The presidential race (and the race for Olympic gold) may be grabbing all the headlines, but Florida has a primary coming up Aug. 14, and it’s important no matter what party you identify with.
Consider the intense GOP battle in Senate District 22. Democrats can’t vote in this one, but they should certainly care about who wins; the results could determine the future direction of Tallahassee for many years to come.
And that’s not the only contest of interest. Others include a sheriff’s race in Pinellas that’s too close to call; two Republican campaigns that revolve around one candidate’s sexual indiscretion; and two Democrats vying for one unsexy but very significant position in Hillsborough.
Jeff Brandes vs. Jim Frishe
FL Senate District 22
The newly redrawn district covers a wide and politically diverse swath of Tampa Bay, from the south Pinellas beaches through St. Petersburg to South Tampa and part of Northeastern Hillsborough. Democrat Charlie Justice held the seat for four years (when it was District 16), but he opted not to run for re-election in 2010. Jack Latvala made his return to Tallahassee by winning the seat back for the Republicans.
With re-districting, Latvala has opted to run for a safer Senate seat in North Pinellas. Now two Pinellas GOP state Representatives, veteran Jim Frishe and relative newcomer Jeff Brandes, are fighting each other to fill the vacuum in District 22.
No local race has seen more money thrown at it from outside groups. Why? Because it’s a proxy vote on the future of Latvala, who wants to be Senate President in 2016. Frishe is an ally and supports Latvala in that role; Brandes is uncommitted.
Why is that important? Well, not only would Latvala’s election in Tallahassee give power and attention to the Tampa Bay area, but his moderate brand of ideology is increasingly in short supply in Tally, particularly with term limits ending the Senate careers of other moderates like Paula Dockery and Mike Fasano (who is running for a House seat this year).
“Jack Latvala represents some element of a voice of reason and common sense that for whatever reason, evades the Tallahassee Republican establishment,” says Bay News 9 commentator Chris Ingram. “More often than not, he’s kind of a maverick if you will, and the establishment would call him a rabble-rouser. He’s just a guy legitimately representing his constituents, but also trying to do the right thing.”
Blogger Peter Schorsch agrees, saying the ascension of Latvala is “as important a political development as there is right now in Florida politics,” mentioning his stances on the environment, prison privatization and other issues.
The Frishe-Brandes race is also a metaphor for Florida Democrats’ desultory position in 2012. Although the seat was held by a Democrat (Justice) as recently as two years ago, the combined talents of the Hillsborough and Pinellas Democratic parties were able to field exactly nobody to run against the eventual GOP winner.
Bob Gualtieri vs. Everett Rice
The most exciting Republican–against-Republican faceoff in Pinellas pits incumbent Sheriff Robert Bob Gualtieri against former Sheriff Everett Rice, who in the eight years since he stepped down has seemingly gone all Tea Party.
Or that’s how it sometimes appeared from comments he made on the campaign trail this summer.
To hear Rice tell it, he was content in retirement, with no desire to return to the job or the salary that comes with it. But he got his dander up when former Sheriff Jim Coats stepped down a year ago and anointed his top deputy (Gaultieri) to take over.
“It angered a lot of people,” Rice told CL last week. “I got probably hundreds of calls from people asking that I come back. That’s disrespectful of the office of sheriff and the voters to do that.”
Rice did win the endorsements of the Sun Coast PBA and local Fraternity of Police, but his reputation suffered when it was revealed that he had signed a pledge with the Oath Keepers, a conservative “Patriots” organization that has evolved alongside the Tea Party movement. The Times’ Peter Jamison reported on the Oath Keepers pledge, as well as connections between Rice and other voices of the far right. Jamison asked Rice whether he thought President Obama’s birth certificate was valid, and the candidate’s response was noncommittal: “‘I don’t know,’ Rice said. ‘I mean, I suppose it is.’” But Rice then dismissed the whole topic, as he continues to do now.
“As I said, ‘Peter, I’ve never had an issue with the president’s birth certificate. It’s a non-issue in this race, it’s a non-issue to me. He’s our president, and let’s move on.”
Now, says Rice, he’s unfairly gotten the reputation of being “some kind of right-wing birther.” Still, questions about the Oath Keepers connection are apt, given the fact that the group’s members say they will never obey certain orders they consider unconstitutional. When asked about that pledge, Rice defuses it by invoking Rosa Parks, saying a law preventing blacks from sitting wherever they want on a bus would be a law that he’d be willing to break — not that that’s an issue in 2012.
Gualtieri is the establishment choice, backed by Mayor Bill Foster, local sheriffs like David Gee in Hillsborough and Grady Judd in Polk County and the Tampa Bay Times editorial page.
He’s most vulnerable regarding reports that a police investigation of home-grown pot operations resulted in an internal affairs probe that led to three officers resigning and a fourth being fired. As a result, prosecutors dropped 18 pending drug cases, compared with three during Rice’s time in office.
That’s led to criticism from Rice and the Democrat in the race, Scott Swope, that Gualtieri has been obsessed with pot growers while neglecting the pill mill crisis. The current sheriff objects strenuously to that characterization.
“These are not investigations into people who have a pot plant on the windowsill and they’re smoking it on Saturday night,” he says. “These are investigations into people who have sophisticated grow operations.”
Gualtieri also downplays the police endorsements that went against him, saying the turnout for the FOP survey was extremely light. But he acknowledges there is discontent in the ranks. Many in the department haven’t had a raise for five years, some have had their shifts adjusted to 12 hour days from 8, and 70 positions have been cut in recent years.
Ronda Storms vs. Rob Turner
Property Appraiser, Hillsborough
A job like property appraiser can be a pretty sweet gig as long as you do the job competently. Rob Turner was elected in 1996 and breezed through re-election three times since — but his re-election campaign infrastructure collapsed this spring when it was revealed that he’d been sending his human resources director racy emails for years before firing her the day the story went public.
In came Ronda Storms. Although controversial throughout her term as a county commissioner, her reputation has been enhanced in recent years in Tallahassee as a state Senator representing Eastern Hillsborough County. She said she was disgusted when she read about Turner’s risqué communications, saying, “I believe that a woman needs to be one to step up and say, ‘This is not acceptable.’ This is not an acceptable response to female employees. This is not an acceptable response as a public official.”
A recent straw poll taken at a Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce event does not portend well for Turner. He lost not only to Storms but to Democrat Bob Henriquez.
Rank this race as one where Hillsborough Dems could make a breakthrough this fall, as Henriquez, a moderate from West Tampa, has already received the endorsement of the Tampa Bay Builders Association.
Craig Latimer vs. Tom Scott
Supervisor of Elections, Hillsborough
With Earl Lennard retiring, his top aide, Craig Latimer, is running against former County Commissioner and City Councilmember Thomas Scott in the only truly competitive Democratic race in Hillsborough.
Latimer has been endorsed by both the Tribune and the Times. He became a hero of sorts to Democrats earlier this year when he told CL that his office had voluntarily stopped the purging of non-citizen voters after the office found repeated instances of U.S. citizens being erroneously included on the lists.
Scott is the underdog. Never a great fundraiser, he trails significantly in that department next to Latimer ($62, 296 for Latimer at the end of June, $18,671 for Scott).
In an interview last week, Scott sounded frustrated at the perception that Latimer is the incumbent, when in fact he’s never run for public office before. When asked if Latimer’s nearly four years of experience as the #2 to Lennard gave him an edge, Scott said absolutely not, referring to the fact that the most recently successful SOEs in Hillsborough, Phyllis Busansky and Pam Iorio, were elected officials like himself, and did not come directly from the SOE’s office. (Neither did Buddy Johnson, but let’s not go there.)
Scott seized on a report that approximately 166 absentee ballots mailed out in New Tampa last week omitted a Democratic House race, saying of Latimer, “He’s saying we’ve run flawless elections, there’s never been any problems. According to this article, there is.”
Latimer has said that the mistake was corrected.
Rachel Burgin vs. Tom Lee
FL Senate District 24
If the Frishe-Brandes race may pull in the most soft money, this race is being called one of the dirtiest, after a flier landed in district mailboxes comparing Lee with Rob Turner (apparently the lowest figure imaginable in Hillsborough politics, now that Kevin White is in jail and Jim Norman is looking for a job in the private sector).
The ad refers to how Lee “abandoned his marriage for a gambling lobbyist” and is now married to another woman, stating, “Three women in 10 years. Are these the values of the Republican Party?”
Burgin stands by the mailer. GOP political consultant April Schiff says that in the most conservative Senate district in the state, slamming an opponent for a perceived lack of family values could have resonance.
But Tom Lee is a respected member of the legislature. Before he lost his race for CFO to Alex Sink in 2006, he had been the Florida Senate president. Then again, he also has the reputation for being — watch out — a moderate.
“They don’t embrace moderates out there,” April Schiff says of Eastern Hillsborough, but she quickly adds that the Florida GOP itself “has gone so far to the right that a primary battle makes it very difficult for someone who’s not a far right Republican.”
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Adrian Wyllie was not mentioned. He is running for Governor.
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