CLEARWATER — Tampa Bay has a fair share of powerful politicians at the state level, but few match Republican state Sen. Jack Latvala.
The North Pinellas County lawmaker is known for his influence as well as his independence. Still, Latvala, 62, is not without a critic or two. For the second time, Zahid Roy is challenging him in the primary election for Senate District 20, which runs from Tarpon Springs to Largo, excluding the beaches south of Clearwater Beach.
The primary election is on Aug. 26.
Roy, who got 15 percent of the vote in the 2012 primary, said he aims to dismantle a political system he sees as corrupt and anti-consumer. “If I want to bring down the corruption in Tallahassee I must go after the keystone,” Roy said.
Raised partly in Bayville, New York, and partly in Pakistan, Roy is a mathematical geologist and has worked extensively as a computer programmer. A bad experience with an insurance company on a car repair led him to open his own automobile body shop, he said, which led to further disappointment with the insurance industry. That inspired him to run.
He said he wants to fight policies that favor the insurance industry and tackle issues like education — he’s a believer in the voucher system, health care and affordable energy.
While Roy only received 15 percent of the vote in 2012, he also spent only $5,000, which is the number of votes he got, he said. So far in this cycle, Roy has raised $2,500, much of which he loaned his campaign. Latvala has raised at least $450,473.
Roy also has an arrest stemming from an Aug. 22, 2013, incident in which a pizza delivery driver parked in Roy’s driveway, according to the arrest affidavit. During an ensuing argument, Roy reportedly retrieved a semiautomatic handgun and threatened the driver, who ran and called 911. Roy was arrested, but the aggravated assault charge was downgraded to unlawfully threatening someone with a firearm, then the charge was dropped. Roy said the charge was bogus.
Despite the national attention on obscure candidates beating well-known incumbents in recent primaries, it is not likely in moderate Pinellas, said University of South Florida political science professor emeritus Darryl Paulson.
“There’s been a very high rate of incumbent re-election,” Paulson said. “While people don’t like politicians in general, they still tend to like their own politicians.”
Latvala, who did not respond to requests for an interview, has extensive name recognition. He was born in Oxford, Mississippi, and his family moved to Florida in 1961. His son, Chris, is running in the Republican primary for the State House District 67, and his former wife, Susan Latvala, is retiring as a Pinellas County commissioner and former school board member. For years, Latvala has run a political consulting and advertising firm in Clearwater.
He was elected to the state Senate in 1994 and left in 2002. He returned eight years later and has served on numerous committees, including Appropriations, Environmental Preservation and Conservation and Ethics and Elections, the latter of which he chairs. He has been mentioned as a possible future Senate president.
Latvala doesn’t necessarily toe the party line, as evidenced by his touting of a bill granting in-state tuition for the children of undocumented immigrants. But he also has tried to distance himself from the maverick label. He has said he wants to change the tone of discussions that take place in the Senate to reflect that of the chamber during his initial two terms.
“Members voted their consciences on what they thought was good for their communities, and it was a very independent and deliberative place,” he told the Tribune in 2012. “That’s changed a lot — the old Senate was bottom-up. Power rose from the individuals to the leadership, as opposed to the other way around.”
The winner of the primary faces Libertarian Tony Caso in the general election Nov. 4.