LARGO — A Republican primary election battle materialized at virtually the last minute on Monday, as state Rep. Kathleen Peters filed to run against fellow GOP candidate David Jolly for Pinellas County's open congressional seat.
Peters didn't comment Monday but filed the paperwork and scheduled a news conference for 10 a.m. today, promising "a major announcement" and adding that "a number of Pinellas County elected officials, dignitaries and citizens are expected to be in attendance."
Jolly, who has spent more than a week lining up supporters and raising more than $150,000 in contributions, spoke Monday at the Republican Club of Greater Largo and told members the primary would make the party stronger.
"I'm thrilled Kathleen is in," he told a reporter later. "I think she'll be a great candidate. But I wouldn't be in this race if I didn't think I was the best qualified to win."
Peters' entry into the race thickens the plot in a campaign, already attracting national attention, for the seat that became open after the Oct. 18 death of longtime Republican U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young.
A special election has been called, with the primary on Jan. 14 and the general election March 11. The district stretches from southern Pinellas County to Dunedin, with a wide swath of downtown and southern St. Petersburg cut out.
On the Democratic side, former Florida chief financial officer and gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink has moved from Hillsborough to Pinellas so she can run in a county that has favored her in two statewide elections. After fellow Democratic candidate Jessica Ehrlich quietly bowed out, Sink's path to the nomination became virtually assured, barring a surprise before the filing deadline at noon today.
But for Republicans, there is a contest and plenty of contrast. Peters is a local political figure, a former South Pasadena mayor who was elected just last year to the state House of Representatives. Jolly has extensive Washington experience — including serving as general counsel to the late congressman during his chairmanship of the House Appropriations Committee — but has never run for local office.
As about 75 people gathered at the Largo Republican club meeting at Alfano's restaurant Monday night, they had a chance to dine on Italian food and ponder the primary. Many consider it competitive.
Club president Casey Cox said Peters probably has better name recognition. But Jolly has experience in Washington, the kind that "you only get … because you're there."
Referring to Peters, former state Rep. Jim Frishe said "when you've just been on the ballot, you have a leg up. So there is that." But he said of Jolly: "David obviously has a lot of power contacts."
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said he favors Peters because "I think we need a Pinellas County insider, not a Washington insider." He plans to be at her announcement today.
Meanwhile, Sink was the lone Democrat on the campaign trail Monday and stopped by the UPARC center for developmentally disabled adults in Clearwater.
Speaking on an issue that already has come up in the race — her residency — Sink said she has signed a 12-month lease on a condo in the Feather Sound area with a "beautiful view of the bay" and will move in Nov. 25.
Asked why she did not buy a house to establish her residency, she said she had always intended to rent for a while, and then buy later.
She denied that renting a home instead of buying one indicates any less commitment to Pinellas County.
"I don't know what to say. I've signed a one-year lease. … Right now I need to be shaking hands and getting votes. Not spending hours and hours finding a place to buy."