Could Akins Upset in District 17 Primary?



Even before U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Okeechobee, announced he would not seek re-election, Port Charlotte activist Bill Akins had his eye on the seat. Now he’s in a race against two well-funded candidates from the most populous area of the district, but feels he has a greater understanding of the region’s needs than any establishment figures. “You ever hear of a guy named Eric Cantor? He outspent his primary opponent 40-to-1 and got his rear end handed to him,” Akins says. “It’s just about getting out to the people.”

Akins referenced an infamous 2014 primary in Virginia where Cantor, then majority leader for the U.S. House, lost a primary to Randolph-Macon College professor Dave Brat by 10 percentage points. Akins thinks he could pull a similar upset off against his well-known opponents this year. Akins is running against state Rep. Julio Gonzalez, R-Venice, and state Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, in the Republican primary. 

As of the end of March, Gonzalez raised $233,705 and Steube $63,550, while Akins had a more modest $10,848, he says his comes almost entirely from donors within the district. He took his opponents to task for hosting dinners as faraway as Miami, Tallahassee and even New York City. He’d like to see campaign finance reform requiring candidates raise their money from the area they want to represent. “By gosh, if you are taking money from out of the district, who will you be loyal too?,” he says. “You will be loyal to that money.”

A plurality of voters in the district live in Sarasota County—98,188 of the 338,675 to vote in the 2016 congressional election here hail from Sarasota. But the district spans eight other counties, and the second biggest chunk comes from Akins’ home county of Charlotte—93,280 voted in the 2016 election from there. In Charlotte, he’s won his share of media attention through community efforts like raising money for the Vietnam Wall of Southwest Florida, which opened in Punta Gorda in 2016.

Akins hopes to rally the outlier counties behind his message, while Steube and Gonzalez split the Sarasota County vote. “Sarasota and Venice, there should be a lot of money there, but we’re agricultural counties in the east and northeast,” Akins says. He’s been rallying support in Sebring, Lake Placid, Okeechobee and Arcadia.

In terms of platform, he knows his social conservative bona fides should stack up. He’s fiercely pro-gun; “My thing on the Second Amendment is that it should be the First Amendment,” he says. And he’s opposed to abortion except in cases when a mother’s life is at risk, and that means he does oppose exceptions for rape and incest. “I know people who were products of terrible things like that, and they ended up really good people of good character,”he says. “It would have been a waste for them not to make it into life. God has a plan.”

One policy area that separated him from Rooney, and which he expects will divide him from Steube, will be regulating Big Sugar and polices around protecting the Everglades. “The runoff going into Lake Okeechobee and into the Caloosahatchee River creates such a stink in the water down there. If you’ve ever seen that’s it’s terrible and we have go to get that straightened up,” he says. “I’m not an environmental nut, but we’ve got to be good stewards of the earth.” Yet, Akins says he’s not a “global warming nut.” “Mother Nature tends to heal herself,” he says. But to the degree leaders can help restore the Everglades, Akins says they should.

The Republican primary will be held Aug. 28. Democrats April Freeman and Bill Pollard face off in their own primary the same day. The two party nominees will then face one another on Nov. 6.

Photo courtesy Akins campaign. Bill Akins stops by Sharky's By The Pier while campaigning in Venice.

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