While many of his constituents were focused on Hurricane Irma and mandatory evacuations for parts of Pinellas, state Sen. Jack Latvala, a Republican candidate for governor, was thinking about raising campaign money.
Latvala had scheduled a campaign kickoff fundraiser weeks ago for Ruth Eckerd Hall on Thursday evening and, while grumbling about Gov. Rick Scott and Pinellas emergency management officials being too alarmist, Latvala said he saw no reason to cancel his event.
"I have lived in Florida for 50 years. We have hurricane season every year. We try to use good judgment," Latvala told The Buzz. ''I'm not sure that we haven't overdone it a little bit. . . . Do you have to close down the state four days before the storm gets here?"
At a Pinellas County emergency briefing Friday, county leaders were not amused.
"Make no mistake that everybody standing here . . . is trying to make what they believe is the correct decision, the best decision in the interest of the citizens, in the interest of public safety," said Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, a client of Latvala's political consulting business.
Pinellas County Commission Chairwoman Janet Long, another longtime friend of the famously irascible state senator, said she had a "spirited" conversation with him about the county's Irma response.
"It's not a pleasant thing to be on the receiving end of something Sen. Latvala is not happy about," she said. "On this issue he was just wrong."
Speaking to The Buzz, Latvala stopped short of criticizing Gov. Scott. "The governor is doing his job as he sees the need to do it," Latvala said. "I think he's being a little . . ." he paused and said: "cautious."
After Hurricane Irma tears through the state, the need for help could be overwhelming. The Legislature will face many demands to take swift action to help rebuild the damage and help Floridians process insurance claims. The state's short- and long-term responses to this potential disaster will likely be a major issue in the 2018 elections.
As chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Latvala will be front and center for all those decisions, and if he's elected governor, he'll be in charge of all of Florida's emergency management apparatus.
Latvala's rival for the GOP nomination, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, declined to comment on Latvala's decision to hold a campaign fundraiser while mass evacuations were under way in Tampa Bay and elsewhere. Putnam suspended campaigning and visited Polk County's hurricane center Thursday.
Sen. Marco Rubio, who was in Miami on Thursday to deal with the hurricane, said he would have voted for a $15 billion relief package that irked Republicans because it also lifted the debt limit. But Rubio issued a long statement explaining his objections. Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson voted for the deal.
An excerpt from Rubio's statement: "If I had been able to participate in today's Senate vote in Washington, I would have voted to approve the supplemental package before the Senate. But my vote would come despite significant reservations about some of the other items attached to this legislation. . . . I strongly disagree with the decision made by the administration to agree to pair funding for FEMA and emergency disaster relief to short-term extensions to the continuing resolution, the debt ceiling and the National Flood Insurance Program unaccompanied by significant reforms."
Tallahassee hits EPA
Two Tallahassee men are poised to make a mark on President Donald Trump's Environmental Protection Agency.
One, former Department of Environmental Protection counsel Matthew Leopold, was just nominated by Trump to become the EPA's general counsel. His appointment requires Senate approval.
The other, John Konkus, was Trump's Leon County campaign chairman, but now is the EPA's deputy director of public affairs, where he's already started to make headlines for cutting out grants related to climate change.
While he was at the DEP, Leopold made headlines, too — for firing four of the agency's enforcement attorneys who were perceived as being too tough on polluters. The agency's official explanation was that he had to downsize the division because they weren't pursuing as many polluters any more under Scott.
Leopold's official biography says he was the trial counsel on Scott's lawsuit against Georgia over its choke hold on water flowing into the Apalachicola River. Florida spent millions of dollars on the case but lost. Amid a storm of criticism from state legislators over the cost of the losing litigation, DEP Secretary Jon Steverson resigned — to take a job with one of the private law firms collecting state money in the suit. Leopold went to work for a different firm that was also collecting state money from the suit, Carlton Fields.
Craig Pittman and Alex Leary contributed to this week's Buzz.