Larry Ahern’s introduction to politics came on a trip to the state Capitol in 2009.
He was in Tallahassee for the annual Catholic Days at the Capitol event, when church members take tours, get policy briefings, and meet legislators.
Education: West Bloomfield (Mich.) High School
Occupation: State legislator; retired pool business owner
Political Experience: Florida House of Representatives, 2010-present
One of those lawmakers was Rep. Janet Long, a Democrat from Ahern’s district.
“I was surprised at the differences we had in philosophy,” he said. “No one was running against her in the next election cycle, and so I decided I would.”
In Florida politics, it is hard to beat an incumbent legislator. But the tea party movement was sweeping the country — a perfect time for the debut of a virtually unknown swimming pool remodeler who called for smaller government, lower taxes, and traditional family values.
“It was the tea party wave, (a) conservative turn,” said Ahern, who defeated Long and a third party candidate with 50.5 percent of the vote. “It was all about timing.”
Ahern, 61, is still riding that wave. The number and boundaries of his district have changed, but he was re-elected in 2012 and 2014 to the House’s 66th District. And his race this fall is a rematch with Democrat Lorena Grizzle, a public school teacher he handily defeated in 2014.
He has raised far more money than Grizzle — $118,191 to her $9,428 — and he said he is confident about the Nov. 8 election.
“It always helps to have a known opponent,” he said. “You kind of know what you have to do to win.”
Ahern describes his entry into the political world as a natural progression. “I was looking for places to serve,” he said. “I always had a calling toward a political position.”
He grew up in the Detroit area, served in the Air Force from 1973-1977 and then made his way to St. Petersburg, where in 1978 he founded a swimming pool service and retail business.
His public service started long before he entered politics, he said. He represented the pool and spa industry on local and state boards, volunteered at his church, served on the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Advisory Board and the St. Petersburg Nuisance Abatement Board, and worked with Big Brothers Big Sisters.
Although he did not attend college, Ahern said his years as a small businessman inform his thinking as a state representative.
“I think because I’ve been in business … I have a great understanding of what businesses face on a day-to-day basis and dealing with people all the time – the common sense aspect of it,” he said.
Help for the state’s businesses is atop the priority list that Ahern said he would carry to Tallahassee next year.
For the past couple of years, for example, he has been trying to champion repeal of a 6 percent sales tax on commercial leases, he said.
Grizzle has criticized Ahern for accepting campaign money from Mosaic, the giant company that has spilled millions of gallons of contaminated water beneath its phosphate processing plant on the Hillsborough-Polk county border.
Ahern got $500 from the Florida Phosphate Political Committee. Mosaic is one of FPPC’s member companies.
But Ahern said that, like most legislators, he doesn’t let campaign contributions affect his votes.
“I take great pleasure in voting against bills where I have gotten campaign contributions,” he said. “I didn’t take Duke Energy’s check just on principle.” (Duke has come under fire in recent years for what some say is excessive billing of its customers.)
Asked how he feels about getting money out of politics, Ahern said, “I’m not sure you’re ever really able to do that…I think it speaks to moral character. If you allow someone who is giving you money to dictate how you vote or how you’ll look at their issue, that’s not the person you want to elect.”
It is often easy to identify the people who are in it for the money, he said, “and to be honest with you, there are very few.”
As a conservative in a conservative House, Ahern has been an ally of the National Rifle Association and a foe of expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. As a member of the education appropriation subcommittee, he says on his website, he tries to focus spending “on things that will produce the best results in the classroom, and be accountable for those results.”
He does not always agree with his colleagues, but “there’s always disagreement, and then there’s compromise,” he said. “I think for the most part we tend to march mostly in lockstep, at least in the House, towards more conservative ideas and free-market solutions.”
Molly Curls is a student journalist attending the University of South Florida St. Petersburg’s Journalism and Mass Communications Department. This story was produced as part of the Media and the Elections class this semester, under the leadership of instructor Robert Hooker.