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Seel, Pinellas commissioner who led U.S. 19 fixes, retires after 23 years

Karen Seel’s quest for connection in Pinellas County is embodied by her defining project, a task once considered impossible.
Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel, left reminisces on a stack of newspaper articles with her assistant, Jan Tracy, right, while recalling memories of her tenure as a public official on Wednesday, Oct 12, 2022, in her office at the Pinellas County Courthouse in Clearwater. Seel retired in November, after more than 25 years, including more than two decades on the Pinellas County Commission.
Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel, left reminisces on a stack of newspaper articles with her assistant, Jan Tracy, right, while recalling memories of her tenure as a public official on Wednesday, Oct 12, 2022, in her office at the Pinellas County Courthouse in Clearwater. Seel retired in November, after more than 25 years, including more than two decades on the Pinellas County Commission. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Nov. 23|Updated Nov. 26

CLEARWATER — Karen Seel took a frustrated feeling out to the place where U.S. 19 crosses Allen’s Creek.

A decade or so earlier, soon after joining the Pinellas County Commission in 1999, Seel had taken on the challenge of trying to fix the notoriously dangerous road — a task many local politicians considered impossible. Seel actually had made progress, securing tax money to rebuild parts of the road as overpasses. But people were sick of the construction, and Seel wanted to know what was taking so long at the creek.

That part of the road turned out to have a sinkhole under it. There was arsenic, too. And at the bottom of everything lay the bricks from the original 1920s-era roadway, when Pinellas County’s population was 3% of what it is today.

Last month, Seel stood in her office, packing up for her impending retirement after nearly a quarter-century on the commission. Asked about her best day on the job, she told this story, then went to grab one of those bricks from a century ago, now affixed with a plaque bearing her name.

“Maybe not the best day,” she said. “But maybe the most illuminating.”

Seel knows about time. Patience, too.

Before her last day, Nov. 21, no active elected county official across Tampa Bay had held their job longer. She never was a firebrand, but those who know her say a quiet persistence drove a penchant for conducting rigorous research and bred fruitful political relationships. The work on U.S. 19, her signature accomplishment, has spanned her career, and it continues today.

“She was relentless,” said Susan Latvala, a fellow Republican who served with Seel on the County Commission for 14 years.

Like the roadway, she says, she has served residents from all backgrounds and parts of the county. And she’s a sort of conduit herself: from a more genteel, small-town past to the rancorous partisanship of governing today.

A Pinellas original

Seel, 64, is a first-generation Floridian born during a time of explosive growth in Pinellas County: Between 1950 and 1960, per census data, the population more than doubled, from about 160,000 to nearly 375,000.

Her father, architect Don Williams, helped shape the Pinellas of the late 20th century, in his day job and in office, including a four-term stint on the Clearwater City Commission. His work meant that the nuts-and-bolts of public service were dinner-table conversation.

Karen’s dad was her superhero; he also was a public official whose successes and, more pointedly, failures were covered in the newspapers throughout her adolescence. An effort to put Ruth Eckerd Hall on the downtown waterfront didn’t get traction, and a proposal for a north-county University of South Florida campus died at the ballot box. In 1974, he lost a mayoral bid to a member of the same church, in a race that divided their congregation.

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Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel shares a flyer from her first run for office for the Clearwater City Commission from 1996 while recalling memories of her tenure as a public official.
Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel shares a flyer from her first run for office for the Clearwater City Commission from 1996 while recalling memories of her tenure as a public official. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

“I never thought I’d be in elected office,” Seel said, “because (I had) enough scars.” But she never shook her father’s vision for Pinellas County, and she came to understand that real change happens on a timeline of 25 or 50 years, far longer than most politicians get in office.

She grew up and left home. She studied in Gainesville and Arizona and Mexico and England; worked in Saudi Arabia. She came back in the 1980s because she said she couldn’t think of a better place to raise a family (she and her husband have two sons). She worked for her dad’s architectural firm and became president of the local Junior League. She had no designs on politics. And then, in 1994, Don Williams died.

Something changed — enough that, when a seat on the Clearwater commission opened and someone asked her if she’d run, she said yes. Soon she was telling reporters that the city needed better collaboration: “If you get enough people in the room, you can find the best solution.”

She won the three-way 1996 race handily, and for nearly three years, she was in the thick of the city’s redevelopment efforts ahead of the new century. In 1999, a Pinellas commissioner was appointed to a state job, and Seel interviewed for his seat. On a January night soon after, Seel was at a friend’s house, talking about the future, when her elder son called with news: Gov. Jeb Bush was trying to reach her.

Queen of 19

A pair of headlines in what was then the St. Petersburg Times, printed a week apart in the fall of 1999, tells the story of Seel’s early years on the County Commission.

“Debate rare on Pinellas commission,” read one.

“Fixing deadly U.S. 19 is unlikely,” went the other.

The commission was a fit for Seel’s collaborative style — even before her arrival, the board was voting unanimously 99% of the time. It was heavily Republican but diverse for its time: three women plus the county’s first Black commissioner.

But in U.S. 19, Pinellas County had a broken spine that nobody had figured out how to mend. It was both a highway and an access road. The addresses were confusing, the turnoffs sudden, the left- and U-turns risky. In the mid-to-late 1990s, a dozen motorists and pedestrians a year were killed on the road’s Pinellas lanes. Locals dubbed one especially dangerous stretch “Death Valley.” People decorated their cars with bumper stickers reading, “Pray for Me, I Drive U.S. 19.”

Three task forces over two years came up mostly empty. Seel had been on the County Commission less than a year when she was appointed to lead yet another. Approaching a familiar problem with a familiar format did not inspire confidence. One Largo official predicted it would be “the most ineffective body ever set in the county.”

“You have to try, and that’s what we’re here for,” Seel said recently, reflecting on that era. “I can’t consider the fact that it’s political suicide, because it needs to be fixed.”

She believed she could pester lawmakers until they approved money for big, long-term fixes, like overpasses. In the meantime, the road needed better lighting, more traffic lights, changes to medians to stop drivers from cutting across the road.

Progress came with its own pitfalls. The Florida Department of Transportation dragged its feet. Residents grumbled about the lengthy construction. But Seel, unlike the officials who had tried before her, got the money she wanted: Within two years, tens of millions of federal dollars flowed into Pinellas for U.S. 19 work. Sidewalks got extended. Overpasses bypassed former intersections. Death Valley got a traffic light.

And when NBC’s “Dateline” told the world in 2005 that 19 “may be the most dangerous road in America for pedestrians,” the commissioner’s work got a shout-out: “It’s getting better, in large part because a county commissioner named Karen Seel decided she had seen enough white crosses.” The newsmagazine gave Seel credit for pulling in $350 million for the road.

“You’ve really got to have a longer view” with such projects, said Whit Blanton, the director of the county planning organization, Forward Pinellas. " You’ve got to know what you’ve got to do to be tenacious. And it’s not very sexy.”

Seel’s work earned her a nickname: Queen of 19.

With more overpasses still to be built, the work will outlive her reign. Her dad had been right: It takes decades to get stuff done. At the end of a career notable for its longevity, Seel’s defining project will outlast even her.

Pictures chronicle Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel’s family and professional life on a desk at her office.
Pictures chronicle Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel’s family and professional life on a desk at her office. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

‘There wasn’t any running away’

Away from the highway, Seel has stayed both busy and, often, under the radar. She’s helped push the commission to fund more health and human services projects, including emergency housing for homeless families and putting nurses in every public school.

She’s also had her share of failures, some that still sting, like the ambitious Pinellas Assembly, an effort to bring the county and its two dozen cities onto the same page for a long-term plan. It took on subjects like annexation and emergency medical service agreements, some of the biggest drivers of bad feelings between the cities and the county. It took five years, and it almost worked, but it needed unanimous approval. Twenty-two cities said yes; two said no.

Her status as a public-but-not-controversial figure means she’s communicated with constituents less through splashy headlines and more through chats in the aisles at Publix.

“There wasn’t any running away from people,” Seel’s son Scott, now 33, recalled, thinking about how any grocery run inevitably involved someone pulling his mom aside. “I feel like she always took the burden of individuals onto herself, because she knew how she impacted them individually.”

The County Commission has talked itself into controversy from time to time, though. In 2010, the commission, pulled to the right by a few members, voted to remove fluoride from its drinking-water supply, against the advice of scientists, including dentists. Seel voted against the Republican majority. The debacle ultimately cost the anti-fluoridators reelection, leading to the commission’s first Democratic majority in 50 years. (Fluoride since has been returned to the water supply.)

“She and I both remained moderate Republicans,” said Susan Latvala, who voted with Seel on issues like fluoride and an LGBT-rights ordinance. “That’s what’s happened to our party — it’s gone too far to the right. But we stayed there.”

Seel fears political noise could swallow the commission again. It already has complicated the end of her tenure. After running unopposed in 2020, she was supposed to be in office until 2024, after which she planned to retire. A change to election law moved up the cycle for two of the seven commission seats, and it opened the door for term-limited state Rep. Chris Latvala to run for the seat this year.

Seel, a Republican, opted to step aside rather than wage a primary campaign against a fiery, right-wing candidate from a family of political power brokers. Chris Latvala is the son of former state Sen. Jack Latvala, and the former stepson of Susan Latvala, who was once married to Jack.

The new commission already looks very different. On social media, Chris Latvala has picked fights with his now commission colleagues and mocks Democrats while quipping about state politics.. Newcomer Brian Scott, who turned the commission red on Election Day, is critical of government spending and has blasted the county’s 2020 beach closures and masking policies to stem the spread of COVID-19.

“I’m so sad” about the political environment, Seel said recently. “This is not the America that I aspire for, that I thought we had.”

Part of her wants to stay. She began her first interview for this story by noting she hadn’t changed the world, something that may have disappointed her younger self. But another part is at peace with her time on the commission.

Karen Seel's favorite photo of herself at work is this 1998 snapshot published in the St. Petersburg Times. Seel was a Clearwater city commissioner at the time.
Karen Seel's favorite photo of herself at work is this 1998 snapshot published in the St. Petersburg Times. Seel was a Clearwater city commissioner at the time. [ CLIFFORD, DOUGLAS R. | Tampa Bay Times ]

In her office, she picked through more than two decades of memories. She said she would keep what felt important: that old brick, a painted flamingo, a shovel from the groundbreaking of what’s now the Duke Energy Trail, another project she backed. She was looking for one picture in particular, her favorite, one that ran in the newspaper a long time ago.

Here it was. From the St. Petersburg Times, Dec. 11, 1998. Practically the beginning of her political career. Her hair is in a wavy blonde bob, her mouth making its way to a smile. Her head tilts upward. She loves it, she said, because it strikes her as aspirational. She was looking at the future.

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