Wednesday, November 14, 2018
Politics

Wilton Simpson, an east Pasco egg farmer, clinches Senate seat with ease

Wilton Simpson still can't believe his beginner's luck. The Trilby businessman, who was making his first run for elective office, will take over an open state Senate seat — without facing any challenger on election night.

"It's almost like it's not even real," said Simpson, a Republican who owns an egg farm and an asbestos removal and construction company.

In November, Simpson, 46, will be sworn into the elite 40-member Senate that shapes statewide policy on a wide variety of issues. He will represent the sprawling District 18 that includes west Pasco, the Dade City area, all of Hernando County and most of Sumter.

He clearly caught some breaks. After "preparing to run a very difficult primary" against state Rep. John Legg, he got a pass on the August ballot when Legg moved to an adjacent Senate seat just weeks before the election. And on Thursday, the Democratic Party missed a deadline to field a new opponent after a Hudson college student dropped his campaign.

(Voters in District 18 will still see the race on their ballots, which have already been printed, but the seat belongs to Simpson, said Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley.)

Simpson didn't simply waltz into the position, though. He was an impressive fundraiser who attracted big-name supporters, raising more than $300,000 in cash and $17,000 in in-kind contributions (plus $50,000 from his own pocket). Many observers say his methodical campaign likely scared away people who were interested in the open seat.

"He got involved early, was able to get supporters, even when it looked like there were going to be two formidable candidates," said Scott Black, a Dade City commissioner and former mayor. Still, he marveled, "It has to be an exhilarating feeling to be an automatic senator without having to go through a race."

His two-year term is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, he must run again in 2014, whereas many senators can wait four years. But if he is re-elected, he will get the chance to serve 10 years instead of the eight-year term limit included in the state Constitution.

Republican with an independent streak

But Simpson is a relative unknown to many of his constituents. He is well known in the Dade City area and in the agriculture community. But many folks in well-populated west Pasco and Hernando still wouldn't recognize him.

Friends say Simpson is a quiet man who doesn't take over a room he enters. But he can get animated when sharing his views on Florida's economic, education and infrastructure challenges.

He holds a less-government philosophy and says he wants bureaucrats to get out of the way of businesses. But he concedes that government plays an important role and that some regulations are necessary. He calls himself a "big tent Republican" and an independent thinker who won't hesitate to argue with colleagues in his own party.

Two notable disagreements: He criticized a top-down management style of education, and said he would have sought more teacher input when the Legislature passed a new system for teacher evaluations and contracts in 2011.

"When bureaucrats in Tallahassee decide what to teach and tell them how to teach it, it's pretty difficult to hold teachers responsible for the results," he said.

Simpson also slammed the Legislature's requirement that all government workers contribute 3 percent of their salary toward their retirement. He said the move changed the rules midstream for current employees and that the money should have helped shore up the pension fund, not plug budget holes. "I wouldn't vote for that today," he said.

But he also holds many mainstream conservative positions. He doesn't want to raise taxes, and said complicated government regulations weigh down businesses and nonprofits. He ticked off several road widening projects that he said would spur the local economy.

Simpson is also passionate about water issues. He said he wants to reduce groundwater pumping by investing in desalination plants and building infrastructure to carry reclaimed water from the coast to inland farms.

Simpson has long been politically connected and said he has considered running for office since he was a teenager. (Black, who attended Pasco High School a few years ahead of Simpson, put it this way: "We all expected Wilton to take the plunge into politics at some point. We just all wondered when and what position he would go for.")

He was born in Lakeland and lived in Plant City until he was 11, but he has deep roots in Trilby and the Dade City area. He has served on the boards of the Pasco County Fair, the Pasco Economic Development Council and the Pasco Farm Bureau. He has also donated to the Boys and Girls Club in Lacoochee and supported the East and Central Pasco Habitat for Humanity.

Those community ties paid off. The same day that his Democratic opponent left the race, he released a list of more than 60 Pasco business leaders who back his campaign. He has a similar list for Hernando.

He even won the support of fellow Trilby resident Richard Riley, a progressive activist who often argues in favor of more restrictions on development. Riley said he is a fan of Simpson because of his support of local groups and causes.

"I know he's a conservative Republican," he said. "I don't like Republicans, but I like Wilton Simpson."

He has the support of friends in high places

Simpson, who has between $80,000 and $100,000 left in his campaign account, also has some of the state's biggest names behind him.

House Speaker-designate Will Weatherford, a fellow east Pasco resident, has been a friend and political ally since the two met in 2006, when Weatherford won his first term. Simpson also employs Weatherford as a client relations specialist who helps find business for his environmental services firm.

"He's worked extremely hard for everything he's got," Weatherford said, adding Simpson "personifies the American story."

Weatherford said he's looking forward to having his friend serve in the opposite legislative chamber and quipped, "I'm expecting him to carry all of our priority bills this year."

He also got a boost from Attorney General Pam Bondi, who made a TV commercial for his campaign. The two met when he offered to help on her 2010 primary campaign. They met for a two-hour dinner at Beef 'O' Brady's in Dade City, a magnet for politicians located in a building Simpson owns.

"In that two hours, we developed a very strong friendship," he said. "Pam's a good friend. Not like a passing acquaintance, she's a good friend."

Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.

Wilton Simpson still can't believe his beginner's luck. The Trilby businessman, who was making his first run for elective office, will take over an open state Senate seat — without facing any challenger on election night.

"It's almost like it's not even real," said Simpson, a Republican who owns an egg farm and an asbestos removal and construction company.

In November, Simpson, 46, will be sworn into the elite 40-member Senate that shapes statewide policy on a wide variety of issues. He will represent the sprawling District 18 that includes west Pasco, the Dade City area, all of Hernando County and most of Sumter.

He clearly caught some breaks. After "preparing to run a very difficult primary" against state Rep. John Legg, he got a pass on the August ballot when Legg moved to an adjacent Senate seat just weeks before the election. And on Thursday, the Democratic Party missed a deadline to field a new opponent after a Hudson college student dropped his campaign.

(Voters in District 18 will still see the race on their ballots, which have already been printed, but the seat belongs to Simpson, said Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley.)

Simpson didn't simply waltz into the position, though. He was an impressive fundraiser who attracted big-name supporters, raising more than $300,000 in cash and $17,000 in in-kind contributions (plus $50,000 from his own pocket). Many observers say his methodical campaign likely scared away people who were interested in the open seat.

"He got involved early, was able to get supporters, even when it looked like there were going to be two formidable candidates," said Scott Black, a Dade City commissioner and former mayor. Still, he marveled, "It has to be an exhilarating feeling to be an automatic senator without having to go through a race."

His two-year term is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, he must run again in 2014, whereas many senators can wait four years. But if he is re-elected, he will get the chance to serve 10 years instead of the eight-year term limit included in the state Constitution.

Republican with an independent streak

But Simpson is a relative unknown to many of his constituents. He is well known in the Dade City area and in the agriculture community. But many folks in well-populated west Pasco and Hernando still wouldn't recognize him.

Friends say Simpson is a quiet man who doesn't take over a room he enters. But he can get animated when sharing his views on Florida's economic, education and infrastructure challenges.

He holds a less-government philosophy and says he wants bureaucrats to get out of the way of businesses. But he concedes that government plays an important role and that some regulations are necessary. He calls himself a "big tent Republican" and an independent thinker who won't hesitate to argue with colleagues in his own party.

Two notable disagreements: He criticized a top-down management style of education, and said he would have sought more teacher input when the Legislature passed a new system for teacher evaluations and contracts in 2011.

"When bureaucrats in Tallahassee decide what to teach and tell them how to teach it, it's pretty difficult to hold teachers responsible for the results," he said.

Simpson also slammed the Legislature's requirement that all government workers contribute 3 percent of their salary toward their retirement. He said the move changed the rules midstream for current employees and that the money should have helped shore up the pension fund, not plug budget holes. "I wouldn't vote for that today," he said.

But he also holds many mainstream conservative positions. He doesn't want to raise taxes, and said complicated government regulations weigh down businesses and nonprofits. He ticked off several road widening projects that he said would spur the local economy.

Simpson is also passionate about water issues. He said he wants to reduce groundwater pumping by investing in desalination plants and building infrastructure to carry reclaimed water from the coast to inland farms.

Simpson has long been politically connected and said he has considered running for office since he was a teenager. (Black, who attended Pasco High School a few years ahead of Simpson, put it this way: "We all expected Wilton to take the plunge into politics at some point. We just all wondered when and what position he would go for.")

He was born in Lakeland and lived in Plant City until he was 11, but he has deep roots in Trilby and the Dade City area. He has served on the boards of the Pasco County Fair, the Pasco Economic Development Council and the Pasco Farm Bureau. He has also donated to the Boys and Girls Club in Lacoochee and supported the East and Central Pasco Habitat for Humanity.

Those community ties paid off. The same day that his Democratic opponent left the race, he released a list of more than 60 Pasco business leaders who back his campaign. He has a similar list for Hernando.

He even won the support of fellow Trilby resident Richard Riley, a progressive activist who often argues in favor of more restrictions on development. Riley said he is a fan of Simpson because of his support of local groups and causes.

"I know he's a conservative Republican," he said. "I don't like Republicans, but I like Wilton Simpson."

He has the support of friends in high places

Simpson, who has between $80,000 and $100,000 left in his campaign account, also has some of the state's biggest names behind him.

House Speaker-designate Will Weatherford, a fellow east Pasco resident, has been a friend and political ally since the two met in 2006, when Weatherford won his first term. Simpson also employs Weatherford as a client relations specialist who helps find business for his environmental services firm.

"He's worked extremely hard for everything he's got," Weatherford said, adding Simpson "personifies the American story."

Weatherford said he's looking forward to having his friend serve in the opposite legislative chamber and quipped, "I'm expecting him to carry all of our priority bills this year."

He also got a boost from Attorney General Pam Bondi, who made a TV commercial for his campaign. The two met when he offered to help on her 2010 primary campaign. They met for a two-hour dinner at Beef 'O' Brady's in Dade City, a magnet for politicians located in a building Simpson owns.

"In that two hours, we developed a very strong friendship," he said. "Pam's a good friend. Not like a passing acquaintance, she's a good friend."

Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.

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