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Five things to look for in Pinellas County's fall 2014 elections

This fall's election could launch a new dynasty of leaders in Pinellas County, or stop one from forming.

It could transform local transportation — or bankrupt us, depending on your viewpoint.

It could show whether the unlikely issue of fluoride has finally dissolved from local politics — or not.

It's a little early for firm predictions in the Aug. 26 primary election and the Nov. 4 general election in Pinellas County, but here are five things to look for in the coming months:

1) The Greenlight litmus test

Pinellas County residents will vote on whether to increase the sales tax by a penny to pay for a light rail line from St. Petersburg to Clearwater, and to greatly expand bus service throughout the county.

To proponents, the program known as Greenlight Pinellas is an economic engine that will spark new businesses and allow people to move throughout the county from jobs to homes without cars. To others, it's an oversold boondoggle.

Either way, it's a political issue too big for candidates to ignore.

"Anybody running locally is going to have to take a position on that," said Darryl Paulson, professor emeritus of government at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

Opposition has formed, and Paulson said that as in many political campaigns, it could come down to which side proves motivated enough to actually vote. "I know a lot of the anti-Greenlight folks are motivated. Whether the pro-Greenlight folks are as motivated to turn out will be interesting."

Pinellas GOP Chairman Michael Guju said he does believe there is a diversity of opinion among Republicans on the issue, but that proponents have some convincing to do. "I think it's going to be a hard-fought issue, I really do."

Also important to many people — statewide, not just in Pinellas — will be whether to vote in favor of allowing marijuana to be used for medical purposes.

2) Dynasty

It's not exactly the Kennedys or the Bushes, but three first-time state House candidates have or had parents who have been well known in Pinellas politics.

One is Republican Chris Latvala, son of Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater. The younger Latvala is one of three Republican candidates who want to succeed Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, for whom Latvala served as a legislative aide. Three Democrats also are running.

Republican Bill Young, son of the late U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, is running against incumbent state Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg. And Lorena Grizzle, the daughter of the first Republican woman elected to the Florida Legislature, Mary Grizzle, is running for office too — as a Democrat. She hopes to unseat Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole.

Candidates with well-known names start out with an immediate advantage, but this can also backfire if people think they're simply riding coattails.

Says Chris Latvala: "The election will not be won on my last name or how much money we have in the bank. … I know that this is something that I have to earn."

3) The fluoride factor

The cavity-fighting mineral became a bitingly potent campaign issue in 2012, when two incumbent commissioners lost their elections after previously voting against fluoridating the county's water supply. The issue is likely to come up this year, too.

Republican incumbent Commissioner Norm Roche, who voted against fluoride last year, will face the voters. His primary opponent is Hooper, who says he's running partly because of that issue. For his part, Roche believes most people have "long moved beyond the great fluoride debate."

Commissioner John Morroni voted against fluoride in 2012, but voted for it in 2013 after saying it became clear that removing it "was not the position of obviously the majority of the people in this county." His challenger Tom Rask, an outspoken critic of county government, says fluoride "isn't a big issue for me." But he might make an issue of Morroni's flip-flopping.

One of the seven Republican candidates for a different commission seat is Johnny Johnson, a retired Tarpon Springs dentist and outspoken proponent of fluoride.

4) The giant slayer

Libertarian candidate Lucas Overby got less than 5 percent of the vote when he ran earlier this year in a congressional election that Republican David Jolly won.

So what would make anyone think Overby has a chance against Jolly, who is now an incumbent?

Maybe this: There is no Democratic candidate. For Overby to have more than a pipe dream, he'll likely need to convince large numbers of Democrats to chose him over the Republican. Will he obtain some endorsements from local Democrats?

5) The hometown turncoat

You would think a former St. Petersburg High quarterback who went on to become governor would be a hometown favorite. But Charlie Crist's relationship with Pinellas County — well, it's complicated.

The former Republican state senator, attorney general and governor is now a Democratic candidate for governor. Pinellas Democratic Chairman Mark Hanisee says Democrats have lined up behind Crist, and "there's still a lot of Republicans that like Charlie. I think he's going to do very, very well in this county."

But Pinellas Republican Chairman Guju does not hide his disdain.

"I think the overwhelming majority of Republicans look at Charlie as a turncoat, someone who decided that maybe being governor was too difficult."

Staff Writer Tony Marrero contributed to this report. Times Staff Writer Curtis Krueger can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8232. On Twitter: @ckruegertimes

Five things to look for in Pinellas County's fall 2014 elections 06/21/14 [Last modified: Saturday, June 21, 2014 10:50pm]
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