Pinellas County commission races take shape as qualifying period ends

Three candidates drew no opposition, including in District 5, where state Rep. Chris Latvala becomes a commissioner by default.
State Rep. Chris Latvala will be term-limited out of the Florida House in November and become a Pinellas County commissioner unopposed.
State Rep. Chris Latvala will be term-limited out of the Florida House in November and become a Pinellas County commissioner unopposed. [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | AP ]
Published June 17, 2022|Updated June 17, 2022

When term limits force state Rep. Chris Latvala out of the Florida House this November, he will move seamlessly into another elected office without having to face voters.

Latvala, a Clearwater Republican, won the District 5 seat on the Pinellas County Commission Friday by virtue of drawing no opponents when the qualifying period for the fall elections ended at noon.

His move was made possible by a narrowly tailored provision within an election reform law enacted in April that applied only to Pinellas County. It required all commissioners in single-member districts to run again for their seats following the redistricting finalized in December.

As a result, District 5 Commissioner Karen Seel and District 7 Commissioner Rene Flowers were up for reelection halfway through their four-year terms.

Seel, however, opted to bow out instead of mounting a primary campaign against Latvala to stay in office for two more years. Before the law change, Seel, also a Republican, had announced she planned to step down at the end of her term in 2024 after what would have been 25 years in the seat.

Related: Tallahassee judge dismisses Pinellas lawsuit challenging state election law

Latvala said he was not involved in pushing for the provision, but he is the only benefactor as he coasts into his new job on the commission.

“I look forward to serving on the County Commission,” Latvala said in a statement. “It’s an honor and privilege that I don’t take lightly. Commissioner Seel, who I will be replacing, was an outstanding leader and I wish her the best in her retirement.”

Seel has said it was “pretty obvious” the new provision in state law was crafted so Latvala could run the year he was term-limited out of the House. She said her distaste for the politics involved factored into her decision not to run.

Pinellas County Commissioners are paid $105,800 annually. Members of the Florida House are paid $29,697.

First elected to the commission in 2020, Flowers, a Democrat, had no challenger file to run against her after the law change put her seat in contention. District 6 Commissioner Kathleen Peters, a Republican, who was already up for reelection before the law change, also faced no challenger in her bid for a second term.

There will be an August primary for the District 4 seat, which was already headed to the ballot before the law change. Incumbent Republican Dave Eggers faces registered nurse Heather Aynne Vernillo.

Eggers, who is running for a third term, has raised $67,870 in his reelection campaign, according to treasurer reports. Vernillo has raised just under $5,000. The primary is open to all voters in the district regardless of party, because all candidates in the race are of the same party.

The only commission race that will appear on the November ballot is at-large District 2. Republicans Debbie Buschman, the Lunch Pals coordinator for Pinellas County Schools, and Brian Scott, president of Escot Bus Lines, will face off in the primary for the chance to challenge incumbent Democrat Pat Gerard.

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Scott has raised $130,540 to Buschman’s $19,172. Gerard has garnered $179,225, according to treasurer reports.

Before her election to the commission in 2014, Gerard served 14 years on the Largo City Commission, the last eight as the city’s first female mayor.

“I have a lot of experience, and I have a lot of local support, and I think that translates to votes,” Gerard said, noting how more than a third of Scott’s donations are from out of state. “I think people like my middle-of-the-road sensibility.”

Scott said he decided to run to “bring common sense business decision-making back” to the commission. He said he opposed decisions made during the coronavirus pandemic, like financial incentives for county employees to get the vaccine.

“When I decided to run I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I picked it because it needs to be done,” Scott said. “(Gerard) was the chair of the county commission during 2020 and there was a lot of unpopular decisions made, so I don’t think it’s impossible.”