Monday, January 22, 2018
Politics

Pinellas officials win re-election as no challengers file by deadline

Six Pinellas County incumbents won re-election Friday.

By default.

With actual elections still five months away, one county commissioner, two School Board members and three constitutional officers kept their jobs because no other candidates met the noon qualifying deadline.

County Commissioner Karen Seel, School Board members Robin Wikle and Carol Cook, Clerk of the Circuit Court Ken Burke, Property Appraiser Pam Dubov and Tax Collector Diane Nelson were all unopposed.

Even in the final minutes, several candidates were still unsure whether they'd be challenged.

"You never know," Seel said. "Back in 2000, at a quarter of 12, I had opposition on that Friday. I never take anything for granted."

The trend also held true in state Senate and House races throughout Florida. A total of 38 lawmakers, or nearly one-fourth of the Legislature, can waltz into office without getting a single vote because no one challenged any of them, including four House freshmen who were seeking office for the first time.

That list also includes the next House speaker, Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and eight senators, including two from Tampa Bay: Republican Charlie Dean of Inverness and Democrat Arthenia Joyner of Tampa.

This area will, however, host some of Florida's hottest races, all among Republicans running for the Senate, which will undergo the greatest one-year turnover since voters approved term limits 20 years ago.

Two St. Petersburg GOP lawmakers, Reps. Jeff Brandes and Jim Frishe, will face off in the Aug. 14 primary for one new Senate seat. Earlier this week, a write-in candidate also entered the race, which means only Republicans can vote in the primary.

Raymond Baker of St. Petersburg acknowledged he has "no prayer of winning" against his two seasoned opponents, but he hopes to gain attention for a few personal causes, including state reform in alimony and family law. Baker, an electrical engineer, is a self-described libertarian and "radical right-wing capitalist."

In Pinellas' other major Senate race, Republican Sen. Jack Latvala will face Zahid Roy of Clearwater. The general election will also include one of the most interesting candidates in any area race: Ashley Rhodes-Courter, an Eckerd College graduate and New York Times bestselling author who wrote a book about her time in the foster care system. She's running as a Democrat.

• • •

In the county races, Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark seemed poised to run unopposed, like several other constitutionals, but Jack Killingsworth qualified in the final hours. Killingsworth, who has no party affiliation, ran against Clark as a Democrat four years ago. She won with more than 61 percent of the vote.

Clark wasn't surprised by Killingsworth's decision and she didn't seem concerned about it Friday. In the coming weeks, Clark said, she and her staff must prepare and mail out 1,500 different ballot styles for primary contests later this summer.

Three people filed to run against Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. Former Sheriff Everett Rice, who has already raised more than $250,000, will face him in the primaries. Scott Swope qualified as a Democrat and Greg Pound will run as a write-in candidate.

Two well-known Democrats will challenge a pair of Republican incumbents on the County Commission: former state Sen. Charlie Justice will take on Nancy Bostock and former state Rep. Janet Long will run against Neil Brickfield.

Commissioner Ken Welch, a Democrat, will face opposition from fellow Democrat Maria L. Scruggs and Republican William "Buck" Walz.

School Board member Janet Clark faces three challengers as she pursues her third term: Shelley Ladd-Gilbert, owner of Ivy Prep Learning Center preschool in Clearwater; Jim Jackson, a retired Miami-Dade College professor who unsuccessfully ran for a seat in 2010; and Elliott Stern, a retired executive from Raymond James who has also served on the Pinellas Education Foundation board of directors.

Five candidates are vying for Lew Williams' open seat, currently held by Glenton Gilzean Jr., a Gov. Rick Scott appointee and former state Department of Education staffer. Those facing Gilzean include: Keisha Bell, who came in last in a three-way race for the board in 2010; former St. Petersburg City Council member Rene Flowers, who managed Williams' 2010 campaign; Corey Givens Jr., a 20-year-old University of South Florida student and 2010 graduate of Lakewood High in St. Petersburg; and Cassandra Jackson, 52, a paraprofessional at Thurgood Marshal Fundamental Middle.

Among many challenges, the board must soon hire a new superintendent, address the lagging academic performance of black students and devise a plan to handle financial issues stemming from lower state funding and diminished enrollment.

• • •

Statewide, the political landscape will shift significantly by the once-a-decade redrawing of all legislative districts following the census, which also hands the state two more seats in Congress for a total of 27.

Two voter-approved amendments to Florida's Constitution prohibited legislators from protecting incumbents in drawing boundaries.

At least 14 of 40 state Senate seats and 38 of 120 state House seats will have new occupants by November.

Democratic strategist Steve Schale said voters will have more choices this year than usual.

"Republicans and Democrats went on a recruitment tear to make sure there were not senators that are unopposed," Schale said. "I actually think that's healthy."

For the first time in decades, two members of Congress must fight each other for political survival, as redistricting pits Republican Reps. Sandy Adams and John Mica against each other in suburban Orlando.

In three other races for the Legislature, two incumbents are forced to run against each other for the same seat, a by-product of the realignment of political boundaries. Two incumbent showdowns are for House seats in Miami-Dade.

Two Democratic House members in Palm Beach County are pitted against each other for a vacant Senate seat.

Every member of the Florida congressional delegation drew opposition but one: first-term Republican Dennis Ross of Lakeland.

Seven Republicans are running for one new seat in Congress in the Daytona Beach area, while six Republicans will battle for a seat in Southwest Florida being vacated by Connie Mack IV, who's running for the U.S. Senate.

The luckiest candidates on Friday were the four rookie state House candidates who won two-year terms without receiving a single vote, because no one ran against them.

They are Republicans Travis Cummings of Orange Park and Charlie Stone of Ocala, and Democrats Victor Torres Jr. of Orlando and Shevrin Jones of West Park, in South Broward County.

Republicans currently hold a 28-12 advantage in the Senate and 81-38 advantage in the House, with one vacancy.

The statewide primary election will be Tuesday, Aug. 14. The general election is Tuesday, Nov. 6.

Times/Herald staff writers Mark Ellen Klas and Toluse Olorunnipa contributed to this report. John Woodrow Cox can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8472.

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