Norman, Ambler continue court fight as early voting starts

TAMPA — As a court fight continues over who the real Republican nominee for a state Senate seat is, perplexed constituents casting ballots on the first day of early voting Monday wondered just what to do.

Some wrote Kevin Ambler's name on their ballots. Others voted for Jim Norman, either because they support him or they rely on the GOP to sort it out. Others didn't even try.

"I always like to vote early, so it's one thing I can cross off my list," said Kelly Wynn, a 42-year-old Norman supporter who was at an early voting center in Carrollwood. But, given the uncertainty. "I'm not going to vote today."

The two rivals for Senate District 12, which encompasses northern Hillsborough and central Pasco counties, went back to court Monday to keep fighting over which one — if either — goes on to the Nov. 2 general election.

Norman, a Hillsborough County commissioner, won the primary but was tossed from the ballot Friday by a judge who didn't believe he wasn't involved in his wife's $500,000 real estate deal using money from a political benefactor.

Norman filed an appeal Monday of that order, and the 1st District Court of Appeal granted him expedited consideration.

And Kevin Ambler, a state representative who sued Norman a week after losing the August primary to him, asked the judge Monday for a second time to name him as the replacement.

Republican Party officials began casting about themselves for possible replacements.

"It's a difficult situation," said Brian Blair, who served with Norman on the Hillsborough commission. "Jim and Kevin were friends."

But, while lamenting the bloodletting between two of north Hillsborough's best-known politicians, Blair said a party official had asked him to prepare his resume. "I would be honored and humbled," he said.

All around, Monday was a day of confusion in an unusual and perhaps unprecedented contest.

The case has attracted two of the lawyers who figured in the presidential recount of 2000. Mark Herron, a member of Al Gore's team, is representing Ambler. Barry Richard, one of George Bush's attorneys, signed on this week for Norman.

Ambler's team last week persuaded Leon County Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford that business leader Ralph Hughes, a millionaire who appeared frequently before the County Commission, gave or loaned $500,000 to Norman and his wife, which they used to buy a lakefront house in northern Arkansas.

But Fulford didn't name Ambler as the GOP nominee to replace him, as he had wanted.

Instead, she directed the state Division of Elections to tell election officials in Hillsborough and Pasco counties how to proceed.

Ambler's motion on Monday warned that election officials might turn the decision over to the Republican parties, which is the normal course of events in a "vacancy in nomination."

Ambler and Herron contend there is no vacancy in nomination because Norman was never qualified as a candidate. Ambler, they conclude, is "the only other qualified candidate."

Not so, said Norman's attorneys, who filed an appeal.

"Mr. Ambler waited until after the election to bring his lawsuit which, as he knows, should have been brought earlier," wrote Frank Winkles, Norman's Tampa attorney, in a statement. "This sets a dangerous precedent of allowing losing candidates a means to render democratic elections meaningless."

The appeals court called for briefs and answers to be filed between Thursday and Monday.

At the same time, voters are already making selections.

"I voted for Norman," said Leon Oaks, 85, who did not know Norman had been disqualified. "He's a Republican and I'm not voting for Democrats."

Local election officials did not amend the ballots, as they are awaiting direction from the state elections office on what to do. In Tallahassee, elections spokeswoman Jennifer Davis said her agency is waiting to see what happens in court.

The ballots cast on Monday — which include 600 at the Jimmie B. Keel Library and 265 in New Tampa — do not include 8,700 absentee ballots already returned in the Pasco and Hillsborough District 12 precincts.

Those voting on Monday were, for the most part, familiar with the allegations against Norman, which are part of an FBI investigation as well.

"I'm not going to vote for him," said retiree Carmen Aguero, a former middle school principal who could not understand why Norman did not list the Arkansas house on his campaign disclosure forms. But she did not know how she would vote. "I have to think about it," she said.

Stevens Ralph, miffed about Norman's handling of a neighborhood road issue, said, "I left it blank. I don't like him."

With no Democrat on the ballot, the Republican nominee will compete with two write--ins.

The Pasco GOP's top three officials were to meet Monday night to review potential nominees if it comes to that. Expect a conservative Republican, committee member Bill Bunting said, and not "a darn liberal Republican."

Former Hillsborough state Rep. Trey Traviesa, though not confirming he had been approached, said, "It's off the table. I left politics for my family and my family is not ready for me to return." Still, he added, "It would be an honor to be considered."

Times staff writers Jodie Tillman, Lee Logan and Janet Zink contributed to this report.

Norman, Ambler continue court fight as early voting starts 10/18/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 19, 2010 12:00am]

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