TALLAHASSEE — Tom Lee left politics six years ago with his reputation for blunt talk intact.
"I didn't go to Tallahassee to make friends," he said then, "and don't expect to leave with any."
Lee, 50, a Brandon home builder, is 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. In a capital where lawmakers covet support from special interests, Lee railed against them, even as he took their campaign money.
Now, as Lee seeks a return to the Senate where he served for a decade, he has powerful friends in his corner.
But it's payback time, too.
Some of the lobbyists he antagonized now want to defeat him.
His rival in the Republican primary on Aug. 14 is two-term Rep. Rachel Burgin, R-Riverview, a 29-year-old former legislative aide. Her strategy is to cast herself as the outsider, knocking on doors and rallying social conservatives in the mold of Sen. Ronda Storms, who's not seeking a new term in the district and instead is running for county property appraiser.
The battleground is the newly drawn Senate District 24, a mix of suburbs, small businesses and strawberry fields across east Hillsborough County.
As a senator from 1996 to 2006, Lee relished thumbing his nose at the powerful, especially lobbyists.
His comeback trail is paved with support from a powerful circle, led by incoming Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who with other Senate GOP leaders is taking sides in primaries in an effort to protect a pre-ordained line of succession to the Senate presidency.
"We're trying to send a message to anyone who will listen," Gaetz said.
The message is that people who write checks to candidates should support Lee, not Burgin, but Gaetz says his intent is not to intimidate lobbyists. "Those days are long gone," he said.
Despite Gaetz's staunch support of Lee, three of the capital's most seasoned lobbyists are backing Burgin while criticizing Lee — an act of defiance rarely seen in Tallahassee.
Lobbyists Ron Book and Guy Spearman unsuccessfully tried to overturn Lee's fee-disclosure law in court. The law survived, but lobbyists must reveal their income only in broad ranges.
Spearman, a fixture in the Capitol since the 1970s, said he told Senate GOP leaders he wouldn't help Lee, and he called Burgin a "good legislator who fits that community."
Spearman said that when he told Lee he would challenge the disclosure of fees, Lee treated him "like a worthless human being. He was demeaning."
Lee said that as Senate president, he had to make tough decisions. "People who don't support you tend to be more vocal than the ones who do," he said.
Spearman's clients include Anheuser-Busch, AT&T, Florida sheriffs, Gannett newspapers and SeaWorld.
Spearman called it "hypocritical" of Lee to demand disclosure of fees from lobbyists when Lee himself did not reveal all of his expenses on a Republican Party-issued credit card when he was in office.
"I don't have those records," Lee said. "Get with the Republican Party of Florida about that."
Book, who owns one of the capital's longest client lists, echoed Spearman's view.
"He did not take kindly to what I believe were our rights to file a lawsuit," Book said. "I've got a long memory."
A third lobbyist spurning Lee, Jack Cory, called Burgin an effective grass roots candidate. Cory said he was offended that Senate leaders are trying to anoint Lee.
"For Tallahassee folks to be fooling around in this district is a mistake, especially when you've got a qualified candidate like Rachel," Cory said.
All three men combined have hundreds of clients who regularly donate to legislative campaigns.
Lee said he didn't take their opposition personally.
"All this inside-the-beltway stuff is a whole different world," Lee said. "You can't have everybody."
Many other lobbyists are supporting Lee's Senate bid, and some showed up with checks in hand Thursday evening at a Lee fundraiser at the Governor's Club in Tallahassee, where Gaetz, sipping a glass of white wine, greeted guests.
Gaetz criticized lobbyists for "holding a grudge" against Lee.
"They want to work out an old grudge against Tom Lee because he championed ethics reform that some lobbyists didn't like," he said. "That's shortsighted."
Burgin, a vocal opponent of abortion and gambling, hopes to turn her outsider status into an asset by blasting power brokers in Tallahassee for trying to handpick a senator in advance.
"My people are tired of being told by Tallahassee insiders who's going to represent them," Burgin said. "In this district, they don't like being told what to do."
Lee has a long list of endorsements from prominent political leaders, including Attorney General Pam Bondi, former Gov. Bob Martinez, former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco and Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee.
Burgin counters with the support of 160 grass roots activists, most of whom live in the district.
"Those are the leaders I want," Burgin said.
Lee agrees with Burgin that the race will be won on the ground, and cites his work with the Rotary, the chamber of commerce and area children's programs.
What Tallahassee lobbyists do doesn't matter much, he said. "They're all betting on a horse race."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.