A race between a well-funded, longtime politician touting experience versus a first-time office seeker rejecting any ties to special interests. This is no new election narrative.
But that is the glaring dynamic in the Florida Senate District 16 Republican primary between former state representative Ed Hooper, 71, of Clearwater and Palm Harbor restaurateur Leo Karruli, 51.
The seat has been vacant since December, when then-Sen. Jack Latvala resigned amid a sexual harassment investigation. If he hadn’t stepped down, Latvala would have been term limited from running again.
With an eye on that opening, Hooper began campaigning for the seat in January 2016 and has since raised $509,791, more than some candidates running for Congress.
In his first bid for office launched early this year, Karruli said he vowed to "not take the people’s money" and all but $5,500 of his $38,521 contributions have come from his own pockets.
• • •
Hooper retired from Clearwater Fire & Rescue after a 24-year career and served on the Clearwater City Council from 1996 to 2000. He lost his first bid for the Florida House in 2000, won in 2006 and represented Pinellas County’s District 67 until he was term-limited out in 2014.
After an expensive loss to former Largo Mayor Pat Gerard for Pinellas County Commission in 2014, Hooper set his eyes on state Senate District 16.
He said transportation, flood insurance, education and the opioid crisis are his top priorities.
As for his record, Hooper touts his advocacy for a bill in 2014 that allowed private companies to write flood insurance in lieu of the federal program as his biggest achievement for constituents. He also points to relationships he’s made as affirmation of his leadership.
About a fourth of the half-million dollars he has raised has come from political action committees and lobbyists, many tied to health care and insurance groups. His political committee Friends of Ed Hooper has raised another $212,848, with large donations from Duke Energy, Florida Power and Light and fire interests, which Hooper says have no impact on policy decisions.
"I’d have no trouble voting against any issue that I thought was not something that benefits my constituents," Hooper said.
He said the reality is big money is needed to run a successful campaign for advertising and air time to reach voters. But it doesn’t guide his thinking.
"If you’re a candidate and you’re willing to sell your soul for ten grand, you’re not much of a person," he said. "I’m not willing to do that."
Karruli said he decided when he launched his campaign to not take any money from special interests or lobbyists. He said he doesn’t actively solicit funding but will accept checks from constituents who want to help.
"I feel bad taking people’s money," Karruli said. "I’m running all the way with my money."
Born and raised in Albania, Karruli came to the United States in 1991 to leave behind a life of poverty and communist rule, he said.
After a short time in New York, he began washing dishes at a cousin’s restaurant in Oldsmar. He said he saved $28,000, borrowed some money from family and opened his first restaurant in Dunedin in 1996.
He said he spent a childhood sometimes going without shoes and early years in America eating only gnocchi and tomato sauce to stretch $2 for three meals. But since then he has operated 17 restaurants in Tampa Bay, built a real estate portfolio of half a dozen properties and a net worth of $5.4 million, according to his financial disclosure.
Now his only restaurant, Leo’s Italian Grill on U.S. 19 in Palm Harbor has become his defacto campaign headquarters.
He’s centered his platform on business recruitment and creating more jobs in the district.
"I want to keep my people in my community first," he said.
But a large thrust of his campaign has been directly blasting his opponent.
• • •
In fliers and a TV ad, Karruli has called Hooper a career politician and beholden to special interests. He’s bullet-pointed what he calls damaging votes from Hooper in the House on bills to allow telecommunication companies to raise rates, pass appropriation bills that included tax increases, and other issues.
Hooper said legislators have a Constitutional duty to pass a budget every year, and he "can’t pick out everything" that he didn’t agree with. He said he’s consistently voted for sales tax exemptions and reductions and "everything I do is with a common sense approach."
Hooper’s mailers have never named his opponent and instead focused on his background as a first responder and time in office stating "he’s had a lot of practice" as a fiscal conservative.
Like the restaurant business, Karruli said his campaign has been "word of mouth" and his reputation in the community for 27 years speaks for him.
"People talk," he said. "We’re tired of what we see."
The winner of the Aug. 28 primary will face Democrat Amanda Murphy in Nov. 6 election for the district that covers north Pinellas and western parts of Pasco counties.
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.