Pinellas House candidates trade jabs one day after primary victories

Pledges of civility by District 67 candidates turn to jabs at a debate.
Published August 27 2014
Updated August 28 2014

ST. PETERSBURG — Less than 24 hours after winning their Pinellas primary elections, candidates in two state House races came to a debate Wednesday and pledged to run civil campaigns.

But before the hourlong debate was up, House District 67 candidate Steve Sarnoff questioned his opponent Chris Latvala's leadership ability. That prompted Latvala to jab back, saying Sarnoff had failed to stand up to questionable doings in his own party.

Wednesday's exchange at the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club in St. Petersburg made one thing clear: Primary elections are history and candidates already are blasting forward into general election mode.

As far as campaign advertising goes, expect another round of local mailings and television commercials, and expect them early because of the increasing popularity of mail-in voting.

In the Pinellas County primary elections that ended this week, only 22 percent of the 149,272 people who voted in the primaries showed up at polling places on Tuesday. About 76.6 percent voted by mail, and 1.2 percent voted at early-voting sites, according to unofficial results.

The next round of fliers hitting local voters' mailboxes will likely come by the end of September, because mail ballots will be sent out at roughly that time.

At Wednesday's Tiger Bay forum, Latvala and Sarnoff campaigned for the District 67 legislative seat that covers portions of Clearwater and Largo. Chris Sprowls and Carl Zimmermann campaigned for House District 65, which covers Palm Harbor, Tarpon Springs and Dunedin.

Latvala, 32, said he was more interested in serving as a state representative for the district than he was in ascending into the House Republican leadership.

Sarnoff, 61, a Democrat, looked at him and said, "Chris, I believe you that you have no aspiration for leadership." Sarnoff acknowledged to a reporter later that he was questioning Latvala's leadership ability. He said Latvala would not have been nearly so successful in campaign fundraising without help from his father, state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater. He also questioned Latvala's life experience, saying, "He's never had to work two jobs to make ends meet. … He hasn't had to struggle too much."

Latvala said the jab prompted him to ask a pointed question about Sarnoff's leadership. He noted that 19 local officials wrote a letter criticizing Pinellas County's Democratic chairman earlier this year for telling a St. Petersburg pastor he would be "persona non grata" if he ran for Congress.

"One of the names missing from that letter was my opponent. If he can't stand up to his own Democratic chairman, how in the heck can he stand up for us in Tallahassee?" Latvala said.

Sarnoff had no time left to respond, but told a reporter later that he wanted to add his name to the letter, but wasn't eligible because it was only for elected officials.

Zimmermann, 63, a Democrat in a Republican-leaning district, said he was expecting a barrage of negative advertising against him. "I know I'm going to get hit by a baseball bat," he said. Sprowls, 30, quipped that he had no bat with him.

Zimmermann said his approach is to evaluate new bills in the House based on what's good and bad about them, not taking a blind party-line approach.

Candidates took a multitude of questions from Tiger Bay members. Latvala and Sprowls described themselves as prolife candidates, while Sarnoff and Zimmermann said they had no plans to place additional restrictions on women's right to choose whether to have abortions.

Kim Black, former president of the Pinellas teachers' union, asked Latvala, Sarnoff and Sprowls about charter schools. Latvala and Sprowls both said there should be plenty of options for students, but Sprowls stressed there should be accountability to make sure charter schools are performing up to standards, and Lat­vala said charter school students should have to take standardized tests if they are required of public students.