Charlie Crist is gone but his no labels movement is alive and well and flourishing at the Capitol like a clump of mushrooms in a ditch after the storm. We can thank Jack Latvala for that.
Latvala is the Republican senator who isn't.
He's the epitome of the guy who will say anything on the campaign trail to sell himself as a conservative but hasn't any intention of voting that way once in office. He's the way-beyond-RINO who spent the 2011 legislative session sabotaging Sen. Mike Haridopolos' conservative agenda and thwarting Gov. Rick Scott's proposals to balance the budget.
Ever since the session ended, Latvala's hometown newspaper, the St. Petersburg Times, has been blowing him kisses. First, Times Political Editor Adam Smith had this posted on his Twitter page: "Jack Latvala is the political Winner of the Week for almost single-handedly saving Florida from its Legislature." Saving Florida from its Legislature? The comment may not have come directly from the Times, but it does sound like a pouty newspaper that didn't get its way on Election Day, doesn't it?
Then, Michael Bender in the Times' Tallahassee bureau writes a long salute, including in his first paragraph that Latvala "might have been the session's most effective lawmaker." Why? Because he "dismantled some of the top priorities of the conservative House by assembling interchangeable coalitions of senators ..." Really? Says who? Says Sen. Jeremy Ring.
"Jack was the MVP," says Ring, a Margate Democrat.
A Democrat -- even a DINO like Ring -- gushes over a Republican colleague's performance? Latvala's GOP bonafides are in the toilet.
The fact is, over and over again during the 2011 legislative session, Jack Latvala played the spoiler. He disrupted mostly by amassing a mix-and-match assemblage of 10-or-so Senate colleagues. Here is a sample of his handiwork:
- It was he who led the charge to kill the bill aimed at stopping unions from collecting dues from public employees' paychecks.
- He worked to kill -- literally kill -- HB 119, a deregulatory bill for nursing homes and other assisted living facitilites, passed by big margins in both chambers.
- He diluted House Speaker Dean Cannon's bill overhauling the Florida Supreme Court.
- He pushed the defeat of the E-Verify immigration bill, saying, "We shouldn't be making it harder for people to create jobs."
- He worked to halt a proposal that would have allowed the governor to appoint all new members to the state's 26 judicial nominating commissions.
Latvala, 58, may have some explaining to do.
He nailed down a number of early endorsements last year, including the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Florida Professional Firefighters and the Florida Police Benevolent Association. By the time it was over he had raised more than $600,000, crushing the fund-raising efforts of his Democratic opponent.
So enamored of him was Deborah Cox-Roush, Republican Party chairwoman in 2010, that she personally knocked on doors in Hillsborough County on his behalf.
"I think his institutional knowledge is welcome," Cox-Roush said at the time. "Jack brings good conservative values to our slate, and we're happy to have him."
To his credit, Latvala did admit before the election that he could not and would not support oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Fair enough. But he did lead voters in District 16 to believe he is a conservative on the same wavelength as they are. That he is not a Charlie Crist-style independent. And most important of all, that he is not a shaky-party-affiliation politician looking to undo the agenda of a Senate president to whom he had pledged at least a modicum of loyalty.
That traditional independent streak in the Senate that Latvala professes to love is admirable. And if I were a Democrat, I would agree with the St. Petersburg Times -- he really is "the dark star of the Senate around which all clusters of dissent seemed to orbit."
But if I had voted for him, I would ask him why he was trying to put the brakes on a conservative agenda the state needs for a fiscally solvent future. I would feel cheated. I would feel as if I'd been blindsided. That the candidate I voted for is not the senator I got.
Jack Latvala might have been a conservative from 1994 until 2002, when he was in the Senate until term limits took him out. I didn't see him in action then. What I do know is, the man is not a Republican, not a conservative, not a leader I can trust -- he shows no loyalty to his party now.
Reach columnist Nancy Smith at email@example.com or at (850) 727-0859.