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The bark, and bite, of Jack Latvala

Published Sep. 13, 2005

In a packed Capitol committee room, Sen. Jack Latvala is listening to a man at the podium when he hears something he doesn't like. Latvala scowls, red-faced, like a bully on a schoolyard.

Then, the frown passes as quickly as a summer squall. Latvala turns gracious, thanks the speaker and moves to the next item of business.

It is a classic moment for the 46-year-old Palm Harbor Republican, who is part pit bull, part statesman.

Latvala wears his emotions out front. In Capitol halls, he'll yell to make his point. More than a few squabbling lobbyists have had him cut them off in mid-sentence with a bark: "Go work it out!"

What Latvala lacks in patience, he makes up for in stamina and a self-effacing sense of humor.

He works long hours and holds a high profile in the Legislature just four years after he was elected to fill the seat vacated by Curt Kiser.

"He's risen fast," says longtime Tallahassee business lobbyist Wade Hopping. "He's willing to do the detail work as well as the glory, and he keeps an amazing amount of stuff in his head. He's like a pack rat of information."

These days, Latvala seems to be everywhere. He helped broker a deal to keep embattled University of Florida President John Lombardi on the job. He has got his fingers in any number of major issues _ election reform, pollution cleanups, the water wars, public schools, telephone rates and conservation land-buying.

"I never realized how much one person could get done if they paid attention and did a good job," he said.

A diet cola perpetually in hand, Latvala careens through frenzied days while lobbyists and staffers trot along behind.

"He'll wear you out," says Latvala's wife, Susan, a Pinellas School Board member.

When a reporter asks to trail him for a day, Latvala quips: "What: Are you doing a story on the meanest guy in the Senate?"

Republican Party Chairman Tom Slade once publicly called Latvala "obnoxious and overbearing and way, way too self-important."

"He just walks in and takes over a room. That's why you've got two kinds of people: those who worship him and those who despise him," Slade said.

Said Latvala: "I acknowledge that I have a temper and that I am harder to deal with than some people would like. I wish I was more diplomatic sometimes. But I'm very direct. Some of my colleagues will tell you they are your best friend, then stab you in the back. I don't do that. I keep my word with people."

A Republican environmentalist

Latvala is a moderate who believes the Republican Party should stay out of people's private lives. He believes in public schools and abortion rights and declares himself an environmentalist, although his campaigns were bankrolled by businesses.

His highest-profile role is as chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee. Latvala says he got on the committee only because he liked fishing, then quickly became the point man for the Republicans on environmental issues.

"There have been a lot of lobbyists who wanted to use Republican control of the House and Senate to turn back the clock on environmental protection, and I haven't let that happen," he said. "I'm proud to be a Republican environmentalist."

Campaign reports show Latvala got heavy contributions from developers, pavers and cement manufacturers, chemical companies, garbage incinerator manufacturers, oil companies, timber giants, sugar growers, billboard companies and the phosphate industry (his father was a phosphate mining engineer in Bartow).

In the Senate, Latvala has many friends who lobby for business, but he works equally well with environmentalists.

He worked to toughen the state fishing net laws, set stiff cleanup bonds for offshore oil drilling companies and is pushing the conservation land-buying program that will replace Preservation 2000.

He worked hard to get money out of the Legislature to restore the Ocklawaha River, but he came up against powerful opponents and lost. The Florida League of Conservation Voters honored him with a Silver Star award for the 1997 legislative session.

"He's always willing to hear us out on our issues," says Katherine Baughman, who lobbies for the Trust for Public Land.

"I always wore my hair short'

Latvala's first political awakening happened in 1960.

"I was in fourth or fifth grade, and I came home with a Kennedy pin, and my dad said, "No, son. We're not for Kennedy. We're for Nixon.' "

A political junkie in his high school days in Bartow, Latvala began his career in the right-wing camps of George Wallace and Richard Nixon while his contemporaries grew their hair and protested the Vietnam War. At Stetson University in 1972, he was named Outstanding Florida College Republican.

"I was 100 percent down the line for Nixon," Latvala said. "I always wore my hair short. I looked like a nerd in high school."

His first job was as a management trainee for a five-and-dime chain, but he was soon drawn to politics.

He worked for the Republican party, then as a Tallahassee lobbyist, and then ran tough campaigns through a direct-mail business he built from the ground up. When Latvala ran campaigns, he had a take-no-prisoners approach that sometimes left lingering bad feelings.

His direct-mail business made him a millionaire. He has since sold most of the business to give him more time to devote to the Senate. He owns a waterfront home in Palm Harbor and one in an upscale Tallahassee neighborhood.

Latvala and his wife both have children from previous marriages. All are grown and out of the house.

This fall, Latvala surprised Tallahassee insiders by abruptly announcing a run for secretary of state.

Sandra Mortham, a party favorite, was leaving the job to run on Jeb Bush's gubernatorial ticket. Then Latvala quit. He said he had an epiphany on an airplane and decided he really loved the Senate, after all.

Shortly afterward, Latvala's turnaround seemed to make more sense: Dogged by criticism about her performance as secretary of state, Mortham stepped down from the Bush ticket. Both Mortham and Latvala deny he quit the race to make room for Mortham, but few insiders believe their story.

Slade said Latvala would have been competitive in the race. "But he really needs to take a piece of sandpaper to that personality."

Latvala says he's working on it.

"I'm trying hard this year," he said,"to be kinder and gentler."