As Jim Norman seeks political comeback, Republicans on Hillsborough commission avoid endorsement in his primary
TAMPA -- Former state Sen. Jim Norman’s attempt at a political comeback has divided Republicans across Hillsborough County.
But four Republicans have quite noticeably stayed on the sidelines as Norman seeks the party nomination for a return to the county commission: His would-be colleagues.
Commissioners Ken Hagan, Al Higginbotham, Sandy Murman and Stacy White won’t make an endorsement in Norman’s race against Tampa businessman Tim Schock for the open District 6 seat, they told the Tampa Bay Times. Norman and Schock will face in a primary on Aug 30.
Norman was a productive but contentious figure during his 18 years on the county commission. His career derailed in 2012, when as a state senator he was forced him to drop a re-election bid amid revelations that a political ally and local developer Ralph Hughes purchased a vacation property in the Ozarks with Norman’s wife.
The seat Norman is fighting for is held by Commissioner Kevin Beckner, a Democrat. If Republicans wrest it away, it’ll give them a 6-1 super majority on the commission for the first time since 2007. There are four Democrats vying for the seat -- former Plant City Mayor John Dicks, former Hillsborough County Democratic Party chairwoman Pat Kemp, former commissioner Tom Scott and Tampa lawyer Brian Willis -- and the winner will square off against Norman or Schock in November.
If commissioners prefer Norman to return to the body where he built himself into a powerful local politician, they won’t say. But if they would rather the newcomer Schock come out on top, they’re not saying that either.
“It’s a countywide race, and I’m laser focused on eastern Hillsborough,” White said.
“I have my own race and that’s the most important thing for me,” Murman said.
“I never felt it was proper to get involved in a county commission race while I was on the commission,” Higginbotham said.
“As of right now I don’t plan on being involved or engaged on anything,” Hagan said. “I’m enjoying not having to campaign.”
The exception is Commissioner Victor Crist; he has already endorsed Norman.
Hillsborough voters first elected both Crist and Norman in 1992 -- Norman to the commission and Crist to the state House of Representatives -- and the two often partnered on projects.
Crist said he’s not bothered by the allegations of ethical malfeasance that dogged the later years of Norman’s tenure.
“Those other issues are between him and the public and for me it’s who do I know I can work with and getting things done,” Crist said.
Hagan and Higginbotham also worked alongside Norman on the commission. Neither felt compelled to back his attempt at a return by lending their voice to his campaign. That could’ve added credibility to his effort.
Still, both said they would warmly receive him if he won.
“If he’s elected by the citizens, I will welcome him with open arms,” Higginbotham said.
No one on the commission is sticking their neck out by endorsing Schock, either, but Republicans outside of county government have more willingly embraced him. He won the Hillsborough GOP straw poll in May and last week he came out ahead in the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce poll, doubling Norman’s tally.
Through June, Norman was leading Schock in fundraising, $120,000 to $92,000, but Schock had twice as much cash on hand for the home stretch. July campaign finance reports will be posted Wednesday.
“I certainly always like to see fresh perspective on a board,” White said, “but it’s certainly Jim’s prerogative to look to make a comeback.”
Norman was a dominating presence on the commission and he served five terms as chairman at a time when there were more political battles and vocal debates between its members.
If he is successful in his reentry into politics, even Crist said he will have to adjust to a less heated board.
“This is a different board, but it’s a very different time,” Crist said. “Do i think he can adjust? Absolutely.”