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Lobbyists' money fuels bitter state Senate battle in Hillsborough

She's a state representative with contributions from big-name lobbyists. He's a former state Senate president with contributions from other big-name lobbyists.

So in the bitter battle between Republicans Rachel Burgin and Tom Lee for Senate District 24, who exactly is the political outsider?

Burgin, 30, has claimed that street cred in the east Hillsborough district, pitching herself as the grass roots candidate shunned by Tallahassee power brokers even though her supporters include seasoned lobbyists.

"I would say that the voters right now of Hillsborough County want somebody to go up there's who's going to be conservative and work on their behalf and not be part of the Tallahassee elite club," said Burgin of Riverview. "Lobbyists are different from leadership. (Lee) was known for being a moderate."

Lee, a Brandon homebuilder who served in the state Senate from 1996 to 2006, earned a reputation as an independent and blunt-speaking leader who railed against the power of special interests and famously got into a shoving match with a telecommunications lobbyist. But he's also the favorite of influential Republican leaders in the Legislature and has picked up support from political committees, including ones controlled by former Associated Industries of Florida president Barney Bishop.

"What's most important is why the leaders are backing me," said Lee, 50. "In politics, you run on your record."

•••

Burgin was a 26-year-old political novice when local GOP leaders picked her to replace her former boss, Rep. Trey Traviesa, on the ballot after he dropped out of his 2008 re-election bid. She went on to win the general election.

Since the 2009 session, she voted with the business lobby 91 percent of the time, according to online rankings compiled by Associated Industries of Florida, an influential pro-business, not-for-profit group based in Tallahassee.

Her dissenting votes primarily included opposition to several gambling measures — something that Burgin touts now as evidence of her willingness to buck leadership.

"I've stood up against leadership and the expansion of gambling," she said.

The 2009 vote (82-35 in the House) let the Seminole Tribe's Hard Rock casinos near Hollywood and Tampa keep their slot machines and card games in return for a minimum $150 million annual payment to the state for 15 years. It also reopened the Hialeah Park racetrack, let the tribe offer no-limit poker at all seven of its reservations, and increased the number of daily hours of operation for card rooms.

Burgin has sponsored a relatively small number of successful bills. Two of her anti-abortion bills in 2011 and 2012 were stacked with new restrictions, including a 24-hour waiting period. Both bills passed the House but stalled in the Senate.

That same year, she introduced HB411, which exempts photos, videos and recordings depicting deaths from public records. She pushed the bill after the deaths of two Tampa police officers were captured on a dashboard camera. That one did pass.

"It was the right thing to do on behalf of the wives and children," said Burgin. Her priorities, if elected to the Senate, include sponsoring legislation that would restrict the types of groceries covered by food stamps, require doctors to be present at all abortion procedures, and give tax breaks to buyers of foreclosed homes.

•••

Lee professed little interest in politics when he landed in the Senate in 1996. He was shrewd enough, however, to become its president in 2004.

The Associated Industries of Florida says Lee cast pro-business votes 86 percent of the time in his 10-year tenure. That organization has endorsed Lee, though one of its senior lobbyists, Keyna Cory, is linked to a possibly illegal attack piece against Lee. Burgin is accused of being involved with that mailer as well and faces an ethics complaint over the charge.

Lee clashed in 2003 with Gov. Jeb Bush when he and a handful of other senators opposed hard caps on medical malpractice jury awards.

But Bush credited Lee three years later with pushing the repeal of the state's intangibles tax on stocks and investments.

As a senator, Lee supported some gambling bills, such as the expansion of poker rooms at financially ailing racetracks. But he opposed others, advocating for repeal of the voter referendum legalizing slot machines in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

Lee 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. He launched an investigation in 2005 after a parimutuel company took four legislators on a charter trip to Canada, where they visited the company's racetrack and casino.

As a rising Senate president, Lee also started a political fundraising committee, Floridians Uniting for a Stronger Tomorrow, which collected millions of dollars from special interests, including ones he opposed on major legislation.

Lee said his new legislative priorities would include jump-starting the economy by maintaining low tax rates and improving access to education. But as he runs in a politically conservative district, he's not forgetting to mention other issues as well.

Burgin has picked up endorsements from some of the social conservative groups, including Florida Right to Life. Lee's online campaign materials highlight his support among conservative lawmakers, including a statement from Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando.

Gardiner's statement focused on Lee's sponsorship of the original "Choose Life" license plate as well as the parental notification bill that passed when Lee was Senate president.

The winner of Tuesday's primary faces Democrat Elizabeth Belcher and write-in candidate Randolph Link in November.

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

Lobbyists' money fuels bitter state Senate battle in Hillsborough 08/09/12 [Last modified: Thursday, August 9, 2012 11:49pm]
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