ST. PETERSBURG — Jack Latvala’s decision to resign Wednesday makes one thing certain: A state Senate district represented by arguably the most powerful man in the Senate is now going to be without any representation at all for the upcoming legislative session.
"Not just North Pinellas, but the entire Tampa Bay area, has lost an effective and influential voice," said Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos, a fellow Republican.
Republicans polled Wednesday preferred to leave the seat open until the November 2018 election. Democrats, though, were eager to mount a vigorous campaign to capture the seat whenever it may come up for grabs.
According to the Florida Department of State, a special election is required to be held if a state Senate seat comes open before the end of a term. But Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, a Democrat, acknowledged that the session will be over by the time anyone is seated.
"There are no good answers," Welch said.
State law requires 45 days for absentee voting before special elections, which could include a separate primary and general election. If the qualifying period is included, that would push the final election to at least 90 days from now and well past March 9, when the legislative session ends.
Welch said he thought Democrats could wage a strong effort to capture the seat, which covers northern Pinellas and western Pasco counties, but cautioned the district’s next senator needs to follow Latvala’s lead in fighting for local interests.
"One of the things that Sen. Latvala did was to stop some of the worst legislation that tried that to pre-empt local control," Welch said, referring to state laws that inhibit self-rule on an assortment of issues, ranging from guns, the minimum wage and taxes.
As of last year’s general election, the district leaned red with nearly 20,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats. About 70 percent of its 322,601 registered voters live in Pinellas County.
Former Clearwater City Council member and four-term state Rep. Ed Hooper, a Republican, has announced his intention to run. Democrat Bernie Fensterwald of Dunedin has also said he’ll run. So far, Hooper has a sizable fundraising lead, having raised nearly $360,000 and spending only about $31,000.
State Rep. Kathleen Peters said Hooper has the support of the Senate GOP leadership, which will likely discourage any serious intraparty challenger.
"Unless you’re going to self-fund for a $29,000-a-year position," she said. "With everything going on in the news right now, I don’t know how appealing it would be. The driver, though, is that you can really make a difference."
On Wednesday, Hooper said a special election would require a qualifying period, primaries and a general election that could push a final decision into April or May.
"I don’t know if there’s time to do that," said Hooper, who said he would run in a special election if one is called by Gov. Rick Scott.
As of late Wednesday, Scott hadn’t done that. The Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Office hadn’t heard from the governor’s office, said spokeswoman Julie Marcus.
Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, argued that keeping the seat vacant with Latvala’s staff continuing to provide constituent service made the most sense.
"My sense is just keep the seat open. Obviously, there’s no time to have a special election in time for session. And there is very little value in being the senator from July to November. A special session is very unlikely this late in the cycle," Brandes said.
Brandes said he would be happy to help Latvala’s office conduct the district’s business.
Pinellas County Republican chairman Nick DiCeglie didn’t return a call for comment, but Pinellas County Democratic chairwoman Susan McGrath said recent polling has shown a favorable district climate for her party.
The North Pinellas Democratic Club had just a handful of members a year ago. On Tuesday, a couple of hundred people showed up for a meeting, McGrath said.
On the heels of Mayor Rick Kriseman’s hard-fought win over Rick Baker in St. Petersburg, Pinellas Democrats are energized, she said.
"It’s also a year where women are expected to perform well politically. If ever there was a year for women candidates, this is shaping up to be that year," McGrath said.
Two politically experienced woman have surfaced as possible Democratic candidates: former state Rep. Amanda Murphy of New Port Richey and Dunedin Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski.
Murphy didn’t return a call for comment. Bujalski said she was flattered but hadn’t considered the race.
"It’s not something that’s floating around in my head at this point," Bujalski said. "But I never say never."
Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.