SEMINOLE – Monday night, Republican David Jolly, Democrat Alex Sink and Libertarian Lucas Overby attended a by-ticket-only debate in the Digitorium of St. Petersburg College’s Seminole campus.
The three candidates are running for a chance to serve Pinellas County in the U.S. House of Representatives in a special election March 11. The winner will fill the position left vacant when longtime Rep. C.W. Bill Young died Oct. 18. Young served District 13 in congress for more than 40 years.
The debate, a special edition of Political Connections, broadcast on Bay News 9, was the result of a partnership between SPC, Bay News 9 and the Tampa Bay Times. The event was sponsored by AARP.
The debate was moderated by the Times political editor Adam C. Smith, Times assistant managing editor Amy Hollyfield and Bay News 9 senior anchor Al Ruechel.
Write-in candidate Michael Levinson did not attend.
The night’s event was fast-paced with a variety of topics covered in what was described as lightning rounds, where single word answers were preferred. Other questions allowed candidates 30 to 60 seconds to make their case.
An opening statement started things out.
Jolly told viewers that he had spent 20 years working at the side of the late Rep. Young. He says he wants to continue Young’s work to “empower families to make their own decisions.” He favors less taxes and less regulation. He stressed that he is a Pinellas County native. He was born in Dunedin and now lives in Indian Shores.
Overby said when he began to campaign for a seat in Congress a year ago, he did so to bring people who are disenfranchised with the process back into the fold. He said if elected, he would have a chance to bring the people’s concerns to a larger stage. He said he agreed with some of the priorities of his opponents, but there were “grave differences” between the three.
Sink said she was “sick and tired of the dysfunction” in Washington. She wants to end partisanship to “get things done.” She said she is an experienced businesswoman who served as the state’s chief financial officer and worked together to bring Democrats and Republicans together. She wants to fight to protect jobs, Social Security, veteran’s benefits and bring “the voice of the people in Pinellas County to Washington.”
Lightning round questions
Should Florida accept federal money to expand Medicaid? Overby said yes; Sink said yes. Jolly said not unless there is a guarantee the money can’t be taken away.
Should the federal government be required to have a balanced budget? Overby and Jolly said yes; Sink said no.
Should the state allow medical marijuana? Jolly said no. Overby said yes, and Sink said yes, but added she did not support any program that would allow “pot shops.”
Question of residency
Sink was asked about accusations of being a carpetbagger. Prior to Young’s death, she was a longtime resident of Hillsborough County. She replied that when she considered running for District 13 seat, she asked herself, “Do I share the values of the people of this district?”
“My political values are very well aligned with Pinellas County,” she said, adding that she had worked in Pinellas County for 25 years in the business community and her charitable work.
Jolly said that Rep. Young had taught every school group that visited his office that the House of Representatives was the “people’s house,” something he would continue to respect if elected.
“Alex wants to change Washington, I believe representation should be local,” he said.
Overby said he didn’t think residency was a determining factor.
“A lot of Pinellas County people are interested in the concept,” he said.
He said he had spent a great deal of time “working in the trenches,” spending time in the community.
When Sink was asked if she would stay in Pinellas if she lost the election, she said, “I’m not losing.”
A member of the audience asked the candidates if they supported a repeal of Obamacare.
Jolly said yes. He said Obamacare was founded on a premise that now is being called the “lie of the year.” He said it should be repealed and alternatives offered in its place. He said Obamacare was hurting Pinellas County residents and businesses.
Overby said he was in favor of getting the cost of health care down.
“Some parts of Obamacare are good,” he said. “But there needs to be less focus on insurance and more on reduced costs.”
Sink said she believes that Americans have the right to health insurance and secondly affordable health care.
“Obamacare can’t be repealed because we can’t go back to where we were,” she said.
She said she knew people who were thrilled with Obamacare. She asked if it was right to go back to a time when people could be refused insurance due to pre-existing medical conditions or when seniors had more problems with access to health care.
Jolly said the problems Sink mentioned could be fixed.
“I believe in less government, not more,” he said.
Overby said many of the arguments ongoing over healthcare and insurance dated back to the Clinton administration. He suggested “getting insurance out of the way” so work could be done to fix affordability.
Flood insurance reform
Overby said he supported the plan recently passed by the Senate to delay insurance rate hikes for four years to allow time to work on “real solutions.” He supports expanding the public option and more involvement by private insurers.
Sink said she had reached out to insurance companies and agents and well as local Realtors. She said she offered “four or five suggestions” on her website. She favors looking for solutions now and exploring what can be done with the private sector instead of “kicking the can down the road for four years.”
Jolly said Biggert-Waters flood reform is a “bad law today and it will be a bad law in four years.”
He favors use of private insurance and diversifying the risk pool.
“The answer is not in Washington. The answer is in the private sector. It is in Tallahassee,” he said.
Sink reminded Jolly that the National Flood Insurance Program was started due to a lack of private insurers.
Sink and Overby say they support immigration reform and a path to citizenship as proposed by a bipartisan Senate plan. Overby said he does not support parts of the plan that are too expensive.
Jolly does not support a path to citizenship. He said people who have broken the law should not be rewarded and suggested that something needed to be done about businesses that employ illegal workers.
“We can’t insult those who have done it (became a citizen) legally,” he said.
On the question of Social Security and Medicare benefits, Jolly admits something needs to be done; however, he does not support cutting benefits to those who are “vested in the program.”
He defines “vested” as having worked for 40 quarters, or 10 years. He does not advocate “long-term entitlement” for those not now in the system.
Overby did not favor Jolly’s approach. As 27-year-old, he asked who would end up paying. He said the plan would leave him without benefits. Jolly is 41 and Sink is 65. Overby favors other alternatives such as a voluntary program to drop out of the system as a charitable donation. He does not favor forcing people out.
“I will fight to support Medicare and Social Security,” Sink said.
She said she went on the program this year after paying in for 40 years. She said she didn’t want to worry that her 25-year-old daughter would not have access to health care when she is 65.
Student financial aid
One SPC student asked the candidates about what could be done to make education and financial aid more affordable. Overby said costs of education had gone up dramatically due in part to the subsidies. He said federal government should be less involved to allow colleges to become more competitive.
Sink said it was important for government to continue to invest in the future and ensure students have access to student aid. Jolly’s plan ties the cost of education to the success of the school.
“They’re offering a product to the students,” he said.
Jolly said he is “OK” with the state’s amendment on gay marriage because it is a matter “between the partners and their God.” Overby and Sink support gay marriage.
Overby supports the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms. Sink also is in support, but added more needed to be done to ensure adequate background checks. Jolly supports doing whatever must be done “to keep guns out of the hands of criminals.”
Sink supports raising the minimum wage. Overby is opposed. Jolly supports finding a suitable wage rate and then tying future raises to the cost index.
On a local issue, Jolly and Overby oppose light rail in Pinellas County. Sink is in favor.
The moderators brought up the subject of Jolly’s lobbyist activities against Social Security and for offshore drilling, which he said were not true. He said he worked to negotiate a ban against offshore drilling. He said he worked on a measure that would guarantee Social Security for everyone.
The candidates were asked if there were things in which they disagreed with their party. Sink said she disagreed with Obama’s plan to implement chain CPI, which would lower benefit amounts. Jolly said he disagrees with his party’s handling of flood insurance reform and changes to Social Security. Overby said the Libertarian Party was often “bullheaded and overzealous.” He said he was trying to find solutions for all, not just one part of the population.
Jolly and Overby oppose Common Core standards for education. Jolly believe education should be a decision made in the classrooms. Overby believes the closer education is to families the better. Sink believes standards are important to measure students who will be competing on a national and worldwide setting.
The candidates were asked one question on foreign policy: Would they support more aggressive military action in Syria? Sink said no.
“I don’t believe in putting more boots on the ground in a country where we don’t understand the dynamics,” she said.
Jolly said yes.
“(Bashar) Assad used chemical weapons to kill people and children,” he said. “We should have intervened right away.”
Overby said no. He said he had talked to Syrians right after the incident.
“Syrians didn’t want us interfering,” he said. “The U.S. going in and killing more people would not have helped.”
Whichever candidate is elected will have a short time to serve before they are up for reelection again in November. Sink said she would spend her time working with FEMA on flood insurance. Jolly agreed with Sink that flood insurance reform should be a priority. But he added that constituent service had to be a major task.
“Young served for 43 years and he took care of Pinellas County,” he said.
Overby said he would focus on simplifying the tax code and getting taxes and spending down.
“If flood insurance is on a four-year hold, it can wait,” he said. “I want to make sure to keep as much money in the pockets of the people as possible.”
Sink said she wanted to go to Washington to be the voice for Pinellas County.
“I would be honored to serve as your congresswoman,” she said.
Overby said he had spent a year working with the community to find out what they people want.
“I’m not part of the political machine,” he said. “I’m not part of a party I have to answer to. I can do what the people want.”
Jolly said it was not easy to put yourself up before the public when you run for office. He said he would take his core values to Washington.
“I want less regulation and less taxes for the people in Pinellas County.”