Pinellas school board candidate supports DeSantis’ choice agenda

Katie Blaxberg is a former legislative staffer for then-state House member Chris Latvala.
Katie Blaxberg
Katie Blaxberg [ [Courtesy of Katie Blaxberg] ]
Published June 3|Updated June 3

Katie Blaxberg, a former legislative staffer for Chris Latvala who identifies herself as a supporter of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ education agenda, has filed to run for the Pinellas County School Board seat held by Carol Cook.

Cook says she hasn’t decided whether to run for reelection to the seat after having served on the board since 2000, but said her decision might depend in part on who files to run to replace her. In the past, she has said she was not eager to extend her board tenure.

DeSantis heavily involved himself in school races last year and has promised to do the same again in 2024, including listing incumbent school board members he hopes to oust. But Cook, who has taken a moderate stance on the “parental rights” movement and other initiatives of the conservatives hoping to revamp Florida public education, is not one of those DeSantis picked out.

Blaxberg, 42, of Clearwater is a lifelong Floridian who has lived in the Tampa Bay area since attending the University of South Florida, she said.

She has had stints as a teacher and real estate agent in addition to working for Latvala during his last term as a state House member, with career interruptions to raise her three children.

She left the legislative job after he left due to term limits and won a county commission seat.

Her two older children attend a private school and her youngest is home-schooled, she said.

She said she’s a strong supporter of “school choice,” including the bill DeSantis promoted to offer private school vouchers to all parents in Florida, despite the possibility that some private schools may raise tuition to take advantage of the voucher money.

Children, including hers, she said, “have very different learning styles,” and, “I want parents to be able to choose what is right for our children.”

She said she developed “a passion for government work in general,” and “saw that the place where you can make the most change is at the local level” while working for Latvala when he served as chairperson of the House education committee.

Asked whether she is willing to run against Cook, she praised the incumbent but said regardless of whether Cook runs again, “I am running for District 5 and that is my plan.”

DeSantis recently gave up control of his PAC, Friends of Ron DeSantis, to political ally Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, and its name changed to Empower Parents. Ingoglia has said the PAC’s cash, more than $80 million, could be used in local races.

Blaxberg said she hasn’t discussed her race with anyone connected to DeSantis and doesn’t know whether she could gain his support.

Andrew Warren gets awards

It’s no secret that Andrew Warren became a hero to some including Democrats and progressives when he was removed from his post as Hillsborough County state attorney by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

But a string of awards given to Warren recently underscores it.

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Last week, Warren received the annual award for professionalism and pro bono (no fee) service award from the criminal law section of the Hillsborough County Bar Association. The award is named for the late Marcelino “Bubba” Huerta, a much-loved Tampa legal community icon.

In April, he received the Delano Stewart Diversity Award, named for a pioneering Black lawyer and civil rights activist, from the George Edgecomb Bar Association, Tampa’s largest, predominantly African American legal association.

Association President Cornelius Demps said Warren was under consideration for the award before being removed from office in August, and that Warren’s co-recipient was Jeria Wilds, who worked under Warren as chief of the Problem-Solving Courts Division. He said the award reflected “efforts to increase diversity, equity and inclusion” in the office.

In March, Warren received Stetson University College of Law’s William Reece Smith Jr. Public Service Award for “individuals who have provided outstanding service to the legal profession and community.” It’s named for Smith, a former Tampa city attorney, interim president of the University of South Florida, first president of Florida Legal Services and energetic civic activist.

Lisa Baker McLean posts big first month

Lisa Baker McLean posted a big first month of fundraising in her campaign for Hillsborough County public defender, but she and her Democratic primary opponent, Rocky Brancato, could soon face significant Republican competition.

The result could be the first seriously contested race for the office in two decades.

Brancato, the office’s chief operations officer and felony bureau manager, has been considered by some the front-runner for the post in part because of support from incumbent Julianne Holt.

Holt, who’s active and popular in the local Democratic Party, has held the office since 1987, first appointed and then, since 1992, elected. She has faced no serious serious challenge since 2004.

McLean posted $56,550 in fundraising since her filing April 3, although that total was boosted by $20,000 of her own money.

Brancato, meanwhile, has raised $29,875 plus a personal loan of $10,000.

Meanwhile, local Republicans have been encouraging Circuit Judge Mark Wolfe to run, according to GOP legal community insider Clif Curry, and some are confident he will.

But, those insiders say, Wolfe can’t begin a campaign or talk openly about one while still remaining on the bench for ethical reasons; he has declined to comment on his plans.