Sunday, February 18, 2018
Politics

Open Pinellas commission seat drawing much interest

Just one day after Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala announced she would not seek re-election, the crowd of candidates — and potential candidates — that has emerged to succeed her has grown to include nearly a dozen people.

Latvala's District 4 seat, which she has represented since 2000, covers most of North Pinellas, folding into its boundaries Dunedin, Safety Harbor, Oldsmar, Tarpon Springs, Palm Harbor and East Lake. The district is heavily Republican ­— by the end of last year, registered Republicans outnumbered Democrats by nearly 18,000.

Six people had announced their intentions to run, including: Republicans Scott Fisher, Timothy Keffalas and Wanda Kimsey; Democrat Jack McAdoo; and two people running with no party affiliation, Marcus Harrison and Dusty Showers.

But on Wednesday, several more people said they were seriously considering a bid. The group includes a Palm Harbor dentist, a former Republican county commissioner, a young Republican lawyer and a former Democratic mayor of Dunedin.

Only one is certain that he plans to run.

That would be Johnny Johnson, 57, a Palm Harbor resident and retired pediatric dentist who led the fight in 2012 to restore fluoridation in Pinellas County. A narrow majority of commissioners voted in 2011 to stop adding fluoride to the county's drinking water, a decision that shocked Johnson and turned him into an activist. A Republican, he has never run for office before.

He announced his intentions to seek the District 4 seat on Wednesday night at a meeting of a group of local dentists where he was introduced by Commissioner Latvala.

"I want to be a part of this new county commission that's working together so well," Johnson said, adding that the 2012 election had "restored my faith in the political process."

Neil Brickfield, 50, who sat on the opposite side of the fluoride debate, is also contemplating a run.

"I'm definitely thinking about it," said Brickfield who was elected to a countywide commission seat in 2008. Four years later, he became one of two Republicans to lose re-election, an unusual turn of events in a county that typically rewards incumbents. At the time, Brickfield said he believed his opposition to fluoride cost him the election.

"I acknowledged on election night that that was a bad decision and the voters punished me for it and I think the voters and I are even-steven," he said on Wednesday. He is now working as the director of the Pinellas County Police Athletic League.

Another former elected official, Bob Hackworth, 58, said he is giving the idea of running some thought.

A Democrat and a former mayor of Dunedin, Hackworth ran for Latvala's commission seat in 2010 and lost. But the family publishing executive said that he is still drawn to the idea of public service. "The opportunity to represent that district is something I'm interested in," he said.

The son of former Clearwater Mayor Brian Aungst is also thinking of making a bid. Brian Aungst Jr., 29, is a lawyer with the firm Macfarlane Ferguson & McMullen in Clearwater, where he lives. He is the legal counsel for the Pinellas Republican Party and was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott to the Juvenile Welfare Board.

"When I initially heard that Commissioner Latvala was deciding on whether she would like to run for re-election, I began thinking about this seat," Aungst said. "It's appealing to me because it's personal to me, it's where I grew up; it's where I live; it's where my 1-year-old daughter is being raised.

Aungst said he's given himself until Valentine's Day to make a decision. For everyone else, the official deadline is June 20.

Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected].

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