contacted family members after hearing a rumor of Young's death Wednesday night, and was told “He was not well, but well enough to take a call from President Bush” about Young's long-time work on defense appropriations.
Cretekos said he's constantly asked about Young's condition but had no further knowledge about the congressman's prognosis, “other than that he's in guarded condition right now. We're all assuming that this story will be put off for another day and the congressman can rally.
“Congressman Young has touched more than a generation of people in Pinellas County,” Cretekos said. “He's been a mentor, he's been a friend.”
Young's office, meanwhile, was being “bombarded” with calls from constituents seeking information and passing along well-wishes, said a spokeswoman.