Sunday, May 20, 2018
Politics

Behind the scenes, Jack Latvala guides a string of Pinellas candidates

The name Jack Latvala will appear only once on a ballot this fall, but the veteran state senator is again a formidable backstage presence in many other races.

Latvala isn't just running his re-election campaign.

He's helping other candidates run theirs.

A part-time legislator and full-time campaign consultant, Latvala has his hand in more than a dozen races this year, either as part of his business or to advance his efforts to become Senate president.

It's risky.

But it's also lucrative, generating more than $200,000 this election cycle for Latvala's companies and $3.6 million since 2003.

If you vote in Pinellas County and a political flier lands in your mailbox, chances are Latvala and the printing company he runs, Direct Marketing Southeast, had a hand in its creation.

That bothers Everett Rice, the former Pinellas sheriff who blames Latvala for helping to execute a series of direct-mail attacks by his opponent, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.

"I don't know why Jack would stick his nose in any place other than the Senate," Rice said. "It's not good for a candidate to be messing in other people's races. But Jack fancies himself a kingmaker."

Latvala, a 60-year-old Republican from Clearwater, does not discuss his political work. "I have always let the candidates do the talking," he said.

His client roster, in the public domain for all to see, reads like a who's who of Pinellas politics. Besides Gualtieri, it includes Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark; two House members running for Senate seats, Reps. Jim Frishe, R-St. Petersburg, and John Legg, R-New Port Richey; Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater; nonpartisan judicial candidates Jack Day and Andy Steingold; and House hopeful Kathleen Peters, and others across the state.

Such a long list of clients inevitably creates crosscurrents in a year when there's a bounty of Republican primary races.

While Latvala works to get Gualtieri elected, he also has a strong hand in the Senate campaign of Frishe. But he could risk alienating Republicans who prefer Frishe but not Gualtieri — or another client.

Frishe is grateful for Latvala's help.

"He keeps tabs on the heartbeat of what's going on out there," says Frishe, a longtime Latvala ally who's fighting to win an open Senate seat against Rep. Jeff Brandes. The outcome of the Frishe-Brandes race will play an important role in determining whether Latvala becomes Senate president in 2016.

"He and I talk on a regular basis," Frishe said. "We'll fight and argue over what we think is right, and I'm not above yelling at him as he yells at me."

Latvala's work for other candidates is in addition to his own bid for re-election to the Senate, in which he has raised nearly half a million dollars. And, as a potential future Senate president, he controls a separate political committee, the Florida Leadership Fund, which has raised another $1.1 million that he uses to help Senate candidates loyal to him.

A chunk of that money has paid for messages attacking Brandes, who used to be a Lat­vala client.

"Jack is spending half a million dollars against me in negative advertising, but I consider Jack a good friend," Brandes said.

Latvala's leadership fund gave the maximum $500 contribution to six candidates who are also his clients: Gualtieri, Frishe, Legg, Peters, and two other Senate candidates: Rep. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, and Jack Myers of Auburndale.

While Latvala and his son Chris run Direct Marketing Southeast, a second Latvala firm, Gulf Coast Imprinting, provides signs and printed materials to candidates.

In the current two-year cycle, the two firms have received more than $200,000 for campaign-related work. Since 2003, campaign records show, Direct Marketing Southeast has been paid $3.6 million by candidates and committees throughout the state, but mostly in Tampa Bay.

Gualtieri has spent $36,000 with Latvala's Gulf Coast Imprinting for road signs, yard signs, invitations to fundraisers and thank-you notes. "He's been doing this for a long time," Gualtieri said. "I don't think there's anybody better than Jack."

Latvala listed a net worth of $5.7 million when he filed papers in June to seek re-election to the Senate. He estimated the fair market value of Gulf Coast Imprinting at $1 million and Direct Marketing Southeast at $70,000, and reported that he's the sole owner of both.

Candidates describe Latvala the strategist in much the same way as he's viewed by fellow legislators: blunt, tenacious and determined to win.

"He's blunt and up-front and I can count on his word," said Peters, a hands-on, small-town mayor of South Pasadena who's making her first race for the Legislature.

Peters calls Latvala a believer in the persuasive power of direct mail who pushes her to knock on as many doors as possible.

"Jack said to me, 'The people know you. Remind them that they know you,' " Peters said.

When Peters briefly hedged before deciding to run, she said Latvala called her and in characteristic fashion, asked: "Why the hell haven't you filed yet?"

When she was deciding whom to hire to help run the campaign, she recalled Latvala asking her sarcastically: "You don't want the consultant who's won more races than anyone else in Pinellas County?"

Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected]abay.com or (850) 224-7263.

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