For the first time in more than a decade, Susan Latvala's place in the halls of power faces a credible challenge in Pinellas County.
And it's starting to show.
Latvala, a commissioner since 2000 and a School Board member for eight prior years, has been forced to defend the rise and fall of county finances, and the board's transparency to the public following the Jim Smith scandal.
She faces the former mayor of Tarpon Springs, Beverley Billiris, and a relative newcomer with tea party ties, Carl Folkman, in the Aug. 24 Republican primary. Whoever wins will run against former Dunedin mayor Bob Hackworth in the Nov. 2 general election.
The competition has made the race for the north Pinellas District 4 commission seat one of the county's most watched this year.
"I think they are misrepresenting the record to the public and it's so unfair," said Latvala, 61, a Palm Harbor resident. "What is going on in the economy, it's a huge, huge deal … government is being forced to downsize."
While still favored because of her deep ties and fundraising, Latvala has never faced a bigger lineup of opponents as a commissioner, cruising to three victories in the past. But this year, there's an anti-establishment air, a poor economy and opponents who also have experience in public office.
"Susan is in the position of many incumbents across the county. The general public is frustrated where government is going," said former Commissioner Ronnie Duncan, a supporter who describes Latvala as a straight shooter even when the message isn't one people want to hear.
Latvala — once known as a challenger of the status quo — is now being painted by her opponents as being too ingrained in the establishment.
Billiris and Folkman have seized on the county's projected $80 million shortfall over the next two years. They criticize how the county's spending far outpaced population growth and inflation from 2001 to 2008, and now faces cuts to services and new fees to visit parks.
Meanwhile, Hackworth, who has no primary challenger, has launched a campaign based on ethics, spinning off Latvala's larger war chest filled in part with contributions from people who do business with the county.
She's not taken the attacks lightly, firing off tersely worded e-mails.
To Hackworth — who e-mailed her in June to rip the "chill" in her treatment of him at a forum — she replied she wouldn't engage his "negative" approach and defended her record.
While campaigning, Billiris accused the commission of hiding on a consent agenda the much criticized 2007 deal to buy land from the county's now former property appraiser.
Latvala's responded July 18 with an e-mail that included the 10-page agenda item because it was on the regular agenda — just not publicly discussed, the crux of much of the dispute.
"I am confident that you wouldn't want to say anything during your campaign that wasn't absolutely true," she wrote.
In an interview Thursday, Latvala accused Billiris of lying and defended the county's actions, saying the newspaper blew the Jim Smith scandal out of proportion.
"I knew what I knew, and there was no scandal," Latvala said. "County employees went onto his property … and changed the topography of that land. When he found out, he was upset.
"It was no big deal."
A grand jury found no crime, but criticized the county staff's handling of the sale, the County Commission for not discussing it and found no "credible evidence" that work crews damaged the property as Smith claimed. It led to the ouster of the county attorney and county administrator.
"If everything was so right, why did people get fired?" asked Billiris, 62, who was term-limited in Tarpon Springs and seeks Latvala's seat because Latvala hasn't been accountable enough.
Mayors get testy
It's not just her campaign opponents breaking with Latvala over her tactics.
After years of sparring with Latvala, the county's Mayors Council agreed to support Billiris, although the endorsement isn't universal.
Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard endorsed Latvala. Former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, who didn't return a call seeking comment, hasn't publicly endorsed anyone.
St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster recently said he is staying neutral, but noted Latvala has trouble with mayors.
"She's just not been very cordial towards my city and towards me when I appeared in front of the County Commission," said Safety Harbor Mayor Andy Steingold, who was president of the group last year.
Latvala said she stood up to mayors used to hearing only yes, like when she voted against a Safety Harbor redevelopment plan.
However, recently she's been reaching out to different groups in the community.
She successfully pushed for a moratorium on pain pill clinics, and a summertime fertilizer ban to protect waterways from runoff.
For the fertilizer ordinance — opposed by industry — she won an award from the Suncoast Sierra Club despite upsetting some environmentalists by her advocacy of building utilities and ballfields in Brooker Creek Preserve.
"First of all what's the status quo? I have continually been a voice for changing things for the better," Latvala said. " We have a good government."
Folkman particularly wants to crack Latvala's support among diehard conservatives, who make up part of the local party's base. District 4 includes much of north Pinellas, including Oldsmar and parts of Clearwater and East Lake, where Republicans outnumber Democrats.
Latvala has an established name in Republican circles, shared with her consultant and ex-husband, Jack Latvala, who is running to return to the Florida Senate.
While she has a moderate streak and denies any lost support, she acknowledges that she doesn't "go that far right."
"If District 4 was leaning Democratic — there were more Democrats than Republicans — what would be her party affiliation?" asked Pinellas state committeeman Tony DiMatteo, a Folkman ally. "It'd be Democrat. Period."
Yet Folkman, whose only previous campaign was a 1996 unsuccessful bid for Palm Harbor Fire District, remains lesser known with fewer resources.
Much of the attention has focused on Latvala vs. Billiris, who spent 2004 to 2010 as mayor of Tarpon Springs, which amounts to 10 percent of the district's Republican voters.
"My personal assessment is there's only one challenger in this race to Susan. Mr. Folkman … he wants to do public service … but the real campaign is between Beverley and Susan," Duncan said.
Even then, Latvala has received more than $103,000 in contributions, four times what Billiris has received and seven times that of Folkman.
Hackworth, unopposed with $33,000 in donations, has focused his criticism on Latvala as his likely opponent in November.
"The other guys, we know both of them," Pinellas Republican Party chairman Jay Beyrouti said of Billiris and Folkman. "I don't see that they're setting the campaign on fire."
David DeCamp can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.