WASHINGTON -- U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, Florida’s most influential and longest-serving member of Congress, told the Tampa Bay Times on Wednesday that he has decided to retire when his term ends in 2014.
Young, 82, said there are several factors in why he won’t run for re-election including his health and his desire to spend more time with his family.
He recalled a conversation many years ago with Sen. John Stennis in which he asked the Mississippi Democrat when Young would know it’s time to retire.
"You’ll know when it’s time," Stennis told him.
Young, who has been in Walter Reed Medical Center since Friday because of a back injury, said he recently concluded that "it’s my time."
"Sen. Stennis gave me some very good advice. I’m taking that advice now," Young said in a telephone interview from the hospital.
Asked why he had decided it was time, Young said, "I don’t know that I would pick out one thing. It’s a lot of things. My family, my job, my rehabilitation from my back."
After talking with the Times, Young planned to call House Speaker John Boehner and give him the news.
Asked if the congressional gridlock was a factor, Young said, "I’m a little disappointed. It seems there’s too much politics. It’s a different Congress."
But he also said he appreciated the spirit of the Republican tea party members. "I love every one of these guys. They’re doing what they think is right. That’s what I did."
Young seemed increasingly out of step with the changing climate of Washington, a sharper brand of partisanship fed by a 24/7 news cycle and social media. In recent years he expressed frustration with tone, though Young seemed to adopt a harder edge at times and often voted in line with his party.
Young last week, however, broke with most Republicans and said he would vote for a budget resolution that did not attempt to dismantle the president’s signature health care reform law. In candid comments about the control the tea party had over Boehner, Young said in an interview: "He withstood the pressure for a long time. He finally has agreed to the outspoken minority of his conference. And they’re pretty much in charge right now."
Young’s announcement caps a 53-year career in which he rose from being one of a handful of Republicans in the Democrat-controlled Florida Senate to the chairman of the powerful U.S. House Appropriations Committee.
Young over his career brought hundreds of millions of dollars in earmarks back to the Tampa Bay area. He single-handedly built up a defense contracting industry in the area, creating jobs and stirring the economy. But he was also seen as an symbol of government spending gone amuck, the reigning king of political pork. Young was a frequent target of government watchdog groups, who pointed to his power and skill getting money as a need for reform.
The announcement scrambles the dynamics of the upcoming election. Young was almost a virtual lock for re-election — he’s dispatched opponent after opponent, usually with ease -— but the district has become more favorable to Democrats. Barack Obama won it in 2008 and 2012. The leading Democratic opponent is lawyer Jessica Ehrlich, but a race would be sure to attract other candidates and the county is home to a number of formidable Republicans.
Young said he will serve out his term and vowed that "I’m going to do the best I can for the next year and three months."
What about his plans after Congress? "I guess I’ve got to get another job," he said with a chuckle. "I’ve served in the Congress but I’ve never made a lot of money. My financial situation isn’t much different than when I came to Congress."
Republican names previously mentioned for his seat include former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, former Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard and Pinellas County commissioners Karen Seel and John Morroni.Young’s son, Bill Young II, has been openly considering running for a St. Petersburg state House seat next year.
Young has served with eight U.S. presidents and has overseen the full House appropriations committee and its defense subcommittee. When Republicans reclaimed the House in 2010, Speaker Boehner granted him a waiver from term limits on leadership posts to control the committee again. He still holds the post.
Young’s health has been an issue and an open question in recent years, issues he attributes to a plane crash in 1970 when he was serving as a state senator.
Young was returning to Tallahassee from a fundraising dinner in St. Petersburg when the small plane he was in went down. Traveling with Young was Tom Slade, who would later lead the state Republican Party, and Slade’s wife of four months, Corkey.
A report in the Evening Independent put it this way:
"The night was foggy and overcast. Visibility was poor. Young sensed something was wrong. Then the plane plunged into a field of small oak trees, about three miles short of the airport but directly on the approach lane."
A fire broke out in the tail section and Slade kicked open the emergency door, jumping out with his wife. Young dove on top of them. The pilot followed.
Then the plane exploded.
Badly hurt, Young went to his vacation home in the hills of North Carolina to recover. He fashioned the cane out of the root of a dogwood tree. Young was elected to Congress that November (1970) and he later lent the cane to Gerald Ford, then a congressman from Michigan, who used it when he had a hip replacement.
"He was walking with a puny little cane and I said, ‘Jerry, use mine,’" Young recalled in a 2011 interview with the Times.
Young, who had taken to carrying the cane again, had long overdue back surgery in summer 2011 and was dropped on the hospital floor in a follow-up visit, extending his rehabilitation.
Young, a long and passionate advocate for the military, made national news a year ago this month when he came out against the war in Afghanistan. His change of heart was triggered by the death of U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Matthew Sitton, who was killed with another paratrooper by an improved explosive device, or IED. The episode chilled Young because months earlier Sitton had emailed the lawmaker seeking help.
"As a brigade, we are averaging at a minimum an amputee a day from our soldiers because we are walking around aimlessly through grape rows and compounds that are littered with explosives," Sitton wrote. "The morale and alertness levels on our patrols are low and it is causing casualties left and right. … I am all for getting on the ground and fighting for my country when I know there is a desired end state and we have clear guidance of what needs to be done. But when we are told basically to just go walk around for a certain amount of time is not sitting well with me."
Young said he wants the troops to come home immediately, a dramatic departure not only from his past views but also from the views of most Republican leaders.
"I can’t find a whole lot right about what’s happening in Afghanistan," Young said during a 2012 congressional hearing in which he read Sitton’s email.
Young’s control of the congressional purse gave him influence with top military leaders and he was not afraid to use it — in ways large and small. Last year, Young and his wife Beverly took up the cause of a Marine Corps gunnery sergeant whose legs had been blown off by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. The young man had been stationed in Okinawa before going to Afghanistan, and he was still being charged for his living quarters there as well as for temporary housing in Maryland.
"We raised a little bit of a fuss," Young told the Times at the time, smiling.