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Tenacity in state Senate ballot fight comes naturally to Kevin Ambler

TAMPA — Not everyone who rear-ends a semitrailer truck turns around and sues the trucking company and driver.

Trial lawyer Kevin Ambler didn't just sue. He regaled the Citrus County jury last year with everything from the courtship of his wife to conversations with God. The opposing lawyer called his testimony a masterful performance.

The jury awarded him close to $1 million.

That relentless drive to win has Ambler once again in the plaintiff's seat, this time suing Jim Norman, the embattled Hills­borough County commissioner who defeated him in the Republican primary for the state Senate.

In a case now on appeal in Tallahassee, Ambler persuaded a judge to toss Norman off the ballot for failing to disclose a $500,000 gift from businessman Ralph Hughes.

It matters little to Ambler that he is destroying the reputation of a local official who was on a track to Republican leadership. Or that he risks alienating himself from a party he has belonged to since he was 18. Or even that Norman has accused him of flat-out lying on the stand.

"I did some deep soul searching and looked at the potential for repercussions and fallout," Ambler said. "But at the end of the day, I chose principle over politics. I felt strongly that a fraud had been perpetrated."

• • •

Taking a stand is as natural as breathing for Ambler. He had wanted to be a lawyer since he was a kid in California.

It disturbs him when lawyers are vilified. As he sees it, the law civilizes society, stopping us from taking up pitchforks and torches to right a wrong. And it's not just the thrill of the battle.

"Lawyers do a lot of work behind the scenes to be good counselors and help people make good decisions," he said.

Ambler, 49, first came to Tampa for an assignment at MacDill Air Force Base. He settled in the suburb of Northdale and went into private practice, largely personal injury and medical malpractice.

After serving on his homeowners association board and heading the Northdale Special Tax District, he entered the state House in 2002 and was re-elected three times. Along the way, he moved with his wife and two children to the tonier Cheval. His last disclosure listed a net worth of $5 million.

He's proud of legislation that provided consumer protection for military families, required minors to notify parents before an abortion, and gave tax credits to the entertainment industry.

He tried to exert his influence behind the scenes. "I'm known as the amendment king," he said.

He now suspects his ability to redraft bills on the fly might have ruffled feathers. "It might have frosted some people that I rewrote their work product."

Ed Homan, a state representative and Temple Terrace physician, said Ambler supported the medical establishment in spite of the common animosity between doctors and lawyers. "Except when it came to tort reform," Homan said. "And you have to give him that."

His response to the Norman lawsuit? "This is not atypical for what Kevin would do. He's a trial attorney."

• • •

The sun had not yet risen on a December morning in 2004. Ambler was driving from Tampa to Tallahassee when he came upon a dirt truck on U.S. 19 that was slowing to turn left. He never stopped.

"This gentleman was traveling asleep and went under my truck," driver Jaime Zapata testified during Ambler's lawsuit. The accident could have been avoided, Zapata said, "if this person would have been traveling with the use of his five senses."

Ambler, who suffered multiple injuries with lasting effects, argued that the truck's rear lights didn't work and its reflective strips were missing.

It was his testimony that won over the jury, said opposing attorney Chris Wadsworth.

Ambler took the panel through his pretrip rituals, told them how he enjoyed the tranquility of the open road, where he listened to legal texts on tape. "I know it sounds like I'm such a nerd."

He said he could clock the accident because he'd meant to call his children about 7 a.m. to wish them luck on their school exams.

Trapped in traffic after the impact, he said, "It's the most terrifying couple of moments of my life. … I reached down and I said out loud, 'God, if you're here, please protect me. Don't let them smash me because I don't want to die tonight.' "

He thanked God when an oncoming vehicle missed him.

"Then an angel tapped on my window," he said. It was someone telling him help was on the way.

"It was like my prayers had been answered."

Wadsworth, already impressed that Ambler had gone to depositions as if he were co-counsel, said, "He cried like a baby on the stand."

The case is on appeal.

• • •

When he decided to challenge Norman for the Senate seat in northern Hillsborough and central Pasco counties, Ambler said, he had no idea how strongly Republican leaders favored his opponent.

Contrary to what the attack ads said, Ambler almost always voted with the party.

It might have been that last budget vote in April, he said.

To save money, lawmakers had tried to cut insurance subsidies for retired police and firefighters. Ambler wouldn't have it.

"My mother was a police officer," he argued.

Party leaders warned him not to push the issue, he said. But he did, and the measure failed. "They went crazy," Ambler said. "There was a mad scramble. They tabled it. Then they threatened and strong-armed other people, that they would never have a chairmanship, that they would never go anywhere. … They never came to me."

The subsidy survived, but the political damage was done.

Norman had endorsements from the likes of former Gov. Jeb Bush and Senate president-designate Mike Haridopolos. Despite donations to Ambler from doctors and lawyers, Norman raised twice the money.

A flood of ads branded Ambler a liberal lawyer. "Millions went to TV advertising," he said.

Homan has a different theory about Ambler's fall from grace.

In 2009, the trial lawyers' lobby was involved in a racially charged mailer attacking John Thrasher of Jacksonville, a onetime speaker of the House.

Heads rolled in the lobby group, he said, and "trial lawyers got nothing" in the 2010 session.

Any cooling toward Ambler, he said, "seemed to have more to do with Kevin Ambler's trial lawyer association than anything against him."

Both Homan and Tampa's Sen. Victor Crist agree that, despite Ambler's accomplishments, Norman seemed more able to navigate the Republican social scene.

Crist, while praising Ambler's sophistication and passion, describes it as a difference in style. "It's Kevin's attention to detail and desire to fight to the end that sometimes turns off leadership and his colleagues who are not close to him," he said.

Still, Crist said, "it's shocking to see what this has turned into."

Tenacity in state Senate ballot fight comes naturally to Kevin Ambler 10/24/10 [Last modified: Sunday, October 24, 2010 1:26pm]
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