TAMPA — When the controversial Jim Norman abandoned his re-election campaign, state Senate District 17 suddenly lost its incumbent politician.
By that time, Norman had picked up a competitor with the clout of a sitting state senator: state Rep. John Legg, who quickly won endorsements from Senate leaders, high-ranking House members and even former Gov. Jeb Bush.
Legg is running against former state Rep. Rob Wallace and political newcomer John Korsak in the Aug. 14 Republican primary. The winner will face Democrat Wes Johnson in November.
Legg, a Pasco County resident, could also get a boost from the district's new boundaries. In the old district, Hillsborough County residents made up 64 percent of the population, compared with Pasco's 36 percent. After redistricting, Pasco's share grew to 45 percent.
But Legg, whose House constituents in west Pasco are not part of this new Senate district, says he's taking nothing for granted: He's knocked on more than 1,000 doors, made the rounds at local clubs and sent mailers detailing his positive ratings by the Christian Coalition and the National Rifle Association.
"We always start from zero on every campaign," said Legg, who joined the House in 2004.
But Wallace said he retains name recognition in parts of Hillsborough he served as a state representative from 1994 to 2002. He said if he can hold Hillsborough and pick up at least 25 percent of Pasco voters, he has a good shot.
Wallace and Korsak are painting Legg's big endorsements and relatively hefty war chest ($193,670 through the end of July) as a potential liability with voters wary of establishment candidates.
"What we see is a Tallahassee leadership that couldn't deal with Norman and his baggage … and they give him incumbent protection," said Wallace, referring to investigations into whether Norman concealed a longtime political benefactor's investment in a home owned by Norman's wife. "And then those same people decide, 'Okay, we want John Legg.' "
"The problem we have here is a very strong political machine trying to shape the primary process," Korsak said. "It really just circumvents the role of the voters."
Korsak is a former Marine and U.S. Secret Service officer who runs a security consulting firm. He is a first-time political candidate who moved to Lutz five years ago. In 2008, he worked as a volunteer on the McCain-Palin presidential campaign.
His priorities include an across-the-board elimination of state excise taxes and the corporate income tax. But Korsak, who has been endorsed by some tea party-affiliated organizations, said he believes he stands out because of his emphasis on fighting the federal government's bullying.
"The real place I differ, and the real reason I worry, is not for less taxes, less government, less regulation. I believe in all those things, and a lot of Republicans do, a lot of Democrats do," he said. "What I'm really running for, and this is the essence of the difference between me and my opponents, I'm running because I believe in constitutional government."
He said across the country, state legislatures "have been complicit in the destruction of America because they don't understand what their job is. … To me, the No. 1 job of a state legislature is to stand guard against intrusive federal policies."
The founder of Pasco charter school Dayspring Academy, Legg made education one of his top priorities as a House member. In 2010, he sponsored the controversial Senate Bill 6, which would have repealed tenure for teachers and tied their evaluations to students' standardized tests. (Then-Gov. Charlie Crist ultimately vetoed that bill.)
Legg also sponsored Senate Bill 4, which added tougher math and science graduation requirements, while moving away from the high school-level comprehensive tests and toward end-of-course exams.
He has been an advocate for changes that benefit charter schools. Those efforts inspired one critic to file an ethics complaint in 2010, saying that Legg, as a charter school founder and administrator, was using his public office for private gain. The state ethics commission threw out that complaint.
He also has worked on consumer issues in Pasco, fighting a private utility company's proposed rate increases for Port Richey customers.
Both Wallace and Korsak also resurrected long-standing questions over Legg's residency.
Legg used his wife's home in Trinity to qualify as a candidate for Senate District 17. The home he owns in Port Richey is outside the district. In 2008, the Times raised questions about whether he was living in the Port Richey home or his wife's larger and newer Trinity home. Legg said then that he split his time. He said recently if he wins, he'd move full-time to his wife's home.
Wallace decided to run to try to push Norman out of office. The 33-year owner of a Tampa engineering firm, he was known for an independent streak during his tenure in the House.
"I was basically a budget watcher," he said.
He was twice the sole "no" vote in the House on the state budget, which he said should have been reduced. "Money was coming in and they were just spending it," he said.
Though Wallace is a former eight-year legislator, he said he's being snubbed by Senate insiders, who are supporting Legg.
"I'm on the outs with the Senateocracy," he said. "They've decided, 'We want this guy.' That may be an expedient decision for them. But to me it's part of a money game."
He reported nearly $114,000 in contributions through July, though that figure includes a $75,000 loan he gave himself.
Wallace was appointed to the board of Citizens Property Insurance last August. That month, he voted to quadruple average sinkhole rates. Citizens requested the rates in response to a property insurance bill that lifted the 10 percent cap on Citizens' rate increases for sinkhole coverage. (Florida Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty later approved a much smaller increase, an average 32.8 percent increase.)
Wallace, who resigned from Citizens in February to make his Senate run, acknowledged he is vulnerable on that issue but noted the timing of his appointment as well as the effort to phase in the increases over several years.
"They'll probably blame me for that somehow," he said. "But … when we saw the impact, we tried to soften it."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374.