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Tom Lee defeats Rachel Burgin in bitter primary for Florida Senate seat

Republican state Senate candidate Tom Lee is congratulated by friend Kevin Dempsey, left, during the election night party at the Brandon Chamber of Commerce. Lee had a 20 percent lead over state Rep. Rachel Burgin, who appealed to social conservatives.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

Republican state Senate candidate Tom Lee is congratulated by friend Kevin Dempsey, left, during the election night party at the Brandon Chamber of Commerce. Lee had a 20 percent lead over state Rep. Rachel Burgin, who appealed to social conservatives.

BRANDON — Former Florida Senate President Tom Lee could be headed back to the Legislature after defeating state Rep. Rachel Burgin in a harsh Republican primary for a Senate seat from eastern Hillsborough County.

The final battle for Senate District 24 comes in November when Lee, 50, faces Democrat Elizabeth Belcher and write-in candidate Randolph Link in the general election.

Lee, a Brandon home builder, had nearly 60 percent of the vote. He served as a state senator from 1996 to 2006 and was best remembered for insisting that lobbyists be forced to disclose how much money they make and for banning lobbyists from buying meals and gifts for legislators.

"My personal opinion is that resumes do matter," Lee said Tuesday night. "I feel like I have a history in the county, and a history in public life that I was able to talk about."

Burgin, 30, worked on a number of issues important to social conservatives, particularly anti- abortion measures, after getting elected to House District 56 in 2008. She did not return phone messages Tuesday.

Burgin portrayed herself as the grass roots candidate trying to defeat the Tallahassee establishment candidate. Lee scoffed at that portrayal, saying Burgin was looking for a way to supplement a thin record.

The contest turned bitter, especially after Tallahassee lobbyists and political committees got involved.

Voters received an attack ad produced by a group called the American People Committee that linked Lee with Rob Turner, the Hillsborough County property appraiser who was embroiled in a porn scandal.

Burgin denied accusations that she directed donations to the group responsible for the piece, which the chairman of the Florida Republican Party denounced.

A Valrico lawyer who has long clashed with Burgin filed an ethics complaint against her over the accusations. But just last week, two Hillsborough residents hit Lee, too, with an ethics complaint, alleging he had undervalued his real estate holdings on financial disclosure forms. The women said they had no connection to Burgin, although one had previously posted a message of support for her on the Facebook page of Burgin's brother, Josh.

Lee said Tuesday that he was glad the back-and-forth was over. "My personal view is that there's no place for that in Republican politics," he said.

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

Tom Lee defeats Rachel Burgin in bitter primary for Florida Senate seat 08/14/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 15, 2012 12:19am]
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