Nina Hayden didn't like the fact that no Democrat was stepping forward to challenge Republican Jack Latvala for the Florida Senate District 16 seat.
So she did.
Never mind that the 36-year-old lawyer was barely a year into her first foray into elected public office, as a member of the Pinellas County School Board.
Never mind that her opponent was a well-known, two-term (1994-2002) Senate veteran, who also spent two years as its majority leader.
And never mind that some people told her she should run for another School Board term instead, or pursue a seat in the larger Florida House, or wait a few years because she wasn't ready.
"I clearly vetted the situation, listened to what I was being told," Hayden said during a recent interview at a Clearwater bookstore, just a few miles from the public defender's office where she works.
But in the end, she said it came down to two questions: whether she had the heart to run and the qualifications to serve.
Her answers? Yes and yes.
"I'm a public servant. My heart is for the community," said Hayden, who lives in Clearwater. "And do I have the qualifications? Absolutely. Not only because I'm an attorney. … I also have experience on the School Board."
Hayden, however, is clearly the underdog to replace outgoing Democrat Charlie Justice in District 16, which includes a large portion of Pinellas east of U.S. 19, and a swath of Hillsborough County, stretching from South Tampa to Westchase.
Latvala, 58, a well-known businessman and political consultant, holds a decisive edge in experience, fundraising and endorsements. Among his many backers is the Pinellas teachers union.
But Hayden and other Democrats are quick to say that the contest isn't as much against Latvala as it against the status quo.
"I think it is a referendum on what is going on in Tallahassee," said Ramsay McLauchlan, chairman of the Pinellas County Democratic Party. "Are voters happy with what is going on, and do they want to continue that? Or do they want a change?"
Hayden, he said, is a candidate that's "looking to totally change the way they do business."
Hayden entered the local political scene in 2008, emerging from a deep field of five candidates to win a two-year seat on the Pinellas School Board. Her opponents included two teachers, a former Pinellas School Board member and a former Tarpon Springs city commissioner.
"She's bright, hard-working and energetic," said Linda Lerner, a longtime Pinellas School Board member. "She does her homework."
Lerner said Hayden has done her best work advocating for the district's most challenging students, including those who attend its alternative schools or those who get in trouble with the law. Lerner pointed to Hayden's mentoring of students at Bayside, the district's alternative high school.
"She hadn't been on the board very long when she took the action to motivate a large number of her public defender colleagues to do the same," Lerner said.
Lerner said she and other board members tried to persuade Hayden to run for another School Board term instead. "But she strongly felt it was the right thing to do at the time," Lerner said.
Hayden's Senate bid was criticized by Ray Tampa, president of the St. Petersburg branch of the NAACP.
"I'm disappointed in her decision to run for the Senate only from the perspective that she did not give her School Board responsibility due diligence," Tampa said. "During the time she's been on the board, she's been running for the Senate, as opposed to fulfilling her responsibility as a School Board member."
Hayden sees the Senate seat as an opportunity to continue her commitment to public service, which is rooted in her upbringing as the child of a minister father and a mother who was active in numerous civic organizations in the Washington, D.C., area where she grew up.
"I was raised in a family that was always involved," she said. "We spent many Thanksgivings and Christmases in homeless shelters in D.C. Public service is who I am."
Among her priorities should she win: improving Florida's educational system through adequate funding and giving local districts more control; and protecting the environment by opposing any proposal for near-shore drilling and by encouraging clean energy alternatives.
Hayden said campaigning has been a juggling act, squeezing appearances at community meetings and forums between her responsibilities to the School Board and the Public Defender's Office.
With a distinct disadvantage in fundraising ($13,000 to Latvala's $580,000), she has used the Internet to get her message out, through her website (ninahayden.com), Twitter (@ninahayden), and Facebook.
Latvala says he's not taking anything for granted. "She is an articulate young lady. She makes a very good presentation," he said.
If Latvala knows she's going to be at an event, he will be there, too. He said there's always the possibility that the Democratic Party will decide to throw some time, energy — and most important, money — into Hayden's campaign for a blitz to try to keep a Democrat in the seat. But that hasn't happened yet.
Hayden remains optimistic. "I knew coming into this thing, it would be a challenge," she said.
"But I have a good feeling."
Richard Martin can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8330.