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  • Gore clings to Florida in the heat of the prattle battle
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  • Across region, primary provides no surprises
  • Voters maintain course in School Board races
  • Nelson edges Petty for tax post
  • School Board quizzed on choice plan
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    In Pinellas, incumbents walk away victorious

    By EDIE GROSS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 6, 2000


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    As her supporters partied at the Sea Wake Inn on Clearwater Beach, Karen Seel squeezed into a crowded room at the Pinellas County Election Service Center and nervously eyed the incoming results for her County Commission race.

    "I'm sitting here with a knot in my stomach," she said, oblivious to the celebration.

    She needn't have worried. None of the four County Commission primaries was especially close Tuesday night.

    Seel went home with nearly 66 percent of the vote in her District 5 County Commission race, walloping challenger Lucile Casey. Susan Latvala blazed a similar trail in the District 4 race, garnering more than twice as many votes as Jerry Beverland.

    No general election is needed in those two races, so Seel and Latvala both earned seats on the seven-member commission.

    "I feel very gratified. What a compliment by the voters," a much-relieved Seel said after nearly all the votes had been tallied. "That's who validates that you're doing the right thing."

    In the District 6 Republican primary, John Morroni outdid opponent Ramona Updegraff. On Nov. 7, he faces Dave Buby, who defeated Tony Antonious in that district's Democratic primary.

    "Right now, I feel wonderful," said Buby, who relaxed with friends at the Holiday Inn Select on Ulmerton Road. "Tonight we celebrate, and tomorrow we focus on the future of Pinellas County."

    Despite public sentiment in recent years that seemed to convey a sense of voter dissatisfaction with incumbents -- witness the passage of term limits -- Pinellas office holders largely kept their positions.

    Everett Rice will remain sheriff. Bob Dillinger continues as public defender. Deborah Clark keeps the supervisor of elections job to which she was appointed. School Board members Lee Benjamin and Jane Gallucci will remain in office. And County Judges Myra Scott McNary and Karl Grube, and Circuit Judge Bill Webb will keep their seats on the bench.

    The exception was Tax Collector W. Fred Petty, who lost to his former assistant, Diane Nelson, in a combative race that focused on Petty's previous pledges to leave office.

    This was the first County Commission election since voters approved the creation of single-member districts nearly a year ago. That vote expanded the board from five to seven members, four of whom are elected only by the residents in the district they represent.

    Latvala, 51, declared her candidacy in July 1999, even before the lines for District 4 were drawn. That district covers Tarpon Springs, East Lake, Palm Harbor, Oldsmar, Dunedin, Safety Harbor and a small part of Clearwater.

    At first, it seemed that no one would challenge Latvala, a two-term School Board member and wife of state Sen. Jack Latvala, the Senate majority leader.

    But former Oldsmar Mayor Jerry Beverland filed for the race in March, proclaiming it a showdown between "peewee and Goliath."

    Beverland, 65, said he was disappointed with his loss.

    "It's not easy to lose," he said. "But if I had it to do over again, knowing the results, I'd do it again. It was an adventure. I wish her well, I really do."

    Latvala celebrated her victory but said she still must approve a countywide school choice plan with the School Board in October before she can turn her focus to County Commission issues. "I have been overwhelmed by the amount of support I've received," she said.

    Seel, 42, has served on the County Commission since January 1999, when Gov. Jeb Bush tapped her to replace Commissioner Steve Seibert, who was chosen to head the state Department of Community Affairs.

    She faced last-minute opposition from Casey, a former School Board member who filed for the District 5 seat an hour before the qualifying period ended July 21.

    Casey, 58, said her late entrance into the race hurt her because some of her allies had already agreed to support Seel, who will represent Largo, Belleair, Belleair Bluffs, Belleair Beach, Belleair Shore, Indian Rocks Beach, Indian Shores and most of Clearwater.

    "I knew all along I was going into an uphill battle. I guess if I lose, it's better to lose to a highly qualified candidate," Casey said.

    In the District 6 Republican primary, former Redington Beach Mayor Ramona Updegraff criticized Morroni for accepting campaign contributions from special interests.

    But her efforts were not enough to topple Morroni, 45, who served eight years in the state House of Representatives and was forced out this year by term limits. Morroni, who moved from Clearwater into District 6 after the legislative session ended in May, secured nearly 53 percent of the vote.

    "She came at me with both barrels, and our whole campaign was 100 percent positive," Morroni said. "People were like, "I love your TV ads. That's why I'm voting for you.' They're tired of the negative stuff they see."

    Morroni faces Buby, a retired physician, in the Nov. 7 general election. District 6 covers north St. Petersburg, Pinellas Park, Seminole and the beach communities between Redington Shores and St. Pete Beach.

    Buby, 62, beat Antonious, a fellow Democrat and accountant who has run unsuccessfully for mayor twice in Redington Shores.

    "I wish him a lot of luck," said Antonious, 53. "If I can't be on the leadership side . . . I'll do what I have to do to help the community through my own channels."

    Commissioners in single-member districts 4 and 6 will serve two-year terms this time and four-year terms thereafter, a move to stagger commission elections. Commissioners in districts 5 and 7 as well as in at-large District 3 will serve four-year terms immediately.

    Commissioners are expected to earn $77,860 in the coming year.

    - Times staff writer Alicia Caldwell contributed to this report.

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