2 generations aid each other politically — and walk a fine line on Gulf drilling

By Hannah Northey | 07/14/2015 07:24 AM EDT

Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.) warmed up a large crowd on the sunny beaches of Clearwater, Fla., in late 2008 for GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin by starting off with a familiar Republican chant: "Drill, baby, drill!"

Gas prices that summer were on an upward march toward $4 a gallon just as an election was in full swing, and Palin was out campaigning for Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we should be drilling in [the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge]," Bilirakis shouted to the energetic group of Palin supporters. "Drill, baby, drill! Drill, baby, drill! Drill, baby, drill!"

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What the congressman didn’t call for was oil production off his own state’s shores in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, a prickly issue for Florida Republicans weighing domestic energy production with the deep-rooted, regional concerns over the health of the sandy white beaches that draw in tens of millions of tourists — and billions of dollars in revenue — each year.

Instead, Bilirakis called for offshore drilling on the other side of the globe.

"Florida Republicans, no matter how conservative they are, tend to be more pro-environment than other Republicans in Deep South states, because Florida’s economy is tied to the coast and the water," said Susan MacManus, a political campaign expert and professor at the University of South Florida.

MacManus said Bilirakis’ position reflects the region’s link to tourism and water, noting that the majority of Floridians live within 10 miles of the coast. Bilirakis’ district includes Tarpon Springs, the most highly concentrated Greek community in the United States, with about 23,000 people on the Gulf Coast, where tourism, fishing and beachside sunsets are king. But MacManus added that if the economy is down and gas prices are soaring, polls in Florida reflect support for offshore drilling.

The 52-year-old congressman’s father, Michael Bilirakis — a former lawyer, trained petroleum engineer and 12-term congressman who represented the south Florida district before his son won the seat in 2006 — balanced the same competing priorities.

The elder Bilirakis, now retired at the age of 84, said during an interview that his childhood home in Tarpon Springs was "right smack on the Gulf," where he watched the sun set on the dock each night. He grew up understanding the importance of protecting the coast but decided to push for rules to ensure safe oil production as opposed to stopping the process altogether.

"You had personal philosophies, but at the same time you have to represent your district; that’s what the Republic is all about," he said. "There needed to be rules set up, limitations. We had high prices in gas. … We wanted to become energy independent and not dependent on the Middle East."

Today, the issue of offshore drilling in Florida is a hot political topic at the center of upcoming presidential elections, putting Republican presidential candidates like former Sunshine State Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio in the spotlight.

For his part, the younger Bilirakis says he supports a ban Congress instituted in 2006 to block offshore oil production within at least 125 miles of the Florida coast. The moratorium is set to expire in 2022. He’s even considering supporting legislation that Rep. David Jolly (R-Fla.), who represents an adjoining Gulf Coast district, introduced to extend the ban through 2027.

"In my opinion, we have to contribute [to energy production] to a certain extent, but there has to be common ground there. We have the best beaches in the world," Gus said during a recent interview. "I’m the kind of guy that wants to get in the room and work with both sides. I agree with the moratorium that was placed on there until 2022."

‘A pretty easy transition’

Gus Bilirakis credits himself with launching his father’s political career in the 1980s. In doing so, he also got his first taste of politics and paved his own path to Washington, D.C.

When Gus was a teenager, he, along with friends, associates and residents of the newly formed 9th District, persuaded his father to take on his first congressional race in 1982. His father was born in Tarpon Springs and had earned a bachelor’s degree in petroleum engineering from the University of Pittsburgh and a law degree from the University of Florida. He also served in the Air Force during the Korean War.

But while the bulk of Michael Bilirakis’ career was spent as an attorney, he had no political experience. "I really had no political aspirations, but Gus decided, as did quite a few hundred people in the area, that I should run," he recalled.

Michael said he looks back fondly on his son’s persistence as a political campaigner, reminiscing about the time when his main opponent in the race wanted a break from the political sign wars and took his family to an island off Florida’s coast for a vacation. "When he got to the island off the coast here, the first thing he saw was a Bilirakis sign," he said. "[My son] did a fantastic job."

"I put up all the signs with my friends, it was wonderful," Gus recalled. "I thought he’d be good at it, and I knew he was in it for the right reasons, kind of a policy wonk. He wasn’t a showboat or anything like that. I knew that he would get things done. And for selfish reasons, too, because … back then I was fascinated with the politics."

Michael would go on to represent Florida’s 9th District for the next 24 years — re-elected 13 times with bigger and bigger margins in the largely Republican district.

But his son also had big political aspirations.

At the tender age of 6, Gus was already thinking about getting ahead, his father said. "We named him Gus when he was born, and he made the comment a few years after that Gus was a good political name," the elder Bilirakis said.

In college, Gus interned in the White House for President Reagan and later served as a congressional staffer for former Republican Rep. Don Sundquist, who would go on to serve as the governor of Tennessee. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida and a law degree from Stetson University.

After 16 years working as a lawyer, Gus was elected to his first of four terms in the Florida House in 1998. In 2006, after his father announced he was stepping down, he ran for his congressional seat, facing only token opposition in the GOP primary and winning the general election by 12 points. He has had easy re-election races since, though he’s now representing the 12th District thanks to redistricting.

Name recognition helped pave the way for the younger Bilirakis to make his political jump, said Darryl Paulson, professor emeritus of political science at University of South Florida. Gus touted the relationship he had with his father, appeared on the ballot as Gus Michael Bilirakis and raised money from many political action committees that supported his father, who had a seat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Gus would follow in his father’s footsteps even after he secured a spot in Congress.

Like his father, he was given a seat on three different House Energy and Commerce subcommittees and has championed Greek causes on the Foreign Affairs Committee. He also serves on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

"It was a pretty easy transition; his father had been in the position for 20 years," Paulson said. "There’s nothing better for a candidate than to have name recognition."

‘Playing to the constituency’

The Bilirakis father and son have taken nuanced and at times controversial positions as they balance the national Republican Party’s call for more domestic energy production with protecting Florida’s coastlines — and their constituent base.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Democrats and Republicans in the Sunshine State stood united against offshore drilling, especially in the wake of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, said Mark Ferrulo, executive director of Progress Florida, a progressive group based in St. Petersburg.

"Drilling was like one of the third-rail issues in Florida politics," Ferrulo said. "You didn’t want to harm Social Security or support drilling if you wanted to be elected in Florida. It was a united front against drilling."

In 2001, Michael even co-sponsored legislation, H.R. 1631, to bar all offshore drilling for oil off Florida’s coastlines.

Adam Putnam, Jeb Bush and Michael Bilirakis
Then-Reps. Michael Bilirakis (right) and Adam Putnam flank then-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush during a 2005 hurricane emergency response management forum in Tampa. | Photo by Steve Nesius, courtesy of AP Images.

But that united front began to crumble in the mid-2000s when Florida saw a consistent upward march in gas prices and fears began to grow that the United States was too reliant on foreign countries for energy. Support for domestic drilling crept up considerably in 2005 and 2006 in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which devastated the Gulf Coast and knocked out infrastructure.

In 2005, Michael drew the scorn of the League of Conservation Voters after voting to allow drilling at 100 to 125 miles off Florida’s coasts — a position he shared with former Gov. Bush.

"The flip-flops keep coming with Rep. Bilirakis joining the team," then-LCV Florida campaign manager Shirin Bidel-Niyat said in a statement. "It appears that Rep. Bilirakis would rather side with Big Oil, Gov. Bush and anti-environmental legislators in Congress who want to erect drilling rigs off the state’s coast, than the majority of Floridians who want to protect their beaches and coastal communities from the threat of an oil spill."

A year later, Congress instituted a ban on drilling within at least 125 miles of the Florida coast but extended a moratorium on drilling in other portions of water off Florida’s coast through 2022.

The elder Bilirakis in a recent interview said he felt he needed to protect the state’s coastlines with rules and regulations for drilling while fostering domestic energy production.

Gus also showed a willingness to compromise, and his office maintains the congressman has remained consistent over the years.

"As co-chairman of the Travel and Tourism Caucus, Congressman Bilirakis knows the value in preserving the integrity of Florida’s main industry — tourism — a multibillion-dollar boon which attracts beachgoers and recreational fishermen from all over the world," said Ian Martorana, a spokesman for Bilirakis. "Any disruption, such as 2010’s Deepwater Horizon spill, to our fragile ecosystem and struggling economy could be catastrophic."

In 2011, a year after the deadly Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion that killed 11 workers and caused the release of an estimated 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf, the younger Bilirakis signaled his support for offshore drilling with limitations.

Specifically, he backed legislation that directed the Department of the Interior to move forward with oil and gas leases in Sale 218, the last remaining Western Gulf Planning Area sale scheduled in the 2007-12 Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Natural Gas Leasing Program. The area included 3,913 unleased blocks covering more than 21 million acres up to 250 miles offshore.

Ferrulo said the father’s and son’s votes reflect reaction to a "backyard issue" that’s both economic and emotional, but quickly pointed out that Gus as a Republican is vulnerable to pressure from the petroleum lobby and House leadership. The congressman, he noted, has voted to approve the Keystone XL pipeline almost a dozen times.

"Tarpon Springs is a fishing town, the Gulf is what makes Tarpon Springs. They’re playing to the constituency," he said. "But [Gus Bilirakis] would vote for the Keystone pipeline without thinking twice, … Any pressure from his leadership and the petroleum lobby generally would get traction. Any issue other than putting rigs in his own backyard."

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