The most important player in the Republican primary to succeed the late U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young probably isn't even on the ballot.
It's state Sen. Jack Latvala, one of the most effective, wiliest and cantankerous legislators in Florida.
The moderate Republican, who has been variously described as the Florida Senate's Jack the Ripper or Dark Star for his unrivaled knack for piecing together coalitions and blocking bills that he opposes, is especially busy these days. Even as Latvala, 62, is working to become the first Senate president from Pinellas County in 90 years, and guiding the campaigns of candidates across Florida, and helping his son get elected to the state House and his ex-wife re-elected to the Pinellas County Commission, he is hell-bent on ensuring that whoever succeeds Young has his stamp of approval.
David Jolly, the lobbyist and former aide to Young, did not pass Kingmaker Latvala's muster, so others were pressed to step in: Former Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard and, after that failed, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. When that didn't pan out, Latvala embraced state Rep. Kathleen Peters, who announced her candidacy with Latvala and several of his political clients at her side.
It's nothing personal against Jolly, insists Latvala.
"He called me early on — from his area code 202 cellphone," Latvala said of Jolly and the Washington, D.C., number. "Since when do we need to all gather around one person who's the first person in the race? He's just not part of our community and I just believe we deserve a choice of somebody who lives in our community. David Jolly's not part of our community, (Democratic candidate) Alex Sink's not part of our community."
Jolly, a native of Dunedin who in recent years has divided his time between Washington and Pinellas, insists Latvala is mistaken but has no hard feelings.
"I consider Jack a friend," Jolly said, demonstrating either cool diplomacy or breathtaking stupidity.
The third Republican in the Jan. 14 primary, retired Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Mark Bircher, is a political newcomer who has so far been left out of the internal GOP machinations dominated by Latvala.
Almost the moment Jolly jumped into the race, Latvala dismissed him: "I really don't think the timing is right for a Washington lobbyist to move to our district and run for Congress."
That Washington lobbyist attack is interesting considering that over the past 10 years, Latvala has earned more than $1 million as a Washington lobbyist.
Sort of like the way Latvala has accused Jolly and Sink of being outsiders to Congressional District 13 — and hammered Democratic legislators with the same accusation — while this year he has helped funnel thousands of dollars to a Palm Beach County Commission candidate (a Democrat, no less) who recently had to move into the district she's running to represent.
"It's the epitome of hypocrisy," said Richard Giorgio, a campaign consultant for one of the candidates running against Latvala's preferred Democrat, Melissa McKinlay.
Nonsense, said Latvala, who, being Latvala, actually used a word unsuitable for a family newspaper.
McKinlay, an aide to the Palm Beach legislative delegation, lived just outside the district several years ago, has moved back in, and has no other home.
"I'm not criticizing people who really move. I'm criticizing people who use this as a sham," Latvala said.
Nor does he make any apologies for criticizing Jolly for being a federal lobbyist when he lobbies in Washington, too.
"I'm not running for Congress," he said.
Currently Latvala's only federal client is the Buoniconti Fund to Cure Paralysis, part of the nonprofit Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, co-founded by NFL Hall of Famer Nick Buoniconti after his son was paralyzed during a football game. Federal records show Latvala has earned $60,000 lobbying for the group — at the same time he was leading the charge in Tallahassee to tighten lobbying restrictions on ex-state legislators.
There's no contradiction, he said, because his lobbying work in Washington has nothing to do with his legislative work in Tallahassee.
Except that's not entirely true.
His federal lobbying client also lobbies in Tallahassee, and received $1.5 million in state funding in this tight budget year. Latvala's state counterpart for the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis is lobbyist Ron Book, who has scores of clients seeking goodies from Latvala and the rest of the Legislature.
"There's just no conflict whatsoever," Latvala said, before clarifying: "No one has ever shown me there is a conflict."
If not the single shrewdest and most effective dealmaker in Tallahassee, Latvala is certainly among the brightest lights. He became a millionaire consulting for political campaigns, so he understands bare-knuckled politics better than most, and having served in the Senate from 1994 to 2002 before returning in 2010, he understands the process better than most.
Nobody accuses him of lacking passion. He has yelled and screamed at too many people to count, though he's said to be a teddy bear under that gruff exterior.
At a fundraising roast for Latvala last week in Clearwater, longtime former aide Missy Timmins recounted that Latvala had only one question for her job interview: "Do you cry easily?"
Republican state Rep. Ed Hooper, one of Latvala's many political clients, said he has no doubt that Latvala keeps a list of every person who contributed to his opponent during his first state Senate race in 1994.
The good news for Jolly is that as effective as Latvala may be in Tallahassee, his campaign track record has been pretty spotty lately.
His candidate in the St. Petersburg mayor's race, incumbent Bill Foster, lost in November. In 2012, Latvala had a string of losses — notably Jeff Brandes beating Jim Frishe for a Pinellas-Hillsborough state Senate seat — as Latvala sought to elect state Senate allies across Florida to boost his support to be elected Senate president in 2016 rather than rival Joe Negron of Stuart.
Many politicians, of course, play it safe and avoid sticking their necks out for candidates who aren't overwhelmingly favored. But that's not in Latvala's DNA. Especially in his backyard, he can't help but insert himself in any high-profile campaign.
So even if Jolly wins the GOP nomination for Congressional District 13, look for Latvala to merely turn his attention to ensuring that Democrat Alex Sink — a longtime Hillsborough resident now renting a condo in Feather Sound — doesn't win the seat.
State House candidate Chris Latvala last week offered a warning to some residents of the district.
"For those of you who live in Feather Sound," the young Latvala said, "don't be alarmed if you see a fat man hiding in the bushes one night. That's just our state senator, Jack Latvala, making sure Alex Sink lives there."
Contact Adam C. Smith at [email protected]