Sunday, May 27, 2018
Opinion

Steinle: Jack Latvala rebukes one of seven in County Commission race

It isn't often that you get seven Republicans fighting for one seat on the Pinellas County Commission. And it isn't often that you get a popular Republican state senator telling people not to vote for a certain fellow Republican.

But that is this summer's weird primary battle for commission Seat 4, held for 14 years by Susan Latvala, who is retiring. The primary election is Tuesday and any Republican voter thinking of sitting it out should reconsider. The winner who will represent the GOP in the Nov. 4 general election against a Democrat and two no-party candidates needs just a plurality of Tuesday's votes, not a majority, to win.

There are plenty of candidates to choose from.

Macho Liberti is a firefighter. Wanda Kimsey spent 30 years as an administrative assistant to county commissioners. Tim Keffalas is a former director of the Tarpon Springs Housing Authority. Johnny Johnson runs a pediatric dental practice. The remaining three candidates are or were elected officials: Dave Eggers, mayor of Dunedin; Jim Ronecker, former mayor of Oldsmar; and Peter Nehr, former Tarpon Springs commissioner and state legislator.

Nehr was the subject of the letter that state Sen. Jack Latvala wrote to the public this week. Latvala said he was privy to some polling data that showed Nehr is the leader in the seven-way race, and he just couldn't sit still for that.

"I served with Peter in Tallahassee and have observed his political career from the beginning," Latvala wrote in the letter addressed to "Friends and neighbors." "I believe his record is not deserving of support for elective office in Pinellas County. Peter has a long record of what I consider to be personal financial and ethical lapses. I believe elected officials should hold themselves to a high standard . . . I believe Peter Nehr misses that mark."

Nehr's tenure as a public official was fairly uneventful until he decided to post shirtless pictures of himself online. He did it, he said, to show people he had gotten in shape. But what followed was a string of calamities for any politician: He declared bankruptcy, lost his Tarpon Springs flag shop and briefly owned an Internet sweepstakes cafe as authorities were cracking down on the cafes for illegal gambling. Just after he lost his bid for a fourth term in the state House in 2012, he used campaign donations to pay his live-in girlfriend $22,000 for "consulting" and "fundraising."

Nehr, 62, acknowledges now that some of his behavior wasn't responsible. He took time to reflect and claims he has changed. Since January, he's operated a one-person medical supplies delivery service. He has plastered District 4, which includes most of Pinellas north of Clearwater, with his campaign signs and fliers touting his legislative experience.

If the polling data is accurate, this is a peculiar turn of events. The candidate with the most baggage is besting six opponents with no baggage — two of them, Eggers and Ronecker, with unblemished records as elected officials.

In most of his past elections, voters overlooked Nehr's missteps. Two years ago, it seemed to catch up with him and voters gave the legislative seat to Democrat Carl Zimmermann. Is all forgiven now? Tuesday's election results will tell the story.

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