LARGO — Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala lacked the knockout punch of her past, but she still won a bitter three-way Republican primary for her board seat.
Latvala, a 10-year commissioner, received 44 percent of the vote, while former Tarpon Springs Mayor Beverley Billiris received 30 percent. Wine and spirits broker Carl Folkman of Crystal Beach received 26 percent from voters in District 4 of northern Pinellas.
In one of the county's hottest races, the results showed Republican voters respect her work, Latvala said.
"It was a very negative campaign, and I have never been involved in a negative campaign before," Latvala said. "I was on the defensive."
Latvala, 61, will face Democrat Bob Hackworth, 55, a former mayor of Dunedin, in the Nov. 2 general election.
Her GOP opponents would not pledge to support Latvala's bid against Hackworth, who promises to raise many of the same issues over her leadership as they did.
Billiris, a longtime adversary, said she definitely would not support Latvala, but also noted she would not back Hackworth. Folkman said he would not support Latvala until meeting with her, because the issues confronting the county won't recede with his loss.
"Surprise!" Folkman said of Billiris, reflecting the animosity that characterized the race.
While Latvala won by double digits, a majority of Republican voters supported her opponents — a shift from past dominance.
In 2006, Latvala won 69 percent of the vote in the primary, and had no general election opponent. She and her former husband and campaign consultant Jack Latvala have been entrenched in Pinellas politics for decades. She served on the Pinellas School Board in the 1990s.
After the results were announced Tuesday, Billiris said they showed that a challenger could have won if they hadn't split the vote.
"I was listening to her constituents. Obviously she wasn't," said Billiris, who began running in 2007.
Known for prickly remarks, Latvala faced criticism over her responsiveness to residents and her accountability on county spending. After years of increased spending, the county is now making deep budget cuts and laying off hundreds of workers.
Publicity over the testy voice mail message that Latvala left for Folkman earlier this month over yard signs — telling him to "get his own friends" — didn't help.
But Latvala raised $111,000, more than four times what each of her opponents raised. She was able to reach more voters with mailings, espousing her tenure and criticizing her opponents, especially Billiris.
Billiris acknowledged it made a dent.
Besides Latvala's race, the general election for the commission also will feature Commissioner Calvin Harris, a Democrat, seeking re-election against Norm Roche, a Republican who has lost three previous bids.
Commissioner John Morroni effectively won another term because he was unopposed.
David DeCamp can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8779.