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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Latvala's voice elevates governor's race

Jack Latvala brings a welcome voice of reason and pragmatic conservative values to the 2018 governor's race. The long-time state senator from Clearwater has a firm grasp of the issues and challenges facing Florida, and he has a record of standing up to powerful special interests in Tallahassee. If he can break through a Republican primary field that will tilt far to the right, he would be an attractive general election candidate with broad appeal to centrist voters of both political parties.

Latvala, who filed his papers to run for governor last week and will hold a campaign kickoff event today in Clearwater, is not the typical statewide candidate. He is not fabulously wealthy or particularly telegenic with his stout frame and white beard. The Senate appropriations chairman is not the most gifted orator in Tallahassee. But his straight talk in an era of empty sound bites is refreshing, and he has a deep understanding of the state and of Tampa Bay.

In two stints in the Florida Senate, Latvala has been a remarkably effective voice on state and regional issues. He is one of the last of a long line of Pinellas County Republicans who are strong on environmental issues and public education, fiscally conservative and socially moderate, champions of local control and respectful of all three branches of government. That is a voice that needs to be heard in the governor's race and in Tallahassee, where too many legislators and candidates from both political parties spend too much time pandering to partisan extremes.

During his first stint in the Senate from 1994 to 2002, Latvala was a key player in helping pass Florida Forever, the program that dedicated millions each year to buying environmentally sensitive lands. He fought efforts to gut growth management, which ultimately was dismantled, and helped lead the creation of Tampa Bay Water, the regional utility which ended decades of fighting among counties over water. Since returning to the Senate in 2010, Latvala has helped block efforts to make it easier to drill off Florida's coast, create a system for evaluating and funding sports stadium projects and smooth rough edges off wrong-headed legislation. For example, Latvala backed earlier efforts to revise the "stand your ground'' law and successfully pushed an innovative way to save Duke Energy ratepayers hundreds of millions from bills tied to the nuclear cost recovery law. In an era of top-down micromanaging from Tallahassee, he has been a reliable voice for local government control.

Latvala also has been an effective advocate for Tampa Bay. He has brought home millions over the years for local projects and programs, secured money for beach renourishment and advanced a critical mid-Pinellas road project that will connect the Bayside Bridge with Interstate 275. This spring, he steered legislation that overhauled the renamed Tampa Bay Regional Transit Authority so that it has a clear mission to plan, design and implement a regional transit system.

In the Republican primary for governor, Latvala is an underdog. Unlike Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, the apparent front-runner, he has not run a statewide race. Unlike House Speaker Richard Corcoran, the Land O'Lakes Republican who also is positioning himself to run, he has not catered to the far right by consistently bashing the courts and public schools. Latvala is a reliable fundraiser and starts with several million dollars in his political committee, but he cannot self-fund a campaign like Gov. Rick Scott did.

Yet the Republican primary is more than a year away, and anything can happen. President Donald Trump's long shadow could affect the race. Or the most conservative candidates could divide the primary vote and leave an opening for Latvala. And Latvala's popularity in voter-rich Tampa Bay should be an asset.

Both political parties need more candidates with a deep knowledge of the issues and the state, a historical perspective and a clear understanding of the challenges facing Florida. Latvala possesses all of those qualities, and his voice in the governor's race should elevate the conversation.