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State Sen. Jim Norman: USF's unlikely hero in Tallahassee

TALLAHASSEE — State Sen. Jim Norman sat hunched at his desk, reviewing spreadsheets and crunching numbers, trying to save the University of South Florida from outsized budget cuts.

In his office lobby, the phone was ringing. Emails sailed in.

"I'm really proud to live in your district," wrote one constituent. "Go for it, Jim," said another.

Days later, students watching the session's budget debate silently pumped their fists as Norman talked about the importance of "making USF whole."

Yes, we're talking about that Jim Norman — the former Hills­borough County commissioner who just signed an admission of guilt after the state ethics commission said he should have disclosed a half-million dollar gift to his wife from a prominent businessman. The man who once was the subject of a federal investigation related to that gift, faced questions about his $95,000 job at the Salvation Army and was almost booted off the ballot for state Senate.

That Jim Norman helped save USF.

"I don't have any comments about his past or anything," said USF president Judy Genshaft. "I don't care. I'm just so happy that he stood up for the university and for our community and for our students."

"He has led the charge," said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. "Having all this come from Sen. Norman, as a freshman senator, has a huge impact. … For some, it's a stronger message."

"I'm just doing my job," says Norman, 58.

In a week's time, the Tampa Republican helped turn the tide for USF. The fight pitted him against powerful Senate budget Chairman JD Alexander, who some felt was financially punishing USF in his quest to split the Lakeland branch campus off into the 12th university.

He went toe-to-toe with veteran Sen. Evelyn Lynn, the higher education appropriations chairwoman — criticizing her for failing to bring USF to the table in the budgeting process.

And behind the scenes, he circulated the hallways of the Capitol, recruiting other senators to sign on to his cause.

In the end he helped bring back $46 million in funding for USF, in addition to persuading Alexander to relent on a $25 million "contingency" he had tacked on, pending the university's cooperation in splitting off USF Poly.

Some might call it "opportunistic," but consider this: The budget committee where Norman started to fight back against Alexander's crusade wouldn't have even included him had another senator not been booted off the week before, after a fight with Senate leaders.

Fasano lost that position amid the failed push to privatize state prisons, a move Fasano opposed.

Norman didn't ask to be put on the committee, but Fasano figures the freshman was tapped because the Republican establishment assumed he'd keep his head down and vote their way.

It didn't happen like that.

If Norman hadn't been there, his first chance to debate the budget cuts would have been Thursday on the Senate floor, with the rest of his colleagues. By that time, Norman had already persuaded Alexander to give up the $25 million, orchestrated a meeting between Alexander and Genshaft, and worked out a handful of amendments giving USF money back.

Unlike Fasano, who is term-limited out of the Senate this year, Norman has a lot to lose. And he knows it.

"What else can I do?" Norman said. "My only deal here is my community. They send me back, they send me back. They don't, they don't."

George Neimann, a Dover community activist who filed one of the ethics complaints against Norman, doesn't buy it. He's convinced the whole thing is a political ploy to keep Norman in power.

"(Legislative leaders) want to figure out a way to give him a free pass, and then the USF story comes up and they say to him behind the scenes, 'We're going to save you. You can be the hero on this one,' " Neimann said. "Where he's concerned, I am cynical."

What does Norman think of the theory?

He laughs.

"A setup?" he says. "Come on."

What about the other stuff he has done that hasn't made headlines, he asks. What about his work on regional parks and the Tampa Bay Sports Commission? What about the bill he has sponsored that would give tax relief to surviving spouses of military veterans? What about the plaque on his office wall from the Shriner's Foundation?

Were all those setups, too?

"I'm not perfect. But am I some bad guy?" Norman said. "I'm doing my job. That's all I'm doing."

Kim Wilmath can be reached at kwilmath@tampabay.com.

State Sen. Jim Norman: USF's unlikely hero in Tallahassee 02/24/12 [Last modified: Saturday, February 25, 2012 1:45pm]
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