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Can USF win get Norman re-elected?

For months, the headlines were about the lakefront house in Arkansas. The $500,000 check from a political benefactor that went undisclosed. The FBI investigation. The ethics charges.

Then a fellow senator took a run at the University of South Florida, threatening to slash its state funding. And there was Jim Norman, morphing from goat to golden boy by standing up to the powerful budget chairman and beating back the worst of the cuts.

With the legislative session winding down, election season for state leaders will start in earnest in the coming weeks. The question for Norman, R-Tampa, as he seeks re-election to the state Senate: Has the USF debate immunized him against more than a year of withering scrutiny?

It certainly doesn't hurt, most political observers seem to agree.

"I think it absolutely helps to have had the exposure that he had," said Republican political consultant Chris Ingram. "But it won't be a cakewalk for him."

His opponents clearly see vulnerability. Almost none of the state legislators in the Tampa Bay region have meaningful opposition yet as the courts continue to review new proposed district boundaries. Norman has two challengers from fellow Republicans who appear poised to make him work for another term.

While both say they are pursuing their own aspirations rather than running to derail Norman's, each has alluded to the incumbent's ethical challenges.

"It's something that he can go out on a high note with," John Korsak, a homeland security consultant from Lutz who is one of Norman's challengers, said of his work on behalf of USF.

The USF battle began when Senate budget Chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, sought to split off USF's Lakeland branch to form a new university. After he failed to win support for an immediate timetable from the Florida Board of Governors, he pushed legislation to slash USF's budget by 58 percent.

Norman introduced amendments to stave off some of the cuts, bringing them in line with other state universities. In the end, he helped get $46 million in funding for the school restored, in addition to a $25 million "contingency" Alexander sought to assure USF's cooperation with the Lakeland split.

That same week, Norman admitted to ethics charges that he failed to disclose a $500,000 gift his wife received from businessman Ralph Hughes in 2006. Norman was a county commissioner at the time, Hughes regularly appeared before that board, and the money was used to buy the Arkansas home, details of which Norman claimed to know nothing about.

The transaction prompted a more than yearlong federal inquiry that was dropped because investigators could not show Norman committed a crime.

As an outgrowth of that investigation, Norman's longtime aide, Ben Kelly, was charged with failing to file tax returns for five years.

Those are circumstances former state Rep. Rob Wallace, Norman's other challenger, says the public will not soon forget.

Wallace, who served eight years in the House ending in 2002 in a district whose boundaries overlap partly with the District 15 Senate seat, says Norman's work for USF is overblown. After all, Alexander got his new university, and on the timetable that he wanted it.

"Of course he would be more than willing to step in as a crusader; to step in front of the issue and look like a player and to be the savior for USF," Wallace said. "The final solution was letting Senator Alexander have a four-year, stand-alone university."

Norman declined to speak about his re-election and how USF or ethics questions will play.

"It's not even on our radar," he said.

Anthony Pedicini, a Republican political consultant who helped on Norman's first Senate campaign in 2010 and plans to work on this one, said the USF debate showed Norman's effectiveness while other things were going on around him. And Pedicini emphasized that, ultimately, federal authorities found nothing wrong with the home purchase.

"That more than likely immunizes him from attack more than anything else," Pedicini said.

Meanwhile, Wallace's campaign concedes that Norman remains a tough candidate.

Norman spent 18 years on the County Commission. A tireless campaigner, he crisscrossed Hillsborough County knocking on residents' doors — even in nonelection years. He extended the practice into central Pasco County in 2010 to cover that part of his Senate district.

As a commissioner, he was a strong advocate for parks and youth sports programs, for which he is remembered fondly by some of his constituents.

"I think that the USF issue gave him an opportunity and he executed on that really well," said April Schiff, a Republican political consultant who said she likely will support Wallace.

"But I get the feeling people aren't going to forget the other stuff."

Staff writer Kim Wilmath contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@tampabay.com.

Can USF win get Norman re-elected? 03/03/12 [Last modified: Saturday, March 3, 2012 11:21pm]
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