There is no mayor of Tampa Bay, despite what Bob Buckhorn's supporters might contend. His influence clearly ends at the water's edge where Tampa meets the bay. In fact, the folks in Pasco and Pinellas really could care less what Hizzoner has to say.
Buckhorn's not even the most powerful politician in the region. Congressman Bill Young, Speaker Will Weatherford, perhaps even Representative Richard Corcoran have more sway than Buckhorn.
But neither Young, nor Weatherford, nor Corcoran would dare think of themselves as boss of Tampa Bay.
That title belongs to Jack Latvala, the State Senator from Pinellas with a piano's worth of fingers in a county fair's worth of pies.
For the last two years, Latvala took up orbit as the dark star of the Florida Senate, obliterating the top priorities of President Mike Haridopolos and his conservative allies in the upper chamber. Concurrent with that, Latvala waged an internecine struggle for the Senate Presidency. His opponents, opposed to him to their very core, contend Latvala is out of the running after his surrogates lost a string of primary contests. Latvala was on the verge of being froze out by his ascendant adversaries.
That's when a funny thing happened to Senator Latvala on the way to penalty box. He told those closest to him to stop worrying about the race for the Senate Presidency and just let him to his damn job.
Few are as good at being a legislator as Jack Latvala. On issue after issue, especially on those hitting close to home, Latvala is demonstrating why he is the de facto boss of Tampa Bay.
Of course, the boss isn't always right. He's just the boss. Right now, the boss is right on ethics reform, right on transportation, wrong on campaign finance reform and very right on a local issue concerning a controversial work release center.
Latvala is absolutely right on ethics reform. The legislation he is shepherding through the Legislature attempts to close dozens of loopholes in state ethics laws from addressing voting conflicts and shutting down slush funds to halting the revolving door between legislators and lobbying.
Senate President Don Gaetz was smart to rely on Latvala to make sure the fox can't get back into the hen house. Latvala's been working in state and national politics for going on four decades, so he's pretty much seen every trick of the trade when it comes to bending, but not breaking, campaign and ethical rules.
There must be also be just a tinge of personal satisfaction for Latvala as he legislates for these reforms. The not-so-subtle digs at some of his frenemies, like former Speaker Designate Chris Dorworth, who irked Latvala by funneling money to the opponents of Latvala's political allies. When Latvala talks about "people who every single night of the session use those CCEs to entertain their friends here," Dorworth's ears must ring.
Latvala is also right about the need to consolidate the HART and PSTA transportation systems, but their refusal to take seriously Latvala's legislative edict to study the issue is a bad sign for the boss of Tampa Bay.
Hillsborough transportation board officials were displeased a year ago when Latvala required the Hillsborough and Pinellas transit boards to jointly fund up to $100,000 to study a potential merger and to involve TBARTA in the project. HART and PSTA say they will collaborate and cooperate but they won't merge. This is a marked difference to the time when Latvala helped solve the region's water wars.
Such resistance to a Latvala priority is rarely displayed by local policymakers. Unfortunately for the Tampa Bay area, these policymakers are picking the wrong time to defy Latvala.
One person unafraid to defy Latvala is Speaker Will Weatherford, who is currently involved in a tete-a-tete over how to best reform the state's campaign finance system. Weatherford and other House leaders on Thursday released a campaign finance proposal that boosts contribution limits for individual candidates but shutters about 700 Committees of Continuous Existence that funnel millions to candidates and causes with minimal transparency.
Latvala has said publicly he is skeptical about doing away with CCEs unless there are other, more transparent avenues for larger contributions, the giving of which have been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
"If you say you're going to reform the process, then reform the process,'' said Latvala. “Based on my first blush, it looks like all we’re doing is changing the names of CCEs to political committees.'' Weatherford, in turn, called CCEs a failed concept and accused Latvala of "political posturing."
"If someone writes me a check for $100,000, I can’t spend that money on campaigns," Weatherford explained. "I can write $500 checks and transfer the money to an ECO or have a nice lifestyle...So what’s Jack’s logic for needing the CCE? We need the middleman?"
As it turns out, Latvala IS the middleman, or at least one of them.
During the 2012 cycle, 1,145 political committees in Florida raised almost $220 million. ContributionLink took a closer look at 33 of the most active ECOs and CCEs and logged each fund transfer transaction – both to and from. The node chart linked here represents 923 fund transfers through 311 committees for a total of $22 million.
Notice which node stands out most? That's right, the Florida Leadership Fund, one of Latvala's CCEs.
By proposing to eliminate CCEs, Weatherford is proposing Jack Latvala, political arms dealer, disarm. On this issue, Weatherford's right and Latvala's wrong.
Finally, one issue Senator Latvala is very much on the right side of is his efforts to investigate a work release center in Largo. The Goodwill run center has been in the news lately after one inmate allegedly raped a 17-year old girl and another allegedly killed two people after escaping from the facility.
It's obvious and easy to be tough on such a facility, but where Latvala demonstrates his influence is how in tune he is with his district to have decided to get involved with this issue in the first place.
Like much of what Boss Latvala does, it's good policy and good politics.