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Jack Latvala sets sights on state Senate presidency

Sen. Jack Latvala has a lot of time to work the phones this summer as he mends from hip replacement surgery.

He's doing fine, and what he says he's hearing is that some colleagues want him to make a run for Senate president — potentially challenging another senator who has his eyes on the same job.

"I have some senators who think it might be a good idea," Latvala, R-Clearwater, says. "I've been giving it a lot of thought."

Latvala, 59, returned to the Senate this year after an eight-year absence and is as feisty and at times as cantankerous as ever. A moderate Republican in the Pinellas County tradition, he does his homework, loves to buck the establishment and refuses to be bullied into supporting whatever "the leadership" is pushing.

In short, he's a throwback to what the Florida Senate used to be, and some people find that refreshing.

The next Senate president will be Republican Don Gaetz of Niceville, who will be formally designated in Tallahassee on Sept. 19. After Gaetz's coronation, the jockeying for his successor for the 2014-16 term will intensify. Just wait and see.

Latvala says it's premature to be counting votes in a Senate leadership race until it's known who will be elected in 2012.

Sen. Andy Gardiner of Orlando has been seeking the job for more than a year and said Friday he is pleased with his level of support from GOP senators. But he hasn't declared victory.

"I feel very good about where we are," Gardiner says. He said he has signed pledges from his supporters, but wouldn't give details. (History tells us pledges are not always reliable.)

Like Latvala, he says his priority is making sure every Republican senator wins re-election.

The Senate president is one of the three most powerful people in state government, along with the governor and House speaker.

Currently, there are 28 Republican senators, so it would take 15 votes to win the presidency.

Here's where it gets tricky: 10 GOP senators are freshmen without long-standing ties to either Gardiner or Latvala. Eight others are term-limited out of office in 2012, meaning eight seats are open territory for both men.

On top of that, reapportionment will create new Senate districts, meaning some very unpredictable politics lie ahead.

"Jack certainly has a shot. He's working it hard. Andy Gardiner has a play in there, too," says Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, in a taped interview for Political Connections on Bay News 9.

Two senators who have signed pledge cards for Gardiner are Charlie Dean of Inverness and Joe Negron of Stuart.

Negron says Gardiner is in fine shape. "When you look at the race, Andy Gardiner is overwhelmingly ahead," he says.

Dean says Gardiner did a big favor for him and a staff members, so he signed a pledge "out of friendship and loyalty," before he knew Latvala was interested. "But we never know what's going to happen to our seats," Dean says, referring to reapportionment.

Newly drawn open seats are more likely to attract more candidates, increasing the chances of head-to-head primaries between "Latvala's candidate" and "Gardiner's candidate."

Latvala and Gardiner both sit on the Senate Reapportionment Committee and will help draw those lines. Now you see the stakes getting higher.

"The members have told Jack the truth: If you're interested, get energized," Dean says. "I think Jack Latvala has as good a chance as anyone. If it gets down to a push and shove with four, five, or six new members, it can be anybody's ballgame."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Jack Latvala sets sights on state Senate presidency 08/12/11 [Last modified: Saturday, August 13, 2011 12:21pm]
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