When news first broke that there would be a special congressional election to fill the seat of the late Bill Young in Pinellas County, all sorts of local Republicans and Democrats were said to be considering a run for the seat, vacant for the first time in 43 years.
But up until this morning's deadline to qualify for the January 14 primary ballot, only two major candidates had announced their participation — Democrat Alex Sink, whose name recognition prompted Jessica Ehrlich to drop out of the contest, and for the Republicans, Washington D.C. lobbyist David Jolly, who has been endorsed by former St. Pete Mayor Rick Baker and Beverly Young, the late congressman's wife.
But for Republican voters in Pinellas who want a choice, they got their wish today when GOP state House Representative Kathleen Peters announced, just hours before the qualifying deadline, that she would be in the January primary,.
Speaking at St. Petersburg College Caruth Health Education Center with over two dozen local Republicans standing behind her, Peters referenced the apparent anointing of Jolly by GOP insiders. "I do not believe that any political party should encourage someone to run — or not run — to make it easier for the party to win," she said, adding that such a choice should be determined by the citizenry. "As of today, the Republicans of Pinellas County have a choice," she declared.
Although Beverly Young has endorsed Jolly, a longtime aide and general counsel to Congressman Young, not everyone in the Young clan is backing him. In fact, the notable group of Pinellas County Republicans standing behind Peters today included Billy Young, the late Congressman's son. Also present were Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos, Safety Harbor Mayor Joe Ayoub, former Pinellas County Commissioner Neil Brickfield and Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, all rumored at one point to be entering the contest.
But nobody's presence was more strongly felt than Clearwater area state Senator Jack Latvala, who in an unusual move, spoke after Peters completed her speech. Latvala blasted both Jolly and Sink as outsiders to Pinellas County, saying that he didn't believe anyone could accurately represent the area unless they were from it.
The 52-year-old Peters was elected to represent Pinellas County in State House District 69 a year ago, defeating Democrat Josh Shulman in the seat that was previously held by Rick Kriseman for six years. Although she voted mostly along conservative party lines in her first year in Tallahassee (The Koch Brothers' led Americans For Prosperity group gave her an 88 percent ranking, the NRA 92 percent), Peters campaigned as a moderate in last year's contest, and does have a strong record of working on issues like homelessness and juvenile justice.
But it was evident today that a major part of her argument will be geography: how, unlike Jolly or Alex Sink, she is from and of Pinellas County.
"When I met David Jolly I thought he was a really nice man," Peters recounted on Tuesday. "But I look at Washington and I get very frustrated and I get upset and I get angry and what I want is somebody representing us who understands us in our little league fields, and understands what’s going on in our schools and understands us in our community, and not someone who is out of touch and wrapped up in the gridlock and the nonsense up there."
A St. Pete Polls survey taken overnight shows that even though Jolly just recently announced his candidacy, his name recognition appears to be stronger than Peters', who served as mayor of the City of South Pasadena for three years before winning statewide office last fall. The poll shows Jolly up by 22 points over Peters, but it also shows that either Republican will probably be an underdog vs. Sink in the March general election. Sink currently holds a double-digit lead over both Jolly and Peters.
There is another Republican who has qualified to run: Mark Bircher. Libertarian candidate Lucas Overby and write-in candidate Michael S. Levinson are also running.