The last time Jack Latvala ran for public office, there was no Facebook, Twitter or YouTube.
But ask the 58-year-old what has been the biggest adjustment to returning to the campaign trail, after leaving the Florida Senate eight years ago, and he says, without hesitation:
"I hadn't had a suit on in a while," said Latvala, wearing a crisp, dark-blue number during an interview last week. "I had to buy new ones. I sort of outgrew my old suits."
New suits and all, Latvala enthusiastically has embraced the new elements of campaigning since announcing his bid last year to return to the Senate. His Facebook page has nearly 1,200 "likes"; he's on Twitter (@JackLatvala), though he says he doesn't tweet as often as he should; and his latest TV ad can be seen on YouTube.
"We've got a little bit of everything," Latvala said.
Combine that with some old-fashioned doorbell ringing, bumper stickers, billboards and plenty of fundraising, and the Clearwater Republican has emerged as the clear front-runner for the District 16 seat being vacated by Democrat Charlie Justice, who's running for Congress. Latvala faces Democrat Nina Hayden, 36, a public defender and first-term Pinellas School Board member, in the Nov. 2 general election.
After term limits ended his eight-year run in the state Senate in 2002, Latvala focused on business ventures — an envelope-printing company in Largo and a self-service carwash in Steinhatchee — neither of which require him to wear a suit. He also moved to Steinhatchee, a coastal community on the way to Tallahassee, for a couple of years.
But he's been active in politics as a consultant for several state legislative and local campaigns, including that of his ex-wife, Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala.
He says he's always considered a return to the Senate, which he considers "the best job in government." But the tipping point came in 2009, when the House passed a bill that would have opened the door to near-shore oil drilling off Florida's coast, which he opposes. (It was quickly rejected by the Senate.) It was also around that time that Justice announced he would be running for Congress.
So he moved back to Pinellas County and gathered the required signatures throughout District 16, which includes a large portion of Pinellas east of U.S. 19, from northeast St. Petersburg to Oldsmar, and several areas of Hillsborough County, stretching from south Tampa to Westchase.
His return bid has been supported by many. In Hillsborough County, where he's never had to campaign before (his old seat covered only Pinellas and Pasco counties), Republican Party chairwoman Deborah Cox-Roush says the party has been knocking on doors on his behalf.
"I think his institutional knowledge is welcome," Cox-Roush said. "Jack brings good conservative values to our slate, and we're happy to have him."
He garnered a number of early endorsements, including the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Florida Professional Firefighters and the Florida Police Benevolent Association. And he holds a large fundraising edge — $580,000 to Hayden's $13,000.
But Democrats say that his former ties to the Senate are the reason he shouldn't be voted in again.
"Jack Latvala represents the way that Tallahassee likes to do business," said Ramsay McLauchlan, chairman of the Pinellas County Democratic Party. "I think that personally is the wrong way for the state to go. Voters aren't happy with the way Republicans are running Tallahassee, and they want a change."
Hayden says Latvala has had his shot. "I think that time has ended," she said. "We're not going to move the state of Florida forward if you have individuals that are so connected with the old guard in Tallahassee."
Latvala admits he's not sure how he would be received in Tallahassee this time around. When he broached the idea of running again to some former legislative colleagues, "they told me I wouldn't want to go back, that the process had changed."
The Senate, he was told, is no longer the place for individual thinkers. It had become more like the House, where the party leaders call the shots and everyone else falls in line.
"It's hard to say whether he'll like it or not, but I don't think that matters to him," said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, whose district covers most of Latvala's old turf. "He's up there for the right reasons, for the people in his district."
Latvala said he has no problem supporting party leadership, saying he expects to do that a large majority of the time. But he'll stand firm on issues like oil drilling, which he'll never support. He also lists jobs, property insurance and transportation as areas he plans to tackle if elected.
"Jack Latvala's not going to change," he said
Richard Martin can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8330.