1. Opinion

For a better Florida Senate

Published Jul. 20, 2012

FOur Republican primaries on Aug. 14 offer Tampa Bay voters an opportunity to bring more pragmatic experience to the Senate, which has become unusually partisan and confrontational.

John Legg | District 17, Republicans

Two experienced Republican House members are vying for District 17, which covers northwest Hillsborough and east and central Pasco. John Legg and Rob Wallace both spent eight years in the House and were term-limited out. Legg of New Port Richey is completing his final two-year term. Wallace of Carrollwood represented a northwest Hillsborough district from 1994-2002.

Legg, 37, a charter school administrator, has helped shape Florida's education policies — both good and bad. He was the leading advocate for using end-of-year tests to supplant the FCAT as a measure of high school student achievement. But he also pushed controversial bills that ended tenure for newly hired teachers and tied performance evaluations to standardized test results.

Both Legg and Wallace, 60, an environmental engineer, have voting records that reflect little regard for managing growth or protecting Florida's natural assets. Legg voted to open state waters to oil drilling. Wallace supported a private sector land grab and showed a willingness to undermine growth management regulations.

Wallace was accessible but uncompromising, which limits effectiveness. He once was on the losing end of a 119-1 vote on the state budget. Legg's work on prescription drug abuse demonstrated an ability to develop a consensus on a significant problem.

John Korsak, 40, is a security consultant and first-time candidate who moved to Lutz five years ago. He is not a realistic alternative.

In the Republican primary for Senate District 17, the Tampa Bay Times recommends John Legg.

Jack Latvala District 20, Republicans

Jack Latvala served Pinellas well in the Senate between 1994-2002, then returned to a more conservative chamber in 2010. He is once again proving himself to be an independent thinker and savvy leader.

Working with Democrats and moderate Republicans, Latvala, 60, was instrumental in thwarting the ill-conceived plan to privatize 27 South Florida prisons. He was heavily engaged on matters important to Tampa Bay — from restoring University of South Florida funding amid the fight over the creation of Florida Polytechnic University to supporting a bill ensuring that if Pinellas voters approve a 1-cent sales tax for transit the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority would have to relinquish its property tax. Too bad Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the bill.

Zahid Roy, 45, a Clearwater small business owner, is not a viable alternative. Latvala's independent streak has been a thorn in the side of the Legislature's conservative Republican leadership, which is a good thing even though he voted with them most of the time. Latvala also stands a good chance of becoming Senate president in 2016, which would make him the first from Pinellas County in 90 years and be a boost for the entire region.

District 20 generally covers Pinellas County north of Seminole, Largo and Pinellas Park. In the Republican primary for Senate District 20, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Jack Latvala.

Jim Frishe | District 22, Republicans

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This high-profile race sums up what's wrong with legislative elections. Senate District 22 is too sprawling, stretching from the south Pinellas beaches through St. Petersburg to south Tampa. The race is flooded with attack ads from outside groups, and it is a proxy fight over who will run the Senate in four years. Even worse, the Republican primary will decide who goes to Tallahassee because there is no Democratic candidate — yet only Republicans get to vote because there is a write-in candidate.

Both candidates are flawed. State Rep. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, 36, is a tea party favorite who has served just one term and does not represent the county's best interests. State Rep. Jim Frishe of St. Petersburg, 63, served an unremarkable six years in the House from 1984-90, then returned in 2006 and has not particularly distinguished himself. Both have generally toed the Republican conservative line, but Frishe better represents mainstream values, consensus-building and Pinellas' best interests.

Brandes supports universal vouchers, opposes collecting sales tax on Internet sales and wants to aggressively privatize state functions. Frishe opposes universal vouchers, supports collecting sales tax on Internet sales and advocates moving more slowly on privatization. But the deciding factors in this race are local.

Frishe favored a conservative bill backed by most Pinellas lawmakers that would have limited funding options if Pinellas voters approve a transit plan that includes light rail. Brandes voted against the bill, then helped successfully lobby Gov. Rick Scott to veto it because he is against light rail. Frishe supports Clearwater Sen. Jack Latvala's bid to become Senate president in 2016, which would be an enormous boost to the region. Brandes refuses to commit and is backed by more conservative lawmakers seeking to block Latvala's rise. That alone should disqualify Brandes as an option in this race. Add in that Frishe is better in touch with this community and its values, and the choice is clear.

In the Republican primary for Senate District 22, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Jim Frishe.

Tom Lee | District 24, Republicans

The race between Rachel V. Burgin and Tom Lee captures the divide between the leadership the state has and the leadership it needs.

Lee is an experienced, thoughtful former state senator who served as Senate president from 2004-06. He was a solidly conservative voice for his east Hillsborough County district. As Senate president, he was a fair and decent leader who made the legislative process more open and stood up to the lobbyists. Lee has the depth and confidence to talk straight about how growing the economy requires a "mosaic" of policies that include not only business-friendly regulations but support for schools, the environment and other public institutions.

Burgin is a two-term House member from Riverview who was effectively handed the seat by her former boss, former Rep. Trey Traviesa. Her legislative record is as undistinguished as her work and life experience. Burgin, 29, pushes bills to harass welfare recipients and women seeking abortions. She has not outlined a solution for any serious problem, from making property insurance more affordable and creating jobs to raising educational standards.

Lee, 50, is respected in both Tallahassee and the greater Brandon area. He is reasonable and works well with lawmakers across party lines, and he appreciates the impact that legislation has on Floridians over the long term. His service as Senate president should help the institution regain its footing as the killer of bad ideas instead of the promoter of them. And his break from politics also would enable him to bring some fresh perspective to the capital.

In the Republican primary for Senate District 24, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Tom Lee.


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