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More than 60,000 voters snub embattled Jim Norman in state Senate race

TAMPA — Jim Norman won his state Senate seat, but not without a lot of passive resistance.

More than 47,000 voters in the district covering northern Hillsborough and central Pasco counties either didn't vote in Norman's race or wrote in unqualified candidates, according to election records. That's about one in three voters who cast ballots.

In addition, 18,000 more voted for two write-in candidates who had little credibility and did not spend a dime campaigning.

"It struck me that those numbers were extra high," said Scott Paine, a University of Tampa communication and government professor who lives in Norman's district.

"It suggests to me a fairly strong dissatisfaction in the district with Jim Norman as a candidate."

Now district residents are left to wonder if Norman will succeed as a senator or remain weakened by the scandals of a campaign that spilled over into two courtrooms.

Supporters expect him to rebound, while opponents were left Wednesday to lament that the voters did not have more alternatives.

There was no Democrat in the race, and Hillsborough Democratic leaders have yet to comment about the party's lack of a candidate. Reached in Tallahassee, state Democratic spokesman Eric Jotkoff declined to comment Wednesday.

Said Rich Golden, an active Republican in the Pasco County community of San Antonio: "I don't think we would have conceded a seat like they did."

Norman, a longtime Hillsborough County commissioner, entered the race with the support of state party leadership and community leaders in Tampa's deed-restricted northern suburbs.

Then came a bitter Republican primary election campaign against onetime friend and attorney Kevin Ambler. After Norman won, Ambler filed an election lawsuit that revealed Norman's wife had bought a $500,000 Arkansas house with money from Hillsborough businessman Ralph Hughes.

Along the way, there was publicity about Norman's $95,000 job with the Salvation Army, and an FBI investigation surrounding his relationship with Hughes, who died in 2008.

Norman prevailed in the Ambler lawsuit, which ended less than a week before Election Day. That left him facing write-in candidates Derek Crabb, a pet store employee, and Kimberly Renspie, a North Carolina college student.

Rather than capturing just a handful of votes, the two write-ins got roughly 18 percent. By comparison, Victoria Brake, the write-in running against Republican state Sen. Ronda Storms, took 8.6 percent of the vote.

While Norman took 82 percent of the recorded votes, that share drops sharply with the addition of so-called undervotes. Results show that 31,000 voters in Hillsborough and 16,000 in Pasco cast ballots in the district without making an accepted choice in Norman's Senate race. Officials could not say Wednesday how many people left the race blank and how many chose an unqualified write-in candidate. For example, during early voting in October, several voters said they had written Ambler's name.

Some of the uncounted write-in votes went to John Carmichael, a University of South Florida music professor who tried to mount his own write-in campaign but did not complete the proper paperwork.

"I'm concerned about the whole system," said Carmichael, who said he finds Democratic and Republican candidates similarly disingenuous.

In Ambler's Cheval subdivision, homeowner Tim McClain said he supported Norman after deciding he was a responsive county commissioner with the potential to help north Hills­borough in the Senate.

"He will succeed because he has always been a successful politician, and that's what it takes," said McClain, who serves on his community's taxing board.

In Carrollwood, civic association president Mark Snellgrove is similarly optimistic.

"You've got to have somebody who will direct resources to our county, and he's well connected at that level," he said.

Now that the election is over, Snellgrove said he hopes Norman can be as effective as political leaders had predicted in the summer, when he was discussed as a possible Senate president.

But Paine, the University of Tampa government professor, said it is hard to predict how much political damage Norman suffered with the Ambler lawsuit and surrounding publicity.

Norman, he said, will need to overcome the stain of the $500,000 house in Arkansas, which drew a harsh ruling from a Leon County judge.

"This is clearly an embarrassment," Paine said. "The judge didn't believe him, and I suspect an awful lot of people didn't believe him either."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 624-2739.

More than 60,000 voters snub embattled Jim Norman in state Senate race 11/03/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 3, 2010 10:13pm]
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