Few Florida politicians have had a more dominant impact on their home state and region than U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, who died Friday night at age 82 halfway through his 22nd term in the U.S. House.
Marks of Young’s work extend across the Tampa-St. Petersburg region from the University of South Florida through MacDill Air Force Base to the Bay Pines VA Medical Center and the Pinellas County beaches.
But he may be best known for his and his wife’s devotion to the cause of U.S. service members, particularly wounded combat troops.
“He will be remembered as a passionate advocate for the welfare of America’s service members and military veterans,” said a statement from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Friday. “Though his loss will be felt by many, his legacy and commitment to a strong national defense will always inspire us.”
“Largely because of Bill Young, many of our nation’s brave men and women in uniform have called Florida home at some point in their careers, with many of them spending their golden retirement years here,’’ U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio said in a statement. “Throughout Bill’s career, our military and veterans have had no greater champion than him.’’
Young was surrounded by family members when he died Friday evening at the Walter Reed Military Medical Center in Maryland, according to a statement from his family. Services have not yet been set.
Young had been hospitalized two weeks ago for the most recent of numerous surgeries over the years to correct chronic back problems, which stemmed from injuries in the crash of a small plane in 1970.
“He accomplished more in his life than most could ever dream of,” said his son, Bill Young II. “He was a soldier, a statesman, a leader, a friend, father, and a grandfather. This world will never see another like him.”
Young was born in 1930 in Harmarville, Pa., a “dirt-poor Pennsylvania coal town,” and grew up in a family abandoned by his father, “in a shotgun shack that was swept down a river when he was 6,” according to the National Journal’s 2002 Almanac of Politics.
The family moved to Florida when he was 15.
He dropped out of high school to support his sick mother hauling concrete blocks and mixing mortar, but after nine years in the Army National Guard, got a job at age 25 selling insurance and eventually ran a successful insurance agency.
In Congress, Young earned a reputation for a moderate-to-conservative voting record with interest in health and medical research as well as defense issues, and for constituent services.
The accomplishment Young was proudest of, said Clearwater George Cretekos, formerly a long-time member of Young’s congressional staff, was the 1986 creation of a national bone marrow registry program founded by Young and his wife Beverly.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Cretekos said, recalling a visit with Young and Beverly to All Children’s Hospital where they met a child who needed a marrow transplant.
“Bev asked the doctor on the way out, ‘What can we do to save this kid’s life?’ “ and the doctor said a registry was needed to find and match donors unrelated to the patients.
Beverly Young turned to her husband. “You’re a big congressman, do something about it,” Cretekos recalled.
When the National Institutes of Health declined because the procedure was still experimental, Cretekos said, Young worked through the Navy to establish the registry.
Young’s website lists that project and his work as former chairman of the Appropriations Committee, starting in 1998, to double federal medical research funding over five years, as his major achievements in office, along with “improving the quality of life of the men and women” in the military and veterans; meeting needs of his district for transportation improvements and high-tech jobs; protecting MacDill Air Force Base; ensuring a water supply for the region, and repairing beach erosion.
The list of earmarked federal projects Young brought home to his district -- and to Hillsborough County, which he didn’t officially represent but where local officials depended on him as if he did -- literally fills pages. As the most senior Republican in the U.S. House, and with his influential chairmanship of the defense subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, Young was a powerful force for years for the benefit of his home turf.
A few highlights:
• $21 million that was key in opening a new headquarters for U.S. Central Command at MacDill in November 2011.
• Billions of dollars over the years for Pinellas-based defense contractors based in Pinellas County, such as Raytheon, Honeywell and Draper Labs.
• Several defense programs at the University of South Florida, including more than $16.6 million since 2008 for developing countermeasures to chemical and biological weapons, cancer clinical trials and education programs.
• More than $15.8 million since 2008 for health care and training programs, an antidrug task force and the developing a National Terrorism Preparedness Institute at St. Petersburg College.
• Millions for transportation projects throughout the area, including money to rebuild the Sunshine Skyway after the old bridge collapsed in 1980.
Young announced a week ago that he wouldn’t run for re-election to the House seat he’s held since 1970, setting off a flurry of activity by potential candidates to replace him.
Under Florida law, Gov. Rick Scott will set dates for special primary and general elections to fill Young’s seat. Scott has wide latitude to choose the dates -- the law requires only two-week periods between the end of qualifying and the primary election, and between the primary and general election.
There was no immediate word Friday night from Scott’s office on setting the dates.
Politically, Young was virtually unchallengeable, and almost unchallenged, for almost 44 years in his House seat.
He was the last active member of a small group that organized the Pinellas County Republican Party in the 1950s, an effort duplicated quickly thereafter in other counties around the state as Florida began the transition from part of the Democratic South to the swing state it is today.
Starting in the mid-1950s, Young became part of what newspapers including The Tampa Tribune called “the ICY machine,” from the initials of Young, Jack Insco and William C. Cramer, the leading pioneer of organized Republicanism in Florida.
Cramer had begun organizing the Pinellas GOP after World War II, taking advantage of the influx of northeastern and midwestern retirees, many of them Republicans at heart but registered Democratic because there were no Republicans to vote for, said retired University of South Florida-St. Petersburg political scientist Darryl Paulson.
“The ICY machine had almost complete sway over the local party, controlling candidate recruitment and fundraising,” said Paulson, a Republican who interviewed Young and Cramer extensively in researching the history of the state GOP. “But nobody was too upset because it was hard to argue with their success.”
Cramer won the U.S. House seat in 1954 -- it then included all of Pinellas and part of Pasco and Hillsborough Counties -- while Young won a state Senate seat from Pinellas in 1960.
Initially, he was the only Republican in the state Senate -- he had unseated the previous lone Republican in winning the seat.
“He was minority leader because he voted for himself,” Paulson joked.
Young accomplished little legislatively at first, Paulson said, but that doesn’t mean he kept quiet.
Among other things, he vocally fought the state teachers’ union over school funding and fought unsuccessfully against the “Pork Chop Gang” of rural, often-corrupt Democrats who used gerrymandering to dominate government over the rapidly growing urban areas.
With no political clout, he took his dissent public, regularly convening the “Bill and Don Show” with House minority leader Donald Reed to tell reporters what they thought the ruling Democrats were doing wrong. His criticisms were not always polite or successful.
Young was forced to apologize to Secretary of State Tom Adams for accusing Adams of steering state business to a friend; rebuked for sending a funeral wreath to powerful House Speaker Mallory Horne on the House floor when legislation Horne had favored was killed; and called “sneaky” by then-state Sen. Sam Gibbons, a Tampa Democrat, in a fight over a bill to ban pumping water from Hillsborough to Pinellas.
Gibbons later became the only Florida U.S. House member with seniority and influence comparable to Young’s.
Young also participated in an unsavory chapter of legislative history as a member of the Florida Legislative Investigative Committee, better known as the Johns Committee after its first chairman. The committee, modeled after the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee of the Joe McCarthy era, sought to root out homosexuals and communists in state universities, occasionally hounding and persecuting veteran faculty members.
When Cramer ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1970, Young was a natural to take over the House seat and began the tenure that eventually led to him becoming the longest-serving Republican in the House.
“He has faced no challenger for re-election half the time, and marginal challengers the rest of the time,” Paulson said. “Most of them got creamed.”
His political career has not been without controversy.
He’s been criticized for directing millions in federal contracts to a defense contractor where his son Patrick Young, 25, works, and to a forensic science center in Seminole, where 28-year-old Billy Young works. The congressman defended the contracts as based on merit, not nepotism.
As news spread Friday of Young’s death, tributes came pouring in. Most mentioned his dedication to veterans’ causes, and many pointed out his connection to a time when Congress operated with more civility.
“When I think of Bill Young, I think of diplomacy,” said former Republican U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite. “I think of respect. I think of a true Southern gentleman.”
“Bill Young represented what a public servant should be,’’ said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, “Country before party, progress before partisanship, and service above self.’’
Reporters Anastasia Dawson, Howard Altman and Jose Patino Girona contributed to this report.