TALLAHASSEE — State Sen. Jack Latvala failed to pass 29 of the 38 bills he sponsored this year, but he might have been the session's most effective lawmaker.
"Jack was the MVP," said Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate.
Latvala, 58, dismantled some of the top priorities of the conservative House by assembling interchangeable coalitions of senators attracted to his independence and reverence for Senate traditions.
Described by colleagues as smart, pragmatic and "very transactional," the St. Petersburg Republican was the dark star of the Senate around which all clusters of dissent seemed to orbit.
"There were some issues that I didn't believe should pass that I helped slow down or keep from passing," Latvala said after reluctantly agreeing to an interview. "But I'm just one vote."
After serving in the Senate from 1994 to 2002, Latvala returned in November to find a chamber with all new members except one (Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville) and the largest Republican majority in modern history.
The Senate used that majority to push through an aggressively conservative agenda, but Latvala leveraged his one vote to slow down the march.
He led the effort to kill a bill aimed at stopping unions from collecting dues from state workers' paychecks. He helped defeat another proposal that would have let Gov. Rick Scott appoint all new members to the state's 26 judicial nominating commissions. He collected signatures to soften changes to the state pension. And he watered down House Speaker Dean Cannon's overhaul of the Florida Supreme Court.
"Yes, I'm a dealmaker," said Latvala, a marketing expert whose political consulting business has represented the Republican National Committee and 30 state Republican parties. "I would rather get half of what I want than none of what I want."
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Frustrations that sparked the session's final-day meltdown Friday were vocalized a week earlier by Latvala, who skipped a committee vote in protest of a deal that inserted substantial growth management changes into a conforming bill (legislation that aligns the budget with state law). The move made it nearly impossible to amend the changes.
"We're redoing the whole shooting match, and it should be done through the normal process of the Senate and having the senators be able to vote on it just like the House members all had an opportunity to vote on it, try to amend it, vet it out, ask questions," Latvala said. "And you don't have that same opportunity on a conforming bill on the last day of session."
Sen. Don Gaetz, the committee chairman, gave Latvala a single reason to support the deal: It was a Cannon priority.
"It may be that the hand which reaches into this conference could be a hand that's not here," Gaetz said, referring to the speaker.
A week later as lawmakers tried to close the 2011 session, the Senate revolted. In one memorable moment, Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, mocked Senate leaders who wanted their chamber to sign off on House proposals.
"Yes sir, House. Whatever you say, House," Lynn said.
"No, no, no. … This is not the way to do things."
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Senate President Mike Haridopolos presided over the most conservative Senate in recent years, but he also vowed to uphold the chamber's traditional independent streak.
That independence is rooted in a 40-member chamber consistently packed with political veterans whose experience in elected office and private life make them willing to buck leadership. That compares with the 120-member House, where younger lawmakers take a bigger risk forming independent coalitions. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio once remarked when he was state House speaker that five angry Republicans in the House was a pain — but five angry Republicans in the Senate had the makings of a coup.
By appealing to the independence and experience of his colleagues, Latvala repeatedly formed issue-based coalitions to influence the debate.
In his charge to stop the anti-union bill pushed by Sen. John Thrasher — a former Florida Republican Party chairman and one of Haridopolos' top lieutenants — Latvala had the backing of Sen. Jim Norman, a Tampa Republican who was strongly backed in his election by Haridopolos.
Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, was part of the coalition that watered down Cannon's proposal to overhaul the Florida Supreme Court. Sen. Dennis Jones, a Seminole Republican and the longest-serving member of the Legislature, opposed using the budget to ram through policy changes.
"These coalitions were constantly moving and changing depending on the issue," said Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne. "You may vote with one member one moment and then the next find yourself in a pitched battle."
Even some of Latvala's allies found themselves at odds.
Sen. David Simmons, chairman of the Senate K-12 budget committee, said he and Latvala got in a heated, "animated discussion" in a room off the Senate floor. Simmons wanted to strike a deal over a bill changing judicial nominations. Latvala didn't want a deal — for once.
"I was trying to compromise. He was more willing to pull out the guns," said Simmons, who praised Latvala as a friend who "wants to make sure the product is as pure as the process."
Latvala says he is largely motived by his love for the process, calling his first two terms in the Senate a "highlight of my life."
He is committed to supporting Gaetz as Senate president in 2012. But his success at building coalitions has raised questions about whether he'll to try win that job in four years.
"You never say never," Latvala said.
Times/Herald staff writer Marc Caputo and Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Michael C. Bender can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelCBender.