Of primary importance

It’s almost August 14. Are you ready for some voting?

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The presidential race (and the race for Olympic gold) may be grabbing all the headlines, but Florida has a primary coming up Aug. 14, and it’s important no matter what party you identify with.

Consider the intense GOP battle in Senate District 22. Democrats can’t vote in this one, but they should certainly care about who wins; the results could determine the future direction of Tallahassee for many years to come.

And that’s not the only contest of interest. Others include a sheriff’s race in Pinellas that’s too close to call; two Republican campaigns that revolve around one candidate’s sexual indiscretion; and two Democrats vying for one unsexy but very significant position in Hillsborough.

Jeff Brandes vs. Jim Frishe

FL Senate District 22

The newly redrawn district covers a wide and politically diverse swath of Tampa Bay, from the south Pinellas beaches through St. Petersburg to South Tampa and part of Northeastern Hillsborough. Democrat Charlie Justice held the seat for four years (when it was District 16), but he opted not to run for re-election in 2010. Jack Latvala made his return to Tallahassee by winning the seat back for the Republicans.

With re-districting, Latvala has opted to run for a safer Senate seat in North Pinellas. Now two Pinellas GOP state Representatives, veteran Jim Frishe and relative newcomer Jeff Brandes, are fighting each other to fill the vacuum in District 22.

No local race has seen more money thrown at it from outside groups. Why? Because it’s a proxy vote on the future of Latvala, who wants to be Senate President in 2016. Frishe is an ally and supports Latvala in that role; Brandes is uncommitted.

Why is that important? Well, not only would Latvala’s election in Tallahassee give power and attention to the Tampa Bay area, but his moderate brand of ideology is increasingly in short supply in Tally, particularly with term limits ending the Senate careers of other moderates like Paula Dockery and Mike Fasano (who is running for a House seat this year).

“Jack Latvala represents some element of a voice of reason and common sense that for whatever reason, evades the Tallahassee Republican establishment,” says Bay News 9 commentator Chris Ingram. “More often than not, he’s kind of a maverick if you will, and the establishment would call him a rabble-rouser. He’s just a guy legitimately representing his constituents, but also trying to do the right thing.”

Blogger Peter Schorsch agrees, saying the ascension of Latvala is “as important a political development as there is right now in Florida politics,” mentioning his stances on the environment, prison privatization and other issues.

The Frishe-Brandes race is also a metaphor for Florida Democrats’ desultory position in 2012. Although the seat was held by a Democrat (Justice) as recently as two years ago, the combined talents of the Hillsborough and Pinellas Democratic parties were able to field exactly nobody to run against the eventual GOP winner.

Bob Gualtieri vs. Everett Rice

Sheriff, Pinellas

The most exciting Republican–against-Republican faceoff in Pinellas pits incumbent Sheriff Robert Bob Gualtieri against former Sheriff Everett Rice, who in the eight years since he stepped down has seemingly gone all Tea Party.

Or that’s how it sometimes appeared from comments he made on the campaign trail this summer.

To hear Rice tell it, he was content in retirement, with no desire to return to the job or the salary that comes with it. But he got his dander up when former Sheriff Jim Coats stepped down a year ago and anointed his top deputy (Gaultieri) to take over.

“It angered a lot of people,” Rice told CL last week. “I got probably hundreds of calls from people asking that I come back. That’s disrespectful of the office of sheriff and the voters to do that.”

Rice did win the endorsements of the Sun Coast PBA and local Fraternity of Police, but his reputation suffered when it was revealed that he had signed a pledge with the Oath Keepers, a conservative “Patriots” organization that has evolved alongside the Tea Party movement. The Times’ Peter Jamison reported on the Oath Keepers pledge, as well as connections between Rice and other voices of the far right. Jamison asked Rice whether he thought President Obama’s birth certificate was valid, and the candidate’s response was noncommittal: “‘I don’t know,’ Rice said. ‘I mean, I suppose it is.’” But Rice then dismissed the whole topic, as he continues to do now.

“As I said, ‘Peter, I’ve never had an issue with the president’s birth certificate. It’s a non-issue in this race, it’s a non-issue to me. He’s our president, and let’s move on.”

Now, says Rice, he’s unfairly gotten the reputation of being “some kind of right-wing birther.” Still, questions about the Oath Keepers connection are apt, given the fact that the group’s members say they will never obey certain orders they consider unconstitutional. When asked about that pledge, Rice defuses it by invoking Rosa Parks, saying a law preventing blacks from sitting wherever they want on a bus would be a law that he’d be willing to break — not that that’s an issue in 2012.

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