CLEARWATER — In the primary election to replace term-limited state Rep. Ed Hooper, Republican voters have a choice between continuity and change in two young candidates running in District 67.
The son of a well-known state senator, Chris Latvala, 32, said he hopes to carry on Hooper’s legacy of voting based on constituents’ needs above personal opinions.
As Hooper’s former political aide in Tallahassee, Latvala has experience in state government and the support of many prominent Republicans, including his former boss.
His opponent, Christopher Shepard, 26, made his entry into state politics with an unsuccessful attempt to oust Hooper in the 2012 primary.
The Iraq War veteran is a staunch conservative who aims to rein in state government.
Latvala goes into the primary with a clear advantage in name recognition, political endorsements and campaign funds with more than $188,000 in the most recent election filings, compared with Shepard’s $2,100.
The winner of the Aug. 26 primary will face one of three Democrats vying to represent a large swath of Clearwater and Largo.
Latvala says he’ll work hard to advocate for everyone in his district, following in the footsteps of Hooper and his father, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who is seeking re-election.
“I believe a true representative represents everybody, whether they voted for them or not,” says Latvala, who works as vice president of his father’s business, GCI Printing Services, in Largo.
As opposed to Latvala’s family connections, Shepard emphasizes his outsider status, which he says gives him a clear perspective on the ways state government encroaches on the rights of Floridians.
“I understand the need and the necessity for a government, and a strong government, but it also needs to be limited in any way possible to not infringe on the rights of people in this state,” said Shepard, an associate at Sam’s Club who is studying at St. Petersburg College.
Neither Latvala nor Shepard have held political office, though Latvala has more familiarity with the political process working with Hooper from 2006-09 after he graduated from the University of Central Florida with a history degree.
Growing up in the home of a state politician turned the younger Latvala away from aspirations for public office.
After his parents divorced, he spent his childhood with his mother in Jacksonville, but regained a taste for politics during George W. Bush’s election campaign.
Working with Hooper deepened his interest in state government, particularly on issues that affect local residents.
He recalls Hooper putting his political weight behind funding for a community center in Clearwater’s North Greenwood neighborhood during a lean budget year.
“He did it because it was the right thing to do and he represented those people and it was something a lot of people in that community relied upon,” Latvala said.
On a state level, making reforms to education, including school vouchers, protecting pensions for police officers, firefighters and other public workers and job growth are among Latvala’s priorities.
Shepard says he shares Latvala’s commitment to vote according to the will of his constituents, even if it means compromising his political philosophy at times, but his views on key issues differ dramatically.
Latvala supports his father’s successful efforts to secure in-state tuition for children of undocumented immigrants, something Shepard adamantly opposes. Shepard is also a critic of raising the county’s sales tax for a major transportation expansion, but Latvala plans to vote yes in the Greenlight Pinellas referendum this fall.
Shepard would like to see more state support for vocational training for young people who don’t want to pursue a four-year college degree.
He also thinks the state should back off from acquiring public lands with taxpayer money through the Florida Forever program and allow the private market to make better use of them.
Shepard says a sense of duty drove him to run for office.
“I felt obligated to continue my service after I left the Army to the people here in Pinellas County and to continue to serve my country in order to make it a better place for everybody,” he said.