Pasco: Proposed new Senate District 11 pits Legg against Simpson

State Rep. John Legg and east Pasco businessman Wilton Simpson have been candidates for the same District 11 state Senate seat for months. But a rivalry between the two men hasn't yet caught fire because there was a decent chance they would end up in separate contests after new political boundaries took effect next fall.

Think again.

A proposed redistricting map released last week by the Florida Senate puts the two well-funded Republican hopefuls in the same seat. If that seat survives the next few months of wrangling by legislators and the courts, it would set up a blockbuster primary contest in a district covering half of Pasco County.

The proposed district includes west Pasco, rural north Pasco and the Dade City area. It would also include all of Hernando County and most of Sumter. A separate district held by state Sen. Jim Norman, R-Tampa, would include Land O'Lakes, Wesley Chapel and Zephyrhills, along with portions of northern Hillsborough.

"You've got to be kidding me," state GOP committeeman Bill Bunting said when he learned Pasco wasn't split into east and west halves. "I absolutely thought it was going to be east-west. It's a good thing I didn't go to Vegas and put money on it."

Simpson, an egg farmer and contractor from Trilby, said that as a first-time candidate in a redistricting year, he didn't have any preconceptions about how the district would look.

Now that an initial map is out, he said, he will "start doing some work" in areas included in the district.

"Not knowing where your district is going to be potentially until May or June really handicaps people thinking of running," he said. "Until you know where the lines are, where do you attack?"

Legg, who will leave the Florida House next year because of term limits, demurred when asked about the political matchup with Simpson. "You just run for the office and hope the people elect you," he said.

He also said that the district lines are far from becoming law. "Like most pieces of legislation, very rarely is the end product identical to the product from which it starts," Legg said.

The House will unveil its own redistricting maps Tuesday, but will only release maps for Congress and the state House, not the state Senate.

Legg, R-Port Richey, said he thinks the proposal largely stayed true to testimony from a July public hearing in Wesley Chapel by grouping together suburban areas in south Pasco while also linking coastal areas in Pasco and Hernando.

During July's hearing, attendees had two major suggestions about how to treat Pasco in the Senate map. One was to keep the county whole and have it form the base of a district. The other was to split the county using the Suncoast Parkway or U.S. 41 as a boundary.

"I would have been happier with the maps had they done more of an east-west split," said Ronnie Deese, an executive with the Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative in Dade City.

Deese, who spoke at the July hearing, said he liked how northeast Pasco was grouped with Sumter and Hernando, but that it doesn't make sense to leave out Zephyrhills while including urban west Pasco.

"It looked like they went partway there, but then backed away from it," he said.

The proposed district would give Democrats a slight edge in registered voters, though it could still lean toward electing a Republican. If the map were in place in 2008, it would have voted narrowly for John McCain for president and given Rick Scott a 50 percent to 42 percent edge over Alex Sink in last fall's race for governor.

The latest campaign reports show that Simpson has $160,000 in his campaign account while Legg has a little more than $100,000 left to spend.

Legg, who highlights his experience in education reform, has a key political supporter in state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. Fasano is vacating the District 11 seat because of term limits.

Fasano said that although the proposed district covers a wide territory, much of the population is on the coast. The district also includes all of Legg's House seat. "He definitely will be well-known and have a high name recognition," Fasano said.

Simpson said he has prominent endorsements as well, including Attorney General Pam Bondi and retired Pasco Sheriff Bob White. In addition to his agricultural background, Simpson also touts his asbestos and mold cleanup business experience and work in insurance and banking.

"Whoever wins this seat will represent everybody in that seat," he said, noting it spans from Hudson to Bushnell. "My background makes me uniquely qualified to represent all those people."

Times news artist Darla Cameron contributed to this report. Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6236.

Pasco: Proposed new Senate District 11 pits Legg against Simpson 12/03/11 [Last modified: Saturday, December 3, 2011 3:45pm]

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