State Senator Jack Latvala kicked off his campaign for governor Wednesday with a multi-city tour around the state. He received a warm welcome from his home base in Pinellas County when he gave a speech at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
The stands near the pool outside the aquarium were packed -- but not with the usual audience that comes to see the dolphin show, although one did put on a brief performance. Instead the crowds were filled with Pinellas residents waving signs that said “I Back Jack!” and a who's who of current and former local officials, ranging from county commissioners and fire officials to Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.
Senator Latvala, 65, opened his speech by remembering the victims of violence during the Charlottesville protests, but followed that somber moment with a bit of humor.
He took aim at his Republican opponent Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam with a little help from a dolphin named Nicholas.
“The other guy that's running in this race officially so far, he had a marching band when he kicked off his campaign, and what we've got is Nicholas,” Latvala said, pausing while the dolphin made a spectacular somersault. “Let him beat that.”
The brief moment of showmanship drew cheers from the crowd of supporters, including Pinellas resident Linda Tochman. She worked with Latvala in the private sector and says it would be an honor to see the Clearwater Republican represent the whole state as governor.
"You know we basically grew up with him, and he knows what goes on in the community," Tochman said.
Tochman wasn't the only one there familiar with Latvala's business experience. A number of his current employees at the printing business he owns came out in support as well. Latvala says his perspective as a businessman gives him an edge over his opponents.
"I make a real payroll and I pay real workers' comp premiums,” Latvala said. “I don't just have a government job and I will never just have a government job."
Another reference to Putnam, who has held public office since he was 22 years-old.
Latvala, who serves as the powerful chairman of the Senate budget committee and has more than 15 years of experience as a lawmaker from two stints in the state Senate, touted his history as a conservative lawmaker. He says he won't let anyone take away the credential of being "more Republican than he is." But adds he considers himself "old school."
"And an old-school Republican is a Republican who keeps their word, who works hard, who wants the basic principle of keeping government out of our lives, and making government work for us."
But it's Latvala's reputation as leaning more moderate that had many supporters like Pinellas County Comissioner Dave Eggers singing his praise.
“You know he's a true-blue Republican, but I think he at least listens to all parties and I think that's really important,” Eggers said.
Other attendees said they’ll vote for Latvala because he has put partisanship aside on issues like environmental conservation and protecting pensions.
Former Pinellas County Tax Collector Diane Nelson says she supports Latvala because she can always count on him to keep his word. And that’s a promise the Senator made during his campaign speech as well.
“I may not be the best-looking candidate for governor. I may not be the most physically fit candidate for governor. I may not even be the smartest candidate,” he said, drawing groans from the crowd.
“But you can depend on me to do what I've always done, and that is (a), tell you the truth, (b), do what I say I'm going to do, and (c), work as hard as I can every single day for you,” he concluded, receiving cheers.
After his speech, Latvala told reporters he considers himself an underdog against Adam Putnam, who is considered the “establishment” candidate in the race thus far and has amassed considerable financial support from some of the state's biggest industries.
But Latvala says he's confident his accomplishments will speak for themselves.
“I would not be running if I wasn't comfortable with what I'm doing,” he said. “I think there's a need for somebody like me in this race that is going to talk about real issues that real people have to deal with, with real experience to handle those issues, and that's why I'm running.”
When asked about Latvala's entry into the race Wednesday morning, Putnam demurred.
“I'm focused on my campaign. We're running a grassroots-based campaign. We're getting terrific feedback everywhere we go. I'm bringing my small-business experience and my public experience to bear. And I'm very thrilled with the progress that we're making,” he said.
At the aquarium, Latvala's son Chris, a Republican state representative, called his father a “straight-talking” person who “moonlights as a state senator.”
The younger Latvala described his father as a “tough” and “loving” parent who “stands up for what he believes, even when it is not the popular thing to do.”
“My dad may not be the current front-runner … but he's never been afraid of a challenge,” Chris Latvala said. “If you think he'll roll over … you don't know Jack.”
Jack Latvala has sharply criticized Corcoran, saying recently that the House's efforts this year to overhaul Visit Florida, the state's tourism marketing agency, were “all about making political points, all about trying to make headlines, trying to raise your name identification, whatever.”
Introducing Latvala, Gualtieri called the candidate a “thinker” who “tells it the way it is” and is “the guy in the trenches who gets the job done.”
Though the Clearwater event -- sandwiched between appearances in Hialeah and Panama City -- opened by honoring the victims of Charlottesville, Latvala bristled when pressed by reporters about the events in Virginia, saying he didn't want to “second-guess” the actions of people “in other jurisdictions.”
Latvala refused to weigh in on the remarks of President Donald Trump, who, in a combative exchange with the media on Tuesday, appeared to blame both the white nationalists and counter-protesters.
Latvala said he didn't watch Trump's press conference.
But, he said, “I'm not going to defend anybody that's a racist on any side of the coin.”
“If one group's wrong, I'm going to call them out,” he said, adding that “I might not always agree with the conventional wisdom on who's wrong.”
Latvala said he was surprised that University of Florida officials turned down a request by white nationalist Richard Spencer of the National Policy Institute to speak at the school next month. University officials cited security concerns as the reason for denying the request.
“I thought perhaps they were going to allow it and just put a real high price on security, which under their rules they have the ability to do. That would have the same impact without physically beginning to set standards on which groups are allowed to speak and which aren't,” Latvala said. “We've got anti-censorship rules on our campuses so that people can have free expression. But again, I'm not there. I don't have all the facts. I try to deal with what goes on here in Florida, things that I can control.”