Bankroll, familiarity helped Jim Norman overcome issues in state Senate race

TAMPA — Jim Norman was positively giddy.

At 9:30 p.m. on election night, it was apparent that he would emerge victorious from the Republican state Senate primary in District 12.

Turning away from a group of supporters, Norman said, "I was just telling them that I was endorsed by two great newspapers — the Sentinel and the New Tampa News."

Then he laughed his characteristic laugh, more of a guffaw, like the life of the tailgate party.

Norman had reason to celebrate.

Despite a campaign fraught with tough questions from the media, opponent Kevin Ambler, and a lawyer who filed a state ethics complaint, Norman took 56 percent of the vote — including a majority in Hillsborough and Pasco counties.

Ambler prevailed in only handful of northwest Hillsborough precincts, including his own. But Town 'N Country, central Lutz and New Tampa went solidly for Norman, a shoe-leather campaigner who contended Tuesday night that he "outwalked" Ambler.

So why did Norman win so resoundingly?

"The easy answer is money," said Chris Ingram, a Republican political consultant. "People are easily influenced by the television advertisements that they see from candidates and their supporting groups, the mail they see over and over again."

The latest campaign finance reports showed Norman had a war chest that totaled more than $555,000, compared to Ambler's $355,000. That bought a lot of time on television and paid for plenty of mailers.

Norman also had the endorsements of state Sens. Mike Haridopolos and J.D. Alexander, as well as that of former Gov. Jeb Bush.

But endorsements don't make that much of a difference, Ingram said, pointing out that Bill McCollum lost the governor's race even with Bush appearing often by his side.

Another factor that helped Norman: Being a Hillsborough County commissioner for 18 years put his name in front of voters more often than Ambler's eight-year stint in the state House. The County Commission meets nearly every week of the year, generating local news coverage. Florida legislators are in the news much less often.

"Having been a county commissioner will have exposed you to more people in most cases," Ingram said. "They're much closer to the people. They're more accessible to the press. The things they do directly impact voters on a day to day basis more than anything they do in Tallahassee."

With only write-in opponents in November, Norman now faces the prospect of serving in the aftermath of allegations against him. He has declined to answer questions about a $435,000 house his wife bought with cash in Arkansas. His employer, the Salvation Army, issued two formal statements of support after Norman would not give details about his job, which pays him $95,000 a year plus use of a car.

The charity's top Florida officer said recently that several issues would need to be discussed if Norman won, including how he would find the time to continue his full-time job and how he would avoid conflicts of interest, as the Salvation Army has millions in state contracts.

"Anything that would affect the Salvation Army, I would just abstain, like I did on the County Commission," Norman said Tuesday night.

Issues involving conflicts of interest can be complicated, as Florida has a part-time citizen Legislature whose members work in a variety of industries that intersect with government.

But Norman said Tuesday night that he plans to stay with the charity and does not foresee any problems. "The last job I ever work in my life will be the Salvation Army," he said.

As for his dual workload, Norman said that, if anything, he will be more available for the Salvation Army as a senator than he was while on the commission.

"I see greater opportunities," he said. "For example, they have an office in Tallahassee. I can enhance their office."

Norman declared Tuesday's outcome a mandate for conservative government, while Ambler blamed his loss on the barrage of television and direct-mail attacks.

Supporters during the campaign suggested that Norman's affable personality might allow him to ascend to Senate president, following Haridopolos, R-Melbourne.

Norman was more modest Tuesday night. "I want, as my first step, to ask the Senate leaders if they will accept me in a leadership role," he said.

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

Bankroll, familiarity helped Jim Norman overcome issues in state Senate race 08/25/10 [Last modified: Thursday, August 26, 2010 8:17am]

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