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After bitter GOP primary, race for Hillsborough state Senate seat turns to policy issues

After the long summer slugfest ended, Republican state Senate candidate Tom Lee got a chance to breathe and focus on a somewhat friendlier opponent:

A Democrat.

Lee, who defeated state Rep. Rachel Burgin in a bruising Republican primary in August, faces Democrat Elizabeth Belcher in next month's general election for the Senate District 24 seat.

The newly drawn district represents east Hillsborough, New Tampa and areas near the University of South Florida.

Lee, a home builder who served in the Senate from 1996 to 2006, said the general election has turned the focus on public policy distinctions between him and Belcher. In a primary, he said, the policy positions are so close that "people have to find other wedges."

Belcher, a retired criminal investigator with the Internal Revenue Service, is making her first bid for elected office. She has worked with other community activists who raised questions about the Regent, a Riverview events center that eventually had to repay county money that was misspent.

Belcher, 62, said she decided to run partly because of the controversial decision to allow the University of South Florida's Polytechnic to become an independent university and the saga of former state Sen. Jim Norman, the Republican who was investigated — and ultimately cleared — by federal authorities over a $500,000 loan that a longtime political contributor made to Norman's wife.

Her top priority, she said, is making the Legislature more ethical and accountable. She wants legislators to put their names next to any budget items they introduce. Lee, she said, represents more of the same.

"The Florida Legislature has been totally controlled by the Republican Party for 14 years," she said. Lee, she predicted, will bow to pressure from other Republicans.

"They're all part of the same clique," she said.

Her ideas include stopping the use of financial incentives to lure big business to Florida and instead using that money to make loans to small businesses. She also said she wants to encourage the use of solar power, suggesting that the state team up with private entities to build solar farms on old landfills.

Belcher has raised a little more than $11,000, according to the most recent campaign reports. Lee has raised nearly $368,000.

Lee, 50, said his priorities include jump-starting the economy, and keeping regulations and taxes to a minimum to continue to attract and retain businesses. In his campaign materials, he cites his role in helping repeal the intangibles tax as well as his antiabortion record in the Senate.

But as he's reaching out to independents and Democrats, Lee also burnishes his reputation as an independent and blunt-speaking leader who railed against the power of special interests while he served in the Senate.

He is best remembered for measures that required lobbyists to disclose how much money they make and banned lobbyists from buying meals and gifts for legislators. That earned him the wrath of some veteran Tallahassee lobbyists, some of whom were behind the political attack ads circulating during his primary battle with Burgin.

Still, Lee, who grew up in Brandon, said his message to independents and Democrats is that he could work across the aisle on many issues. That has been the main change in his general election campaign versus the one he ran during the Republican primary.

"I think there can sometimes be a change in emphasis, but it's pretty hard to redefine yourself," he said.

He said he thought Belcher's key criticism of him — that he's another Republican who won't change the system — was naive.

"I don't know how a freshman senator in the minority party is going to change anything in Tallahassee. That's a lot of wishful thinking," he said. "But I really try hard to back away from this. This isn't about me, it's not about her. It's about the people in east Hillsborough."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374.

After bitter GOP primary, race for Hillsborough state Senate seat turns to policy issues 10/13/12 [Last modified: Saturday, October 13, 2012 9:53pm]
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