CLEARWATER — Jack Latvala will formally kick off his campaign for governor today promising something almost unprecedented in modern Florida history: He will be a governor focused entirely on the state’s future, not his own.
"Part of our problem in Tallahassee is we have government by people who are trying to move up the ladder all the time," said the Republican state senator who plans campaign stops in Hialeah, his hometown of Clearwater and Panama City.
"Whether it’s the legislators or the statewide elected officials, everybody keeps running for the next political office and they make decisions for what’s good for them and their election to the next office," Latvala, 65, told the Tampa Bay Times. "This is the last stop for Jack Latvala. I’m going to make decisions based on what’s right for the people of Florida and for the future of our state."
Conventional wisdom has it that Latvala is too moderate, too much of a compromising dealmaker, to win a primary in today’s GOP. Latvala, however, is anything but conventional.
Paunchy, bearded, short-tempered, blunt and prone to swearing, he is hardly straight out of central casting as a polished, TV-ready statewide candidate.
Nor does Latvala accept that moderate label so commonly stamped on him by people who have watched him champion environmental conservation, protect pensions and pay for public employees, or oppose a ballot initiative increasing Florida’s homestead tax exemption.
"I’m a conservative. I never voted for a tax increase. I voted for every tough-on-crime measure the entire time I’ve been in the Senate," said Latvala, who has served two stints in the Florida Senate, from 1994 to 2002 and then from 2010 through today. "I’ll put my voting record up against any Republican. Now, some people equate being a conservative to being anticonsumer or being antienvironment. I don’t."
He was the only Republican senator this year to vote against a proposed constitutional amendment raising the homestead exemption, which he called "ill-conceived" and "produced for political purposes for people trying to pander for votes."
"I don’t think it’s a tax cut; it’s redistribution," that he said will wind up increasing the tax burden on commercial property owners, renters, mobile home owners and countless other Floridians. "Let’s cut taxes for everybody."
Latvala owns a printing business in Largo and for years has advised Republican clients. He is known as perhaps the savviest and most effective legislator in Tallahassee — and also the one most likely to loudly chew out a colleague, lobbyist or reporter who has crossed him.
Getting things done is at the heart of his campaign platform, and he ticks off a host of challenges facing the state that require a leader with a record of results: infrastructure, public education, mental health, drug abuse, homelessness, serious pollution plaguing assorted Florida springs, the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee.
He has played a key role in many of the most complex issues facing the state and Tampa Bay region, including helping resolve his area’s bitter and long-standing "water wars," the "Florida Forever" land conservation program, pension reform, physical and economic protections for mobile home residents, education reform and implementing a voter-approved fishing net ban.
None of the other Republicans running or flirting with running for governor — U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of the Jacksonville area, House Speaker Richard Corcoran of Land O’Lakes and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam — can point to much tangible accomplishment, Latvala said.
"I don’t know congressman DeSantis, but I’m told by people who served with him that he just went and voted no on everything," he said of the tea party favorite. "I don’t know what he has accomplished."
He dismissed Putnam, 43, as "a fine young man" who has never demonstrated much leadership since he began his career in elective office at age 22. He questioned Putnam’s record protecting consumers over seven years as agriculture commissioner and noted that Florida’s citrus industry was hit hard under Putnam’s tenure.
"He can blame citrus greening, but have we attacked citrus greening like Jack Latvala would attack it?" he asked. "Jack Latvala would have thrown his heart and soul into an issue like that."
And Corcoran? Latvala can barely mask his contempt for the man.
"I’ve seen government by tweet, government by press release. Tear everything down and start over," he said, scoffing at the notion that Corcoran is a true conservative.
Latvala said that while Corcoran was working for the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers in the late 1990s, he was at the center of helping hammer out meaningful restrictions on lawsuits. This year, under Corcoran, "business was on the defense to the trial lawyers for the first time since I’ve been involved in Tallahassee. Does that make (Corcoran) a conservative, hanging around with the trial lawyers?"
What about Latvala’s less than genteel reputation, the many people who say he can be a jerk? Is that a fair assessment?
Yep, Latvala said, perfectly fair.
"But here’s the key to that: A lot of times people will say that about me, and they also say, ‘But he’s my a--h---.’ My constituents have traditionally liked having somebody like me. I’m going to get in people’s faces if I need to. I’ve probably moderated that a little in recent years, but sometimes you need to."
Contact Adam C. Smith at [email protected] Follow @AdamSmithTimes.