Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Politics

Pasco businessman Wiltson Simpson now runs unopposed in Florida Senate District 18

BROOKSVILLE — County Commissioner Dave Russell admits he considered a state Senate bid.

And on paper, Russell looks like a bona fide contender for a Senate seat: four terms in the state House; and now in the middle of his second term as a Hernando commissioner, a seat he won without opposition.

Resumes are one thing. Electoral math is another.

As a result of the once-a-decade redistricting process, the entirety of Hernando County is now smack in the middle of the new Senate District 18, but only 37 percent of the district's voting-age population lives in Hernando. The majority, 53 percent, lives in Pasco County, with the balance in Sumter County.

Though Russell has plenty of name recognition in Hernando and the district favors a Republican candidate, the voting power is south of the Hernando border.

"Had the lines fallen a little bit differently, I would have taken another look at it. But it became clear to me early on that it would not be in the cards for a Hernando County seat," Russell said.

Now Hernando voters face the prospect of watching a Pasco Republican walk in uncontested.

But Russell and other local Republicans say they're fine with that.

• • •

Until last week, the race was shaping up to be an intriguing contest between state Rep. John Legg of New Port Richey and Wilton Simpson, a Trilby business owner and longtime Pasco Republican Executive Committee member. Simpson, 45, has never held political office, but he has a deep campaign war chest and plenty of big-name support.

When it was still a two-man race, Hernando REC chairman Blaise Ingoglia told the Times that Hernando County would be well served by either GOP candidate. Hernando Sheriff Al Nienhuis, who calls both men friends, said the same.

Then, on Wednesday, Legg announced that he was switching races and would challenge Republican Jim Norman in Senate District 17. He and his wife, Suzanne, have been splitting time between her home in Trinity and another home Legg owns in Port Richey. The father of five said he wants to keep the family in Trinity, which is in Norman's district.

No Democrat has stepped up to challenge Simpson in District 18, and Democratic Party leaders in Hernando and Pasco say they don't know of anyone who plans to mount what would surely be an uphill battle.

It seems unlikely, observers say, that a candidate as well funded and well connected as Simpson will jump into the race before the qualifying period ends June 8.

Even before Legg switched races, Simpson had endorsements from state Senate president Mike Haridopolos, Attorney General Pam Bondi and U.S. Rep. Rich Nugent of Spring Hill. Simpson also had the financial edge through the first three months of the year, raising $220,000 to Legg's $147,000.

Now even Legg and his supporters, including outgoing state Sen. Mike Fasano, have endorsed Simpson.

"He's just a genuinely nice guy, with a great family, and he's got a small-business background," Nugent told the Times before Legg switched. "He'd bring a fresh approach."

Until recently, many of Hernando's prominent Republicans had heard of Simpson, but had never met him. Now he's a regular at local GOP functions and club meetings. He sponsored the recent Lincoln Day Dinner in Spring Hill and shook lots of hands at the Florida Blueberry Festival in Brooksville earlier this month.

Simpson impressed Tom Hogan Sr., Hernando's longtime state committeeman, when the two first met about eight months ago. Hogan said he likes Simpson's energy, business acumen, community involvement and ideas.

"He's pretty much an ideal candidate, really," Hogan said.

Simpson also sought the support of Hogan's son, Brooksville attorney Tom Hogan Jr., who offered similar praise. He is hosting a fundraiser for Simpson in Spring Hill next week.

Ideally, local Republicans said, Hernando would have fielded a candidate. The county hasn't had a state senator since Ginny Brown-Waite won a seat in 1992 and kept it for a decade.

"I focus on whether there are good people running," Hogan Jr. said, "and I think he'd make a good senator."

Simpson said he isn't making assumptions about running unopposed. He said he has already knocked on hundreds of doors in the Brooksville and Ridge Manor areas and will turn his attention to Spring Hill in the coming weeks.

Asked what he would tell Hernando voters who may be disappointed with the idea of a Pasco Republican walking in without opposition, Simpson pointed out that he lives about a half-mile from the Hernando line and has done business here for years.

"I would ask those voters to engage us," he said. "I think I have found the right type of fixes for what ails our economy and our education system, and I hope they support that."

• • •

A married father of two, Simpson heads two companies. Simpson Environmental Services Inc. employs 90 people and specializes in asbestos removal, mold remediation, general contracting and demolition work, among other services. Simpson Farms Inc., based in Trilby, supplies eggs from some 1 million chickens to supermarkets throughout Florida.

He is a founding board member of Florida Traditions Bank, president of the Pasco County Fair Association, chairman of the Pasco County Farm Bureau and a member of the Florida Farm Bureau. He is also on the Pasco-Hernando Community College board of trustees, and helped start a charter school, Academy at the Farm, in Dade City.

Simpson calls regulatory reform one of his top priorities. He favors what he calls a one-stop agency to streamline the process for people who want to open a new business, and he vows to work to attract corporations to Florida and the district to create jobs.

He has visited the Hernando County Airport, the county's industrial center, several times.

"It's going to be a major hub, not only for Hernando County but for the region," he said. "We need a regulatory structure in place to bring that business here."

When he was campaigning against Simpson, Legg touted his knowledge of the insurance industry and efforts to fight rising premiums. Simpson said he wants to take a holistic, pro-consumer approach. One goal, he said, is to address the cause of sinkholes by reducing groundwater pumping through conservation and alternative water sources such as desalination plants. Another is to require insurance companies to use real-time data to establish replacement costs.

Facing term limits, Fasano is running for a House seat that does not include any of Hernando County. Neither does the district Legg is now gunning for. But both Legg and Fasano, of New Port Richey, say they will work with Simpson, if all three are elected, to make sure Hernando is well represented.

Fasano and state Sen. Paula Dockery of Lakeland, who has also represented a portion of Hernando for years, have drawn praise for their populist bent and willingness to buck party leadership.

Simpson said the support he has from the Republican establishment does not mean he won't do the same.

"The Senate leadership has not anointed me in any way," he said. "The vast majority of the money I've raised comes from my community. I'm a very independent-thinking person. Most farmers are."

Russell has endorsed Simpson, too.

"He's assured us he's going to be our senator," Russell said. "People know him to be a man of his word, and you can tell by the support he has of a lot of good people he's going to take good care of us."

Staff writer Lee Logan contributed to this report. Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]

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