ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Rep. Bill Young of Florida, the senior Republican in the U.S. House and a defense hawk who was influential on military spending during his 43 years in Washington, died Friday. He was 82.
His chief of staff, Harry Glenn, said in an email that Young died at 6:50 p.m. at Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where he had been for nearly two weeks with back problems that stemmed from a 1970 small plane crash. The email included a statement from Young's family, saying relatives were with Young when he died from complications related to a chronic injury.
On Oct. 9, from his hospital bed, Young announced that his current 22nd term would be his last and he wouldn't seek re-election in 2014.
The congressman was a longtime member of the House Appropriations Committee, where he focused on military spending. He and his wife frequently visited ailing service members at hospitals in the Washington area.
First elected to the House in 1970, Young was one of the strongest supporters in Congress of defense. So he made headlines in 2012 when he said the United States should withdraw its forces from Afghanistan. Young told The Associated Press at the time that "we're killing kids who don't need to die," and reflected the growing weariness with a conflict that had dragged on for more than a decade.
Young, who had been involved in Florida politics since 1957, was considered the elder statesman of the state's Republican Party and in the U.S. House of Representatives.
In recent years, Young became increasingly frail and relied on a wheelchair. He was quoted by The Tampa Tribune recently as saying that his decision to retire was based on both his health and a desire to spend more time with his family.
According to the newspaper, the congressman received a call Wednesday from former President George W. Bush, who thanked Young for his support of the military.
As news of Young's death spread, tributes poured in from political leaders, including President Barack Obama.
"He will be remembered for his advocacy and support for the armed forces, service members, and their families as well as his statesmanship and long history of working across the aisle to keep our country moving forward," Obama said in a statement.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, also remembered Young in a statement.
"It's only been a week since we began trying to imagine the House without Bill Young - an impossible task in its own right - and now he is gone," Boehner said. "In our sorrow, we recall how not a day went by without a colleague seeking Bill's counsel as he sat on his perch in the corner of the House floor. Looking out for our men and women in uniform was his life's work, and no one was better at it. No one was kinder, too."
Florida Gov. Rick Scott said in a written statement, "Ann and I join all Floridians as we mourn the passing of Representative Bill Young. As Florida's longest serving member of Congress, Bill will be remembered as a true statesman and champion for the Tampa Bay area."
Former Gov. Charlie Crist lives in a part of St. Petersburg that used to be in Young's district before the lines were redrawn. During his time as governor, Crist said he considered Young for a U.S. Senate appointment, though ultimately chose someone else.
"He was an absolute giant in Florida politics," Crist said. "He was a true gentleman, kind to all."
Florida Republican Party Chairman Lenny Curry said Young "always stood up for the Sunshine State and fought for the best interests of its citizens."
His counterpart, state Democratic Party Chair Allison Tant said in a statement that for more than 40 years, "Young's dedication to Florida and consistent civility has set the standard for all of Florida public servants."
Charles William Young was born in Harmarville, Pa., and later moved to Indian Shores, Fla., a small Gulf Coast community in Pinellas County.
He served in the Army National Guard from 1948 to 1957, then became an aide to U.S. Rep. William Cramer from 1957 to 1960. From 1961 to 1971, he served in the Florida Senate.
Young and his wife, Beverly, had three children.
Young brought hundreds of millions of dollars in earmarks back to the Tampa Bay area, and built up a defense contracting industry in the region, creating jobs and stirring the economy.
"His loss is a great one for his constituents," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said in a statement. "For over 13 years, I considered Bill to be a dear friend and a colleague that could always be counted on to provide sage advice based on decades of experience. The U.S. House of Representatives is a better institution as a result of his leadership."
Young's district, which encompasses almost all of densely populated Pinellas County, was already expected to be up for grabs in the 2014. His death makes it likely that Democrats will pour additional resources into the race. A special election will be held to finish his term.
According to the Florida Secretary of State's office, the district is composed of 37.7 percent Republicans, 35.2 percent Democrats, 23.2 percent independents. The rest are registered with other parties.
Jessica Ehrlich has already declared her candidacy for 2014 and had raised nearly $154,000 as of July. Young's wife has told local media that she would run for the seat if Ehrlich's name is on the ballot.
Alex Sink, a prominent Democrat who ran in 2010 for governor against Rick Scott, has also expressed interest in Young's seat.