If you want to blame someone, blame Charlie Justice.
Or, for that matter, you can blame the late C.W. “Bill” Young.
Because when the Florida Senate is reduced to proverbial ashes in early 2018, those still standing will be left to wonder where everything went wrong.
And that’s why you should start blaming Justice. Or maybe his then-political consultant, Mitch Kates.
Going into the 2010 election cycle, it was more than a rumor that Young, first elected in 1970, might not seek re-election. It was thought that all he wanted was to set the tone for a graceful exit.
Like several other Pinellas Democrats, Justice could read the handwriting on the wall, even if it didn’t tell the whole story about Congressman Young. A former legislative aide turned lawmaker, Justice was an affable first-term state Senator whose term would end in 2010.
Justice could have easily won re-election. He was damn near a unicorn: a scandal-free, white male Democrat with deep connections to the education community and the kind of legislative record that did not raise the ire of the business community.
But Justice was weary of the tone emanating from Tallahassee. He could see which direction state politics was turning and he was less and less interested in being part of it. He’d rather be in D.C., where Barack Obama was president, than Tallahassee, which has been dominated by Republicans for two decades. So, in April of 2009, Justice decided to challenge Young for the congressional seat the Republican held for nearly forty years.
Political observers speculated at the time that Justice wasn’t really interested in challenging Young as much as building up his name recognition for the inevitable day when Young really did retire, which Justice and local Democrats hoped would be in 2010. But somewhere along the way – probably in between the time Justice criticized his opponent for using campaign funds to purchase a car or produced an online video which attempted to link the veteran lawmaker with jailed lobbyist Jack Abramoff – Young decided he would not be muscled out of his congressional seat. He would end up handily defeating Justice.
Unfortunately for Justice, he burnt his Senate seat at the shore of his congressional run. By announcing so early in the election cycle that he would not run for re-election, he essentially created an opening in the heart of Pinellas County. However, this battleground seat, which had flipped from Charlie Crist and Jim Sebesta to Justice, would not really be contested. Almost from the moment Justice announced he would not run again for the Legislature, it was clear who would succeed him in the seat.
Latvala had been termed out of the Senate in 2008 after a forceful career that saw him serve as a chief lieutenant to Senate President Toni Jennings and as a powerbroker who ended a bitter stalemate for the Senate presidency. He used his influence to dominate Pinellas politics in a manner not seen since the days when Charles Rainey held sway. His political consulting and mailhouse was a national powerhouse, aiding presidential candidate and dozens of state parties. Other than Young himself, no other Pinellas politician was as powerful.
Latvala dispatched his Democratic opponent in 2010 with ease and quickly pivoted to rebuilding his power base in Tallahassee. Although many former allies and seasoned lobbyists and staffers were content with Latvala back in the capital, there were more than a handful of insiders who had worked with Latvala during his first stint in the Senate who were not exactly excited to see him return. However, Don Gaetz, the incoming Senate President who would grow to become one of Latvala’s many enemies, made it clear that Latvala would be welcomed back by the Republican caucus.
‘He’s changed,’ hopeful staffers would say to one another.
But like the Pearl Jam song says, Latvala changed by not changing.
In an era of hyper partisanship, the Republican hailing from the county which gave birth to Florida’s modern GOP prided himself on being a moderate. He championed legislation benefiting police and firefighter unions; he torpedoed bills designed to privatize the state’s education and prison systems.
Yet, he was still a good Republican. He wholeheartedly backed Gov. Rick Scott‘s re-election in 2014, while donating to dozens of GOP candidates throughout the state.
Part of that donating was linked to Latvala’s effort to realize his dream of becoming Pinellas County’s first Senate President in more than a century.
It was a dream that would never come to fruition.
Latvala’s never-ending ambition to be Senate President has dominated the politics of the upper chamber for this past decade. It’s really part of what has led that body to where it is today.
Initially, it was Andy Gardiner who Latvala was competing against to be Senate President. But after a failed coup by John Thrasher – stymied in part by Latvala and his allies – Gardiner would win that race, while Latvala would live to fight another day against Joe Negron. That bitter intraparty scrum took years — and millions of dollars — to decide, with Negron eventually prevailing because, well, Latvala was his own worst enemy.
He backed a series of candidates running in Republican primaries and general elections who were defeated by, in most cases, younger, more tech-savvy candidates. Jeff Brandes defeated Jim Frishe. Aaron Bean defeated Mike Weinstein. Etc.
Make no mistake: Latvala had a band of colleagues who wanted to see him become Senate President, but, collectively, they were neither as numerous or as determined as the forces opposed to him leading the Chamber.
And so Latvala became the Dark Star of the Florida Senate, occasionally plunging it into a parliamentarian abyss, as he did when he helped obliterate the top priorities of President Mike Haridopolos and his conservative allies.
Yet, it cannot go unsaid that these past seven years have been one of the worst periods in the history of the Florida Senate. With the exception of one year of Don Gaetz’ tenure and the final days of Gardiner’s term, the Senate has been a dark, dark place. From the losses it suffered during the redistricting process and trial to the resignations of Frank Artiles and Jeff Clemens, it has been one catastrophe after another in the so-called upper chamber. Meanwhile, a line of House Speakers – Dean Cannon, Will Weatherford, Steve Crisafulli and Richard Corcoran – have essentially had their way with their colleagues across the hall, who end up sounding like they play for the Chicago Cubs: “Wait until next year!”
There have been very few constants during the Senate’s decline, but one of them has been the presence of the senior Senator from Pinellas County.
For all of his legislative successes … for all of the projects he’s secured funding for … for all of what’s he’s done for Tampa Bay … the situation for Latvala is almost a reverse “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Instead of George Bailey having never been born, what if Latvala had not served a second stint in the Florida Senate?
What if Justice had just run for re-election?
Instead, the Senate faces a nuclear scenario. On one side is the increasing level of forces arrayed against Latvala because of a singular public accusation of sexual harassment. On the other side is Latvala himself, the Kim Jong-un of the Florida Senate. The opponents of Latvala are powerful enough that they could easily destroy him if that’s what they wanted. Scott and Senate President Negron could release a joint statement calling on Latvala to resign and that would pretty much be game over. Enough of Latvala’s Republican colleagues could sign on to a petition seeking his resignation and that would tell Latvala it’s time to go.
And the United States could easily destroy North Korea in any exchange of weapons, conventional or nuclear.
The supreme danger in that scenario is the collateral damage. What missiles can North Korea fire off, preemptively or retaliatory, if it is about to be attacked or is attacked?
What missiles can Latvala fire off, preemptively or retaliatory, if he is attacked?
If the special master in the sexual harassment case finds probable cause (and how can he not as that threshold is so easy to reach) and L’Affaire Latvala heads to a “trial” on the Senate floor, what kind of damage will be done to an institution already reeling from a decade of losses?
Because Latvala has said, both publicly and more forcefully in private, that his colleagues will have to vote him off the Senate floor if he is to be expelled from the body. He won’t make a deal. He won’t resign.
Instead, he and his lawyers will conduct a full-throated defense that will involve the public questioning not only of his accuser but many members of the Senate. No one has more institutional knowledge about the Florida Senate than Latvala. No one knows where more bodies are buried.
God only knows what will come from that spectacle.
On Tuesday, Sen. Travis Hutson said that the Senate “is being burnt to the ground and I feel Senator Latvala is running around with the Napalm and the matches.” He’s now calling on Latvala to resign “so that we do not have to deal with this problem anymore.”
Hutson is wrong. Not about Latvala needing or not needing to resign, but of the incendiaries he thinks Latvala has at his disposal.
A nuclear war is coming and I don’t know if anyone knows how to stop it.