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  1. Opinion

For Florida Senate, three independent voices

The conservative Florida Senate needs more experienced, reasonable voices who focus more on Florida's long-term needs than short-term political gains. These three Tampa Bay Republicans fit that description and are independent enough to reach their own conclusions about what's best for the state.

Jack Latvala

District 20

In an increasingly conservative chamber, Sen. Jack Latvala remains the most powerful independent voice among the Republicans. He plays defense as well as offense, and he is influential in both statewide issues and local issues important to Tampa Bay.

Latvala, 60, stood against Republican efforts to privatize more prisons, split the state Supreme Court in two and dismantle growth management. On regional issues, he fought to restore funding for the University of South Florida in the fight to create Florida Polytechnic University. He required the state to study a possible merger between the Hillsborough and Pinellas bus systems, and he supported a bill requiring the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority to give up its property tax if voters approve a 1-cent sales tax for transit. Gov. Rick Scott vetoed that bill to appease light rail opponents.

Ashley Rhodes-Courter, 26, is a first-time candidate with a compelling personal story. She wrote a well-received book about spending nine difficult years in 14 foster homes, and she and her husband care for three foster children now. Rhodes-Courter passionately talks from personal experience about the shortcomings of the state's foster care system, but the Democrat is not yet as prepared on the other issues she would confront as a legislator.

Latvala served in the Senate between 1994-2002 before returning in 2010. His moderate voice is an influential one in Tallahassee. He supports extending the sales tax to Internet purchases, revising the "stand your ground" gun law, incentives for renewable energy and a more sophisticated approach to job creation. Latvala may well become Senate president in 2016 — the first from Pinellas in 90 years.

District 20 generally covers Pinellas County north of Seminole, including Largo and Clearwater.

For Florida Senate District 20, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Jack Latvala.

Tom Lee

District 24

For 10 years, Tom Lee was a reasonable voice in the Florida Senate, culminating with a two-year turn as president that ended in 2006.

A builder with deep ties to eastern Hills­borough County, Lee was solidly conservative on budget issues but moderate on education, other social policies and growth management. The Republican championed open government, tempered the clout of lobbyists and brought a sense of unity to the county's legislative delegation.

Lee, 50, still takes a nuanced view on most policy matters. He would improve the business climate by investing in schools, protecting the environment and crafting a more diverse energy strategy. Florida must strike a "healthy balance," he insists, between promoting growth and protecting its quality of life.

Democrat Elizabeth Belcher, 62, is a retired investigator for the Internal Revenue Service. She opposes tuition vouchers for private schools and the use of tax incentives to attract firms from out of state. Belcher has solid ideas for promoting mass transit and protecting the environment.

Lee, though, has a broader outlook that appeals across partisan lines. His maturity would help wake up a Legislature focused on short-term results. Lee sees a fundamental role for the state in providing a quality education; he also is strong on consumer issues. And Lee's deep record of community service gives him a solid feel for Brandon, Plant City and FishHawk.

For Florida Senate District 24, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Tom Lee.

Bill Galvano

District 26

Hillsborough County residents in the southern communities of Apollo Beach, Ruskin and Kings Point should see Republican Bill Galvano as their best hope for not being overlooked in this rangy, seven-county district.

Galvano, 46, is a Bradenton attorney who served in the Florida House from 2002 to 2010. He was known as a moderate who worked with lawmakers on both sides. Galvano supported health initiatives for children, and he was a leading voice on regional issues. He was the driving force behind creating the regional transportation agency in 2007 that has started the effort to build a modern bay area transit system. And he was one of a handful of Republicans in 2009 who voted against a House proposal to open near-shore Florida waters to oil drilling.

Democrat Paula House, 62, is an attorney and mediator in Lake Placid who was drawn to run by her environmental advocacy in Highlands County. The former teacher said she would level the playing field on taxes and invest in schools and infrastructure. Her agenda is sound, but Galvano has a better grasp of the region.

Galvano is open to spending more on education and transit and has called for a new focus on regional planning. Those are the right priorities. He was a leader in uniting the area's legislative delegation and seems committed to promoting the entire region again.

For Florida Senate District 26, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Bill Galvano.

Candidate replies

The Tampa Bay Times offers candidates not recommended by the editorial board an opportunity to reply. Candidates for the Florida Senate should send their replies no later than 5 p.m. Monday to: Tim Nickens, editor of editorials, Tampa Bay Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731; by fax: (727) 893-8675; or through our website at: Replies are limited to 150 words.