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Fight to control leadership of state Senate looms over this year's elections

TALLAHASSEE — The road to the future of the Florida Senate goes through Tampa Bay in November.

Some of this year's fiercest state election fights are likely to occur in the region, mainly because of a job held by someone that's rarely a household name — the state Senate president.

"After the election this year, you will probably get a sense of the Senate leadership for the next six years," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who is running to be Senate president from 2016 to 2018.

That's because, due to redistricting, every seat in the 40-member chamber is up for election, and the winners will determine who holds the clout for the next decade.

Latvala, who returned to the Senate in 2010 after being termed out in 2002, wants to make sure that enough returning and newly elected Republican senators support him. He even held a fundraiser for his political committee, proclaiming the money would go to "the first Senate president from Pinellas County."

Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, is also lining up support for the 2016-18 presidency, albeit more quietly. Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, says he, too, remains a candidate.

The men are all Republicans, but they differ in philosophy. Thrasher and Negron are conservative; Latvala is a moderate. Thrasher forged his reputation as a dominant House speaker who forcefully pushed through former Gov. Jeb Bush's agenda. Negron began his career in the House and moved to the Senate, where he has become a budget and health care expert. And Latvala is a maverick who relishes challenging leadership and forging consensus on thorny issues.

Latvala helped secure the 2014-16 Senate presidency for Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, when Thrasher and Negron lost confidence in Gardiner and attempted to hoist Thrasher to power instead. Now Gardiner, and Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, the designated Senate president for 2012-14, can help determine which candidates align with whom in 2016. The battle is fiercest in Tampa Bay.

Gaetz, for example, on Friday endorsed former Sen. Tom Lee of Brandon, himself a former Senate president, over Rep. Rachel Burgin, also of Brandon, in the District 24 race to replace Sen. Ronda Storms.

Candidates have until noon Friday to declare for office, but the move of one affects another. Take Latvala's district. A week ago, he told Gaetz that he was planning to switch from his safe North Pinellas Senate district to Tampa Bay's reconfigured Senate District 22, which consists of South Pinellas and Tampa.

State Rep. Jim Frishe, R-St. Petersburg, who is closely aligned with Latvala, was lined up to run against Rep. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, for District 22. Brandes declared his intent to run Friday. Both Frishe and Latvala said they are undecided where they will land.

"I'm just pondering," Latvala told the Times/Herald, noting the new District 22 includes 80 percent of his current district.

The move is a classic gamble. "Any time you move out of your district to run in another district, it adds some element of risk," said Gaetz, who would back Latvala in any race.

If Latvala stays put, he runs the risk of Brandes winning and supporting Thrasher or Negron. Brandes, a member of the Cox Lumber family, could easily tap into his personal wealth to spend on his campaign. Brandes has already run TV ads for his now-abandoned state House re-election campaign. But if Latvala were to win, his reward would be securing his and Frishe's vote to a Senate presidency victory.

"I don't think it's any secret. I've publicly pledged my support to Jack Latvala for Senate president," Frishe said. "He and I don't always agree on everything. But I've known the man for 35 years and consider him a friend, and I think having a Senate president from Tampa Bay would be very, very positive for us." Not only is Frishe a personal friend of Latvala's, but Frishe again is paying for the services of Latvala's direct-mail company in his race for the Senate.

Another area of conflict is a three-way fight for the Republican nomination for District 17 in Pasco and Hillsborough. Sen. Jim Norman of Tampa, Rep. John Legg of Port Richey and former Rep. Rob Wallace of Tampa have filed to run.

Norman, a former Hillsborough commissioner, is considered the incumbent in a seat that redistricting left vastly reconfigured by merging south Pasco with northwest Hillsborough.

Legg, who has served in the House since 2004, had planned to run in Senate District 18 against Pasco County businessman Wilton Simpson. But two weeks ago he announced he would instead switch to Senate District 17, which now includes half of Pasco County.

Gaetz said Senate leaders will support Norman. Legg understands but doesn't believe Norman can win. Two years ago, Norman overcame a federal investigation about a vacation home bankrolled by a businessman friend for Norman's wife, but his narrow victory was in a Hillsborough-based district.

"They told me they wanted to support all incumbents; however, all incumbents had to show a clear path to victory, and Jim Norman has not demonstrated that threshold," Legg said. A Legg-Norman primary is complicated for Latvala since both pledged to support Latvala's presidency bid.

One thing is clear, Legg said: The road to the future Florida Senate may go through Tampa Bay, but it is full of potholes.

"It's not just sinkholes," Legg said. "The ground is very unstable here for candidates, too."

Times staff writers Lee Logan and Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.

Fight to control leadership of state Senate looms over this year's elections 06/01/12 [Last modified: Saturday, June 2, 2012 12:59am]

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