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In Hillsborough's state Senate race, familiarity breeds political contempt

TAMPA — The card, tucked in a mailbox cluttered with campaign ads, features a soldier with his eyes closed and a hand over his face as if he is grieving.

"Kevin Ambler sued America's Armed Forces over an ice cream stand," it shrieks. A smaller card from the Ambler camp decries the first mailer and others like it as "political trash."

You'd almost think Ambler and opponent Jim Norman were distant strangers.

Actually, they're far from it.

The two Republican contenders for Senate District 12, a race with no Democrat, have traveled the same suburban Tampa circles for decades. One was the lawyer for the other's wife. Despite claims to the label "conservative," both enjoy populist support among middle-income families.

It's like a contest between peanut butter and jelly, if the two had a throwdown.

"I hate to see them going after each other," said Republican Victor Crist, who is leaving the Senate seat. "It's like being friends with a couple. It's like a divorce."

Republican House candidate Shawn Harrison, also a friend of both, said, "I would hate to see it get over-the-top ugly."

There's little chance it won't, said Ambler, who estimates the missives are coming one a day.

"They've got a full-on attack like I'm running for governor," he said.

Deep roots

Until now, Norman was known as the guy who cut ribbons on a lot of county parks and Ambler was the one who brought high school students to Tallahassee each year to draft laws.

Norman claims a sheriff's district office in the high-crime university area and the Carrollwood Cultural Center among his accomplishments in 18 years as a Hillsborough County commissioner.

Ambler, a state representative since 2002, advocated for tort reform and less litigious homeowner association disputes while winning accolades and school funding for his Ought to Be a Law contest.

Norman, 56, is married with no children. He is a community liaison at the Salvation Army, which pays him $95,000 a year for a job he has described in mostly general terms. Campaign filings show he owns his 2,300-square foot Carrollwood Village house free and clear. They do not list his wife's Arkansas lakefront home.

California-born Ambler, 49, lists a net worth of $5 million, between investments and his law firm. Like Norman, he has deep roots in northern Hillsborough, although instead of county government he rose through the ranks of homeowner and civic associations in Northdale.

An attorney who moved to Tampa for an assignment at MacDill Air Force Base, the married Ambler raised two children who are now college age. He upgraded to a 3,600-square-foot house in gated Cheval before entering state politics.

So closely intertwined are their histories that both take credit for the creation of Northdale Park community center. During a recent forum there, Ambler told the crowd, "I have a proven record of getting the job done." Norman described himself as "the one true conservative in this race."

There are those who say the two never should have faced off, that Norman could have run for the House or that Ambler jumped the gun by going after a prize that party leaders wanted for Norman.

Harrison has heard such talk and he finds it unfortunate. "One thing I don't like is the idea there seems to be, with so many of these races, that someone can pick their successor," he said. "That's not what people want."

Crist, now running for County Commission, chalks Norman's move up to ambition. "Jim has wanted to run for the Senate for as long as I can remember," he said, adding that "Jim has a very good chance of being Senate president, and not a good chance of being speaker of the House."

That's because the House speaker in two years will likely be Wesley Chapel's Will Weatherford, he said, and the one after that will be chosen from outside Tampa Bay.

Both carry baggage

Ads for Norman are positive and negative: a photo of ex-Gov. Jeb Bush standing next to Norman, a television ad depicting Ambler as a raging liberal.

The most biting of them have come from the special-interest Florida First Initiative, which makes the case that Ambler is not a true conservative.

Ambler, meanwhile, contends that Norman is poorly qualified for state government. In an interview, he said that jumping from the County Commission to the Senate would be like a lifetime baseball player going out for football.

"They don't translate," he said. "He works with six other county commissioners who are not even allowed to talk to each other." The theme carries through Ambler's billboards. "Not just experience … the right experience," they proclaim.

Behind the scenes, there are whisper campaigns to exploit both men's vulnerabilities.

Norman's record includes a trip to Las Vegas as the guest of a man who did business with Tampa General Hospital. It was Norman who tried to name the county Moral Courage Award after wealthy powerbroker Ralph Hughes.

Ambler's career as a lawyer has placed him in the company of controversial figures. He represented Make & Models magazine, which featured schoolteacher-turned-sex offender Debra Lafave in its first issue; and a talent and modeling agency by the same name.

Some lawmakers remember a night parade a few years ago, which Ambler attended with a group of models, much to the consternation of the wives. Ambler said the models were hostesses for a party fundraiser, and they were chaperoned.

On issues such as budgeting and education, they are close.

Both have called for stronger immigration controls, with Norman contending the voters want it. "I've had a guy say, 'I'm mad as hell at illegal aliens who are taking my job,' and slammed the door in my face," he said. "It's out there." Not to be outdone, Ambler filed an Arizona-type immigration law earlier this year.

Ambler's critics say he has flip-flopped on the immigration issue. His record includes voting for a measure that would provide medical care for children of immigrants. "Those are called Americans," Ambler said. "Under U.S. law, if they were born in the United States, they are citizens."

Price of independence

Their biggest difference, however, appears to be in style.

"Kevin is very lawyerly. He thinks about all the issues," Harrison said. "Jim is more folksy. He's a friend to everybody."

For all Ambler's sophistication, Crist said, "He likes to talk and he can be long-winded. His nickname in Tallahassee was Kevin Rambler."

Norman, he said, is "more of a Joe Lunchbox type, very pro-sports, easy to get along with."

Ambler suggests this difference is why he is under attack. "That's the price of being an independent thinker," he said. "They want someone who absolutely adheres to their orders, and I'm just not a party puppet."

But the way Crist sees it, Norman's ability to get in the party's good graces bodes well for his ability to deliver.

"Leadership likes Jim," Crist said. "They are backing Jim. And that is a very valuable position to be in."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at sokol@sptimes.com or (813) 624-2739.

In Hillsborough's state Senate race, familiarity breeds political contempt 08/06/10 [Last modified: Friday, August 6, 2010 11:44pm]
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