Scramble for Pinellas’ open State Senate seat intensifies with rumors of Rick Baker, Pat Neal entering the race

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The scramble to replace Dennis Jones in the Florida Senate has intensified over the last two weeks as rumors of former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker and developer Pat Neal entering the race have begun to circulate.

The term-limited Jones is vacating a seat expected to, after redistricting, comprise much of South Pinellas (although not the heavily-Democratic, African-American portion of the county.) Currently, State Representative Jim Frishe and former State Representative Leslie Waters are seeking to replace Jones.

Frishe has markedly intensified his game over the Summer, extending his fundraising lead over Waters, while making inroads into the fortressed neighborhoods of Northeast St. Petersburg.  Often underestimated (the Tallahassee establishment still can’t believe Frishe beat Rod Jones, the current Senator’s son, despite being heavily out-spent), Frishe appeared to be running the slow, but doggedly steady campaign for which he is known.

Waters is also running the kind of campaign expected of her.  Somewhat off-the-beaten path, but typical of Leslie, she’s always working (I can’t tell you how many invites I have received from her for small, low-dollar fundraisers.)

Despite the presence of Frishe and Waters, some in Tallahassee continue to pine for an alternative.

Rick Baker has been mentioned before as a possible candidate.  Recently, another effort was made to recruit him into running.  But Baker has remained consistent in his public and private statements that he is not interested in running for elected office again until 2014.

It’s worth noting that Baker is a devoted family man and has previously expressed a desire to see his children grow-up and so I believe him when he says he’s not interested — right now — in returning to the public sector.

Despite the obvious interest in seeing Baker run again, I put the chances of that happening at less than 20%.

Besides Baker, one of the rumors coming out of left field, or should I say, Bradenton-Sarasota is that mega-developer Pat Neal is considering running for the South Pinellas seat.

It’s no secret that Neal would like to return to the Florida Senate, but with Bill Galvano’s hammer-lock on the seat opening up with the term-limiting of Sen. Mike Bennett, Neal doesn’t have any straightforward options.

There had been some talk of trying to re-draw Jim Norman’s seat so that Neal could squeeze in there, but that’s no dice with Senate Leadership.  There was also the chance that the seat currently held by Arthenia Joyner would no longer be a minority-majority district, but the current thinking, best articulated by Sen. David Simmons, is that the first priority of  ‘Fair Districts’ is to protect such districts.

That leaves Neal looking north, to the South Pinellas seat being vacated by Jones.  Recently, Neal (or a third-party for Neal; Barry Edwards, maybe?) commissioned a poll to ballot test the strength of Frishe, Waters…even Jack Latvala.  Neal is also interested in running for CFO in the event Jeff Atwater runs for governor in 2014.

What Neal might not understand, no matter what the poll numbers indicate about Frishe or Waters or Baker is that this is PINELLAS seat and there is no way — NO WAY — the power that be (read: The St. Petersburg Times) are going to let anyone not from the county win this seat, no matter how much money they’re willing to spend.

In other words, with respect to Mr. Neal, who is a generous benefactor to many of my friends, find crazy somewhere else; we’re all stocked up here.

As for the rest of the Republican still neutral in the Frishe vs. Waters primary, it’s time to start picking sides.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.