In the high-stakes gamble for control of the Florida Senate, Sen. Joe Negron of Palm Beach and the Treasure Coast has the better hand, but plenty of people in Pinellas County are still betting on Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater.
Latvala said he raised $250,000 at a Tuesday luncheon for the Florida Leadership Committee, his fundraising machine to elect fellow Republicans to the Senate. Donations ranged from $200 to $10,000, and 400 people showed up, including much of the Pinellas power structure that supports Latvala’s bid to become Senate president in 2016.
The last Senate president from Pinellas was John Stansel Taylor, a citrus grower known as “the father of Pinellas County,” in 1925.
By coincidence, Latvala’s lunch came a week after Negron, R-Stuart, released the names of 14 Republican senators pledged to vote for him, enough to ensure victory in a vote by the 26-member caucus in December.
Latvala wants the caucus vote to be delayed, however, because of the looming uncertainty caused by the Senate’s admission that its current map of districts was illegally gerrymandered and must be redone in October.
The new map could create a massive political upheaval and put any number of senators’ political fate at risk.
In the crowd at Latvala’s event were entrepreneur Bill Edwards, former St. Petersburg mayor Rick Baker, lobbyist David Rancourt and state Sens. Nancy Detert, Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, Rene Garcia, Denise Grimsley, Alan Hays, John Legg and David Simmons.
Latvala emphasized his party loyalty, telling the assembly: “I love my Republican Party … I have never been anything but a Republican.”
Pushing back on Negron supporters who spread word that Latvala could strike a deal with Democrats to win the post, Latvala noted he has been working to elect Republicans for 46 years.
Yet, he did not rule out the possibility of a coalition presidency with Democrats.
“I don’t think we can push away Hispanics and blacks and gays and union members and still have a majority made up mostly of white men,” Latvala told supporters. “That’s what I stand for and that’s why a lot of people target me — because I’m a little different.”
He added: “There will be a Republican president of the Senate in 2016… I guarantee that.”
Despite their ongoing battle in the political trenches, Negron appeared with Latvala at Senate Republican events in the Florida Keys on Tuesday and Wednesday.
As for Latvala’s event, Negron said: “Any money that any Republican senator is raising to maintain or increase our majority, I’m happy for them.”
Negron, Latvala and other senators control separate political committees that can collect contributions in unlimited amounts, often from powerful interests with a stake in legislation in Tallahassee.
The money is used to support campaigns that expand a lawmaker’s influence.
Latvala’s event also may have served a second purpose — as a warning shot aimed at Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, a Negron ally.
The host committee for Latvala’s lunch included Pinellas’ sheriff, state attorney, public defender, tax collector, clerk of court and a number of county commissioners and past and present legislators.
Amid intense uncertainty over the upcoming remapping of Senate districts, it has been speculated that Latvala and Brandes may be forced to run against each other next year in the same district, which could force Latvala to focus more time and energy on his own survival.
Latvala’s current district is entirely in Pinellas, but Brandes’ district crosses Tampa Bay from Pinellas to Hillsborough. The Florida Supreme Court criticized a similar cross-bay configuration of a congressional district held by U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa.
Latvala’s invitation was to a “countdown luncheon,” one year from the 2016 primary election — a date that could yet find Latvala and Brandes staring down each other for political survival.
“It may be a little early,” said Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, a member of the Senate Reapportionment Committee. “A lot can happen.”