Qualified hopefuls prepare for races
By LISA GREENE, KELLY RYAN GILMER and ADAM C. SMITH
Some of Pinellas County's most familiar faces will keep their offices unchallenged, but redistricting has shaped new political battlegrounds in certain legislative districts.
County commissioners Calvin Harris and Barbara Sheen Todd were automatically re-elected Friday when nobody else filed to run before the qualifying deadline.
State Sen. Les Miller appears to be returning to office uncontested, and several officials, including state Rep. John Carassas and County Commissioner Susan Latvala, face only challengers from minor parties or write-in candidates.
"I think it's going to be a big year for incumbents," said Clearwater lawyer Ed Armstrong, a political consultant. "You look race by race, and not many are in jeopardy at all."
There could be late challengers for legislative seats today because that filing deadline was extended for those affected by a plane crash Friday in Tallahassee.
Harris faced a tough battle four years ago, when he became the first black person elected to the County Commission. This time, Harris is a well-known name and already had raised more than $50,000 in campaign cash. He's a Democrat in a Republican stronghold, but no one wanted to take him on.
"It's a good feeling," Harris said. "I am surprised. I was expecting an opponent. Everything I did was geared toward having an opponent."
Harris' victory may show that race is becoming less of a barrier to winning countywide office, said County Commissioner Ken Welch, the other black Democrat on the board. But the real test, Welch said, will be to see how the three black candidates for school board do this fall. A black candidate has never been elected to that board.
"Hopefully Calvin is a trendsetter, not just an anomaly," Welch said.
Todd, the commission chairman, was pleased by her victory.
"I'm very, very humbled by it, and I'm very grateful," she said.
Two commissioners, John Morroni and Latvala, face challengers. Democrat Dave Buby, a retired doctor, is running against Morroni for the second time. Democrat John L. Skolte, a real estate broker, has registered as a write-in candidate. But only Latvala's name will appear on the ballot, making her the likely winner.
Pinellas GOP Chairman Paul Bedinghaus said the line-up looked great for Republicans, though some potentially bruising primary battles among Republicans could weaken party nominees.
One of the most watched races is for the Senate seat now held by Jack Latvala. The redrawn seat extends from Dunedin to as far north as Citrus County.
The frontrunner is state Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, a tireless campaigner with access to plenty of campaign contributions. But his primary challenger, Dunedin City Commissioner Janet Henderson, could benefit from help from Latvala and other state senators not aligned with Fasano.
Running for the Democratic nomination for that seat are former Pasco Sheriff Lee Cannon and political newcomer Joseph "Steve" Mattingly.
In Seminole, former state Rep. Dennis Jones, a Republican, faces Democrat Joanna Kennedy, an Indian Rocks Beach city commissioner, in the race for Senate District 13.
"Dennis is going to be very hard to beat," Armstrong, the consultant, said. "She's a good candidate, but Dennis has been out there for literally 20 years."
But Kennedy said she would bring "fresh blood and new ideas" to Tallahassee.
In south Pinellas, state Rep. Frank Farkas, R-St. Petersburg, faces a challenge from fellow Republican Cary Burns of St. Petersburg. Burns has much less money than Farkas but is aggressively painting him as an anti-consumer, special interest candidate.
"He's got a record, and you've only got to pass the threshold of getting enough people to know what that record is," Burns said. "Then it's only a matter of how big your victory is going to be."
Farkas said Burns was campaigning on "lies and distortions," and said he would campaign to set the record straight about his accomplishments.
The winner of that primary will face Democrat Chris Eaton and Libertarian Alison Lipscomb.
The School Board campaigns are crowded, with 13 candidates seeking four seats.
The most intriguing race is for District 4, which Tom Todd held until his death last month. Gov. Jeb Bush recently appointed day care administrator Janice Starling to finish Todd's term, hoping to give her a leg up to win the election and become the first elected African-American on the board.
But now four other candidates have crowded the race. That includes businessman Mike Pachik, who switched races just before the deadline Friday. Pachik had been running against incumbent Max Gessner for the at-large seat.
The other candidates are: Tiffany Todd, a nurse and Tom Todd's daughter; Mary Brown, a quality improvement specialist for Coordinated Child Care; and Matthew Sullivan, a St. Petersburg resident and parent.
Incumbent Linda Lerner has drawn three opponents in District 2: Palm Harbor University High School teacher Marc Wilson, assistant grocery store manager Michael Smith and Richard Bennett, a longtime School Board member in Michigan.
A School Board candidate who gets 50 percent of the vote plus one can win outright in September. Otherwise, the top two vote-getters go to a November runoff.
With three opponents, it will be a challenge for Lerner to grab the majority in September. But history suggests it can happen: In 2000, incumbent Lee Benjamin beat three challengers to win another term.
"He edged them out," Lerner said. "That's what I keep reminding myself."
At least two races will be decided in September: District 5 and the at-large race. District 5 incumbent Nancy Bostock faces Moses Holmes, a businessman and retired lobbyist for the National Education Association. Gessner faces teacher Mary Russell.
Five Pinellas-Pasco circuit judgeships will be decided by voters this year. In one race, a sitting judge in Pasco faces his first challenge in 25 years on the bench. Wayne Cobb, a circuit judge in Dade City since his appointment 1977, is opposed by Chris Yeazell, an assistant public defender in Clearwater.
Three other seats are opening after retirements by circuit judges Joseph G. Donahey Jr., Maynard Swanson and David Seth Walker. The fifth is a new seat created by the Legislature.
-- Times staff writer Cary Davis contributed to this report.
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