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  1. Florida Politics

Sen. Jack Latvala faces long-shot challenge from the right

CLEARWATER — As Pinellas County's most powerful legislator, Sen. Jack Latvala keeps making headlines.

Watch him blast Duke Energy, threatening legislation to end its controversial billing practices. See him win passage of in-state tuition rates for undocumented immigrants. Hear him come out publicly in favor of the Greenlight Pinellas light rail plan.

Some constituents in his north Pinellas district may disagree, but it's not like he has to worry about political opposition. The well-known, well-funded Latvala is considered such a shoo-in for re-election that no Democrat is bothering to run against him on Nov. 4.

Instead, the moderate Republican from Clearwater is facing a long-shot challenge from the right.

His opponent on the ballot is Libertarian candidate Tony Caso, a tea party activist who's best known for leading the fight against fluoridating Pinellas County's drinking water in 2011. Speaking to county commissioners then, Caso called fluoridation "part of an agenda that's being pushed forth by the so-called globalists in our government and the world government to keep the people stupid so they don't realize what's going on."

Caso, 65, quit the Republican Party in disgust to run as a Libertarian in Senate District 20, which stretches from Largo to Tarpon Springs.

"The Republicans were acting just like Democrats," said the retired custom cabinetmaker from Palm Harbor. "Tallahassee is totally out of control. They're all in bed with special interests."

Speaking of special interests, the race is a financial mismatch by a ratio of 75 to 1. Latvala, a veteran politician, has a campaign war chest of $488,000, much of it contributed by industry groups, businesses and political action committees. Caso, who calls his campaign a grass roots effort, has raised $6,411.

Latvala, 62, became a millionaire consulting for political campaigns and is known as one of the most effective and cantankerous legislators in Florida. He served in the Senate from 1994 to 2002, left due to term limits, then returned in 2010.

"I have a track record of getting things done on the issues that I get involved in for my district," Latvala said. "I have a lot of experience up there (in Tallahassee). I've been a pretty independent voice. I try to do the right thing."

The two candidates have starkly different views.

Latvala supports the Greenlight plan: "Frankly, if we're going to be a major-league county, we need to have some sort of better mass transit."

Caso calls it a boondoggle: "To spend that amount of money on mass transit is crazy."

Latvala opposes oil drilling off Florida's Gulf Coast. Caso is for it.

Latvala opposes medical marijuana in Florida. Caso is for it.

With the general election four weeks away, Latvala is mending from recent hip replacement surgery and can rely on an onslaught of political mailers to carry his message to voters.

Politically speaking, he may be more focused on maneuvering to become Senate president and helping his son get elected to the House. Latvala is competing with Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, to be Senate president in 2016. Each of them has been gathering support from fellow Republican state senators.

The Senate president is one of the three most powerful people in state government, along with the governor and House speaker. Latvala would be the first Senate president from Pinellas County in 90 years.

His son Chris Latvala, 32, is running against Democrat Steve Sarnoff, 61, to succeed Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, for whom the younger Latvala served as a legislative aide. A review of campaign finance data shows that the two Latvalas share dozens of campaign donors.

When asked if he had anything to say about his election opponent, Caso, the elder Latvala's answer was "No."

Contact Mike Brassfield at brassfield@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @MikeBrassfield.

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