ST. PETERSBURG — A beach blanket spread over a patch of the shell-flecked sand that lines Pinellas County’s western shore seems about as far from Washington’s icy gridlock as possible. Currently, though, the Pinellas beaches and the tourism industry they foster are heavily reliant on policies and dollars from Capitol Hill.
The late U.S. Rep. C.W. “Bill” Young helped steer tens of millions of dollars toward beach renourishment and supported a moratorium on oil drilling in federal waters off Florida’s West Coast. Whoever ends up in the seat Young occupied for more than four decades likely will be asked to follow suit.
“Early, early, early on, Congressman Young had a handful of true priorities for his specific district and he never let anything entice him to change those priorities,” said Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce president Robin Sollie. “We absolutely need someone to carry the legacy.”
The three GOP candidates for Young’s Dist. 13 Congressional seat — Mark Bircher, David Jolly and State Rep. Kathleen Peters — will compete in a primary election on Tuesday, and all say they would do so, though their views on how differ somewhat.
All agree that beach renourishment, for which the federal government pays 60 percent of the cost, must continue to be done to stem erosion.
Peters said that in her first year as a state legislator she helped Pinellas get federal and state money to replenish sand on severely eroding stretches of Treasure Island and St. Pete Beach, and timed it so the projects would cost less.
“She proposed it to [State House Appropriations Committee member Ben Albritton] to get both cities done at the same time to leverage federal dollars from Sandy,” Peters campaign spokesman Mark Zubaly said in an email. “It took some collaboration with Congressman Young’s office that the money would come and be used efficiently by timing both cities projects at the same time.”
Jolly, who worked closely with Young for more than a decade, said such projects are costly, but necessary.
“I understand as a fiscal conservative most people would say, ‘We can’t invest in beach renourishment,’” Jolly said at a recent Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce candidate forum. “We have to, because our local economy relies on it. ... It’s not the long-term solution to keep going to the federal government, but right now it’s the only solution.”
Bircher, meanwhile, said he thinks states should take charge of beach renourishment.
“My belief is that the federal government should be in support of the state governments on this issue,” he said.
Support agencies on the federal level could include the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, he said.
On offshore oil drilling, each candidate is opposed to it.
Bircher, an airline pilot and retired Marine Corps brigadier general, said he doesn’t support it now, but might consider it if it became less risky. “I’m open sometime in the future, if sometime I’m convinced that it’s safe, then it could be discussed,” he said.
Peters, who was mayor of the waterfront city South Pasadena during Deepwater Horizon, is passionate about the offshore drilling ban.
“Tourism is the Number One industry in Florida,” she said. “We need to maintain our pristine beaches.”
Jolly’s opposition to offshore drilling, meanwhile, has been questioned, though he maintains that he is staunchly against lifting the ban.
“Frankly, within the Republican party, most people who live outside of the gulf states would say, ‘We have to expand oil drilling because we need an energy platform that includes expanded oil drilling,’” he said at last week’s beaches forum. “We can’t do that.”
But critics pointed to a 2011 federal lobbying report indicating Jolly advocated for “A Roadmap for America’s Energy Future” on behalf of Free Enterprise Nation. That bill pushes for oil exploration in the outer continental shelf. Jolly says any claim that he supports drilling is “a complete fabrication.”
“... A former client of mine endorsed a comprehensive energy independence blueprint that could have possibly expanded drilling in the gulf, but I did not lobby on its behalf,” read a statement sent by campaign spokeswoman Sarah Bascom. “Let me make very clear, my position has always been that the current moratorium on expanded drilling in the eastern gulf should be protected and continued.”
Their views on beach renourishment and offshore drilling could make for strange bedfellows if one of them is elected to Congress, given many congressional Republicans have criticized federal spending and supported offshore drilling. The three candidates’ views on beach issues could be divergent from the party line.
In District 13, which runs from Dunedin south to Tierra Verde excluding parts of downtown and south St. Petersburg, the memory of the economic hit the area took because people thought oil from Deepwater Horizon had reached its shores is still fresh. So, too, are the images of gutted beaches in the wake of Tropical Storm Debby. Pinellas Republicans and Democrats alike see healthy beaches as essential to the local economy.