- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 16, 2017

HIALEAH, Fla. (AP) - Jack Latvala - a powerful, sometimes surly state senator seen as a moderate Republican voice - entered the race for Florida governor Wednesday, taking on better-known, more conservative and better-funded primary opponent Adam Putnam for the GOP nomination to replace Gov. Rick Scott.

Latvala, 65, immediately took aim at 43-year-old Putnam, who was 22 when he was elected to the state House in 1996 and has held elected office ever since, including 10 years in Congress and now two terms as agriculture commissioner.

“We can’t have a governor who just goes along to get along or who is in office to get a next office, to be a U.S. senator or president. This office is the end of the line for Jack Latvala. I am running to be the best governor we have ever had, not to be something else,” he said.

Latvala publicly announced his candidacy at a fire station in a Hialeah, a Hispanic-majority city that borders Miami. In the crowd were groups of senior citizens, police officers and government employee union members. He also was joined by his son Chris, who is a state representative. He later planned to stop at a Tampa Bay-area aquarium in his hometown of Clearwater before ending his announcement tour at a Panama City marina.

Latvala said the state needs to address the opioid crisis, and while Florida has added 1.4 million jobs since Scott took office, job growth needs to include rural counties.

“There are 36 counties in Florida that have actually lost jobs during that same period of time. During that same period of time, we rank last in the nation in spending for mental health. We have challenges with the opioid epidemic which is costing 20 people’s lives a day in Florida for overdoses,” he said.

Latvala is considered a moderate Republican and told the group he is proud to have friends on both sides of the political aisle, but he later told reporters he is a conservative.

“I have never voted for a tax increase. I voted for all of the tough-on-crime measures the Legislature has passed over the last 25 years. We have brought our crime rate down to a 46-year low,” he said. “What votes does anyone use to say I am a moderate? Maybe my environmental record. Well, conservation and conservative are the same root word. So does that make you a less than a conservative if you are for protecting the environment? I don’t think so.”

Democrats seeking the seat Scott must leave due to term limits include former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, Orlando-area businessman Chris King and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum.

Latvala has served two stints in the Florida Senate, the first from 1994 to 2002, when he left because of term limits. He returned to the Senate in 2010 and will again be term-limited next year. He is the current Senate budget chairman and has previously led the chamber’s efforts to tighten ethics in state government and require political candidates to be more transparent about fundraising and campaign spending.

“He fights very hard for the issues he cares about, and sometimes that puts him at odds with some fellow party members, but he cares passionately,” said Evan Power, chairman of the Leon County GOP.

He’s not afraid to buck his party’s leadership and has taken more moderate views on issues such as immigration. He helped fight back an effort to change the state’s pension system that was supported by top Republicans and opposed by state workers, and helped kill a bill that would have opened Florida to fracking, an effort that was supported by many in the GOP.

Putnam was asked Tuesday night about Latvala’s entry into the race, and he chose not to discuss the new challenger.

“I’m focused on the race that I’m running. If you ain’t the lead dog in the fight, the view never changes,” Putnam said. “I’m just going to be working grass roots, pig-pullings and fish fries from Key West to Chumukla.”

___

Farrington reported from Tallahassee.

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