TALLAHASSEE — Pinellas County will not have its first Senate President in nearly a century after Sen. Jack Latvala announced Thursday that he is giving up his long, protracted battle against Sen. Joe Negron for one of the most powerful positions in Florida.
Latvala, one of the Legislature's most colorful characters known for his blunt and often volatile temperament, acknowledged that the intensity of the three-year battle for the top post in 2017 had reached a boiling point that was hurting the Senate. He told reporters that he has been so consumed in the politics of that race that it was taking time away from public policy issues that he said he was elected to tackle.
"I just felt like it was time to start a new path of working together in the Florida Senate and look at the big picture rather than just look at my own personal picture," said Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who has spent 13 years in the Florida Senate. "I don't look at this with any regret whatsoever. I look at this as the first page of a new book."
Latvala, who turned 64 this week, won't go away empty-handed. In exchange for withdrawing from the race, Negron, a Republican from Stuart, announced he would make Latvala the chairman of the top budget writing committee in the Florida Senate in 2017 when he will be president.
"I have confidence he can do that job," Negron said of promising Latvala the Senate Appropriations chairmanship.
But the decision affects dozens of other legislators from Tampa Bay and around the state. Other senators who backed Latvala stood to get prime committee posts if Latvala had won the position. But with Negron outlasting Latvala, it's Negron's loyal supporters who will hold rank.
"To the victor goes the spoils," said Sen. John Legg, a Pasco County Republican who had backed Latvala. "Joe won the presidency. He's going to put people he deems that he can rely on, that work with him closer — that know him better — in key positions. And I don't blame him for that. I don't think he'll be vindictive."
Negron said he's already reaching out to supporters of Latvala to gain their support and said there will be lots of opportunity for everyone to still have their voices heard in the Senate under his leadership.
Negron said the Republican caucus had to come back together after years of intramural fighting. He likened it to a sports team that practices hard against one another, but reassembles to take on the next team.
"This was an intramural competition and Senator Latvala and I have worked it out that that leadership race is now concluded," Negron said.
The Senate president wields significant power by being able to appoint all committee chairmen, direct the legislative agenda for the 40-member Senate, and push or kill legislation, from tax cuts to Medicaid expansion to immigration reform issues.
In Negron, the Senate gets as its leader a 54-year-old lawyer known for a studious demeanor and a bold libertarian streak. He has sponsored legislation to restrict use of drones, prohibit random drug tests of public employees and restore rivers and lagoons.
Negron has been claiming victory in the senate presidency race for months, convinced he had already collected enough support from current Senate Republicans to have a majority of votes to lead the chamber. In August, Negron released the names of 14 of 26 Republican senators, including himself, that would deliver him the top post. That pushed current Senate President Andy Gardiner to schedule a caucus vote in early December to seal Negron's long climb to power.
Latvala scoffed at that announcement then as he was recruiting candidates to run for the Florida Senate in 2016 that could back his quest for the top post. But those efforts became increasingly more confused as the Florida Senate battled through weeks of a special session to redraw all of the Senate's districts. The Florida Supreme Court forced legislators to redraw maps after previously drawn districts were deemed unconstitutional. With each new map, legislators and political watchers were weighing how the battle between Latvala and Negron would be affected.
Still Latvala on Thursday refused to discuss whether redistricting played any role in his decision to drop out of the Senate presidency contest.
"They are completely separate issues," Negron said, just minutes after the Senate rejected a proposed redistricting map from the House, thus assuring the three-week special session would end on Friday without a final map being adopted by the full Legislature.
If Latvala had won the post, he would have been the first Senate president from Pinellas County since John Stansel Taylor of Largo, who had the job in 1925 and was a member of a pioneer Pinellas family.
Latvala said the day-to-day battle for the presidency was taking toll on him in many ways and felt it was just time to let it go.
"It is like a load has been lifted off my shoulders," Latvala said.
Times/Herald Staff Writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Contact Jeremy Wallace at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263. Follow @jeremyswallace.