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Business know-how touted in race

Jack Latvala and Chuck Lehr have a lot of business experience, and each one thinks his experience is better.

Lehr is co-owner of Tarpon Sports & Scuba, with stores in Tarpon Springs and Port Richey. Latvala is president of Direct Mail Systems, one of the largest political direct-mail businesses in the country.

Latvala, a Republican, said his business, government and political experience makes him the best candidate for state Senate District 19, which covers northern Pinellas and western Pasco counties.

"There's nothing wrong with being a small-business person," Latvala said, comparing himself to Lehr. "I was a small-business person. But I was a small-business person that by the sweat of his own brow became a big-business person."

He said his work on the Palm Harbor Community Services Board, and his history of helping elect several legislators through his work as a political consultant, show a pattern of leadership.

But Lehr, a Democrat, stressed that he's not a "career politician." Unlike Latvala, he said, his work experience is all in the private sector. He says his extensive experience in the corporate world and as a small-business owner would help him size up government and make it work better.

"I know he's in business," Lehr said. "But he's not in any kind of business that I'm familiar with. . . . It's a political business."

Lehr said he also has shown leadership in local government by serving on the Tarpon Springs Economic Development Board, which prepared a strategic plan for the city.

One week from Tuesday, the voters will decide which businessman to send to Tallahassee.

Latvala and Lehr each want to succeed Sen. Curt Kiser, R-Palm Harbor, who decided to leave the Senate to run for lieutenant governor, a campaign that was unsuccessful.

Latvala won the Republican nomination after defeating former Dunedin Mayor Manny Koutsourais and Jamie Wilson in the Republican primary and runoff elections.

Latvala has a natural advantage in the district since 49.7 percent of the registered voters are Republicans, 38.2 percent are Democrats and 12.1 percent are independents or members of minor political parties.

But two years ago, Democratic candidate Peter Altman almost pulled off an upset, by gaining 49 percent of the vote and losing narrowly to Kiser.

Unlike the Latvala-Wilson runoff a month ago, this one has been rather calm. The two don't criticize each other much.

Lehr did point out that Latvala was the only one at a recent campaign forum who didn't support a law banning employment discrimination against homosexuals. Latvala said he doesn't discriminate in his own business, but wants to study the issue more before deciding whether it should be legislated.

Lehr also mentions that Latvala was "a long-time lobbyist" and says, "I don't know that the people want politics as usual. If they want that, vote for my opponent."

To which Latvala responds: "Ditto." He points out that Lehr is a Democrat, and Democrats have controlled the Legislature for this century, except in the Senate in 1993.

"Electing him makes Pat Thomas the Senate president and continues the same road that we've had in Tallahassee for 100 years," Latvala said.

Lehr said he supports Gov. Lawton Chiles' efforts to create a health care reform plan that would provide coverage for about 800,000 uninsured Floridians. Latvala said he doesn't have a firm position on the issue yet but thinks the solution may lie in some compromise between Democratic and Republican versions of the plan.