CLEARWATER — Political veteran Jack Latvala sees himself as a problem solver in the Florida Senate.
"I'm a nuts-and-bolts kind of guy. I see a problem, I want to solve it, whether it's local or in Tallahassee," said Latvala, 60.
Political newcomer Zahid Roy, Latvala's opponent in the Aug. 14 Republican primary, wants to solve problems, too — particularly those that he and other average Floridians are having with insurance companies.
After redistricting this year, Latvala is running for re-election to the Senate in new District 20, which encompasses all of old District 16's North Pinellas territory and adds Clearwater Beach, Largo and Belleair.
Latvala's political and business resumes are long.
Woodrow John "Jack" Latvala grew up in Florida and has lived in Pinellas County since 1979. His first brush with politics was as a Young Republicans member at Stetson University. He took time off his senior year to manage a Daytona Beach oral surgeon's run for Congress.
After graduation, Latvala worked several years for the Florida GOP before moving on to lobbying and public relations. He started his own successful company, Direct Mail Systems, to produce political direct mail, while also managing some state and local political campaigns.
In 1994, Latvala decided to jump into the fray himself, abandoning a Florida House bid when a Florida Senate seat opened up right before qualifying. He won and served until forced out by term limits after eight years, establishing a reputation as aggressive, independent and sometimes visionary.
After leaving public office in 2002, Latvala settled into a quieter life in the laid-back fishing village of Steinhatchee. He opened a car wash and bought a printing business, Gulf Coast Imprinting. In 2005, he and Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala divorced.
Latvala soon itched to return to politics. He launched and won another Senate bid in 2010.
"I didn't have a reason to get up every day and something to accomplish every day, and I'm a guy that wants to do that," Latvala said. "It has not been one dull day since I've been back in the Senate."
Zahid Roy is a businessman too, but with a very different life story from Latvala's.
Born in Pakistan, Roy was 20 and a graduate of the University of Sargodha in Pakistan when his family moved to New York. There, Roy fed his longtime interest in exotic cars by working at an auto body shop. In 1992, he moved to Clearwater and went to work in the information technology field.
But after a 2003 fender-bender, Roy noticed disorganization and redundancy at a local auto repair shop. He also noticed that his insurance company dictated which parts the shop bought and from where.
The experience prompted Roy to open his own one-man shop, Auto Body Unlimited Inc., in Clearwater in 2005. Roy frequently argues with insurance adjusters who visit the shop, and he calls Tallahassee almost daily to demand changes for his customers.
Roy says his interest in running for the Senate was sparked by an April conversation with state Sen. Dennis Jones, in which he says Jones dismissed his concerns about an insurance provider that refused to pay out on a customer's claim. According to Roy, Jones said insurance denials are common and that he, too, had paid out-of-pocket for repair work to avoid a raised premium.
"These are our elected officials," Roy said. "Why would you pay for your insurance if you're not going to put a claim in?"
Most politicians "are disconnected from the middle class," said Roy, who was denied disability payments after his car accident. "The country and corporations work on the backs of the middle class. We have people living paycheck to paycheck, who are forced to work even though they are disabled, who fear losing their house and everything over one car accident."
Insurance issues form the center of Roy's campaign. His top priority would be to work for a rollback of the personal injury protection, or PIP, law in Florida. But he says he would also push for a merit-based education system, mortgage protection for the unemployed, natural gas exploration, and involuntary drug-testing in public schools.
As of July 6, Roy's entire campaign war chest consisted of $2,800 he loaned himself. He's not concerned with campaigning or racking up endorsements: "I have an endorsement from the Lord," he said.
Latvala, on the other hand, has endorsements from the Florida Medical Association, National Rifle Association, Associated Industries of Florida, Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Florida Education Association. He had raised nearly $462,000 in cash, loans and in-kind services as of July 6.
Some of Latvala's priorities would be protecting the environment and consumer rights, improving education and toughening penalties for violent criminals. But the top issues impacting his district, he said, are the economy and unemployment.
"Is the Legislature doing enough about the economy and jobs? I think the answer to that is no," he said. "One of my criticisms over the last two years has been that we did several abortion bills and several gun bills, but I never really thought we did any job bills. The economy is coming back somewhat, but I don't think we're doing as much as we can do."
Latvala — who admittedly uses his position as a "bully pulpit" to "get things done" — says his return to politics was partly influenced by his feeling that economically struggling Florida needed experienced leaders to help guide it back to stability.
Of the more than 125 bills he's had a hand in, Latvala is most proud of helping to negotiate the 1998 creation of Tampa Bay Water, which ended the long-running water wars involving Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties.
Latvala is also proud of his record on local causes, including helping East Lake open a library; finding funding for the Willa Carson Health and Wellness Center in Clearwater; expediting dredging of Clearwater's smelly Stevenson Creek; a bill bestowing preference on veterans who are contracted for government work; and a bill extending eligibility for tourism tax dollars to aquariums.
Latvala describes himself as a conservative but acknowledges others see him as a moderate.
"I like to think I'm a Republican the way Republicans started out, and that is, I'm a Republican because I think government ought to stay out people's lives and I value individual liberty and individual responsibility," he said. "I think some of the Republicans nowadays want to be more involved in people's lives and I don't want to be."
Latvala is angling to be Senate president in 2016 — the first from Pinellas in almost a century.
"I'd like to return the Senate to the institution it used to be," he said. "It used to be a very deliberative, moderating influence on state government policies. It used to be very much the controlling body in the legislative process. And because of term limits, it's really not anymore, and I'd like to return to that."
The winner of the Aug. 14 primary will face Democrat Ashley M. Rhodes-Courter in the Nov. 6 general election.
Keyonna Summers can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153.