TAMPA — Republican Party leaders on Saturday chose former state Rep. Rob Wallace to replace Jim Norman on the November ballot as the state Senate candidate in District 12.
A judge disqualified Norman from the ballot on Oct. 15, citing irregularities in his financial disclosure form and forcing local party leaders to find a replacement.
"Today has been a daunting task, one we really didn't wish to have put on our plate," said Deborah Cox-Roush, chairwoman of the Hillsborough Republican Party.
The problems for Norman's candidacy began after he beat state Rep. Kevin Ambler in the August primary election and Ambler sued to get Norman off the ballot. In his lawsuit, Ambler maintained that Norman wasn't a qualified candidate because there was no disclosure of a $430,000 Arkansas house bought by Norman's wife with money from Seffner businessman Ralph Hughes.
On Saturday, a local, six-member GOP committee that included Cox-Roush considered both Norman and Ambler before choosing Wallace. Cox-Roush said the group decided against naming Ambler to the ballot because he had been rejected by voters.
At the same time, she said, they rejected Norman because he had been disqualified by a judge.
"We think that voters deserve a fresh start," Cox-Roush said.
In Wallace, the Republicans chose a candidate with political experience and conservative credentials. Wallace, who held Ambler's District 47 seat from 1994 to 2002 before leaving office due to a term limit, owns an environmental consulting company with eight employees.
"I think my small-business background and fiscal conservatism is a good fit for the Legislature when our economy is hurting," he said.
In recent years, Wallace has focused his attention on putting his children through college and on his business, which helps companies navigate environmental regulations.
During his years in the Legislature, he got to know incoming Republican Senate President Mike Haridopolos and state Sen. John Thrasher, the chairman of the state Republican Party, whom Wallace described as "one of my heroes."
"I'm looking forward to being able to work with them again," he said.
April Schiff, a Republican political consultant who worked on Wallace's last state House campaign, called him an excellent choice.
"He's a very strong fiscal conservative and he's independent and I believe he'll do the right things," she said.
Wallace said as a state senator he would re-introduce a small-business employment incentive he proposed in 1995. It got no traction then, but Wallace said it might win support given the current economic climate. The plan would provide small businesses a $1,000 corporate or sales tax credit for each job created that meets a certain salary threshold and remains occupied for at least a year.
He said he told the committee about that idea, as well as his reputation as a spending watchdog. In 1997, he was the only member of the state House to vote against the budget because of spending increases.
"It was a vote of 119-1, but I made my point" he said. "That kind of stand might be one of the reasons I'm here."
In 2001, Wallace crafted a bill that proposed a new system of fines for Hillsborough's Environmental Protection Commission, the county's main pollution regulator. It capped the agency's fines at $5,000 a year for people and businesses that commit what Wallace characterized as minor offenses that don't result in major pollution.
At the time, he said it was meant to curb what he called a "heavy-handed approach" to policing by the EPC. But agency officials contended it would have prevented them from forcing companies, by threat of fine, to undertake sometimes costly improvements that might prevent pollution.
That same year, a St. Petersburg Times profile said this of Wallace: "If one belief guides [his] votes, it is that government should be hands-off about everything from businesses to kids on bikes to backyard pools. The owner of a small environmental engineering firm, Wallace acquired his passion for less government while guiding clients through the regulatory maze."
He said in the profile: "You can't help but . . . be concerned about the growth of government through regulations."
Norman, a Hillsborough County commissioner, has appealed the judge's decision to disqualify him. Ambler also has appealed a decision by Leon County Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford not to declare him the nominee. A hearing on Norman's appeal will be held Tuesday in Tallahassee, raising the possibility that he could prevail and be returned to the ballot.
Norman said Saturday he spent about 30 minutes with the committee, but wouldn't give any details.
"They have a responsibility to do this, but I think I'll win my appeal," he said.
Ambler, 49, of Lutz, met for an hour with party officials, sharing with them his support of Republican initiatives during his eight years as a Florida legislator.
"They were very courteous, they were receptive, they were polite," Ambler said. "I was trying to answer their questions as openly and thoroughly as I could."
Among the questions Ambler had to answer was why he chose attorney Mark Herron, a Democrat, to represent him in the elections case. Ambler said he didn't consider party affiliation, only Herron's successful record in elections cases.
If he loses his legal appeal, Ambler said he will throw his full support behind the party's chosen candidate.
Party officials also interviewed Pasco County egg farmer Wilton Simpson and Ed Homan, an orthopedic surgeon from Temple Terrace and the District 60 state representative.
"There was a lot of good discussion," said Randy Maggard, chairman of the Pasco County Republican Party, and a member of the selection committee. "We really believe we gave the citizens of Pasco and Hillsborough the best representative they could have."
Ballots for early voting and the Nov. 2 election were already prepared with Norman's name. If Norman remains off the ballot, votes cast for him will go to the new Republican nominee — in this case Wallace. There are two write-ins, pet store worker Derek Crabb and college student Kimberly Renspie, but no Democrat on the ballot in District 12, which comprises northern Hillsborough and central Pasco counties. Write-in votes for Ambler will not be counted.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Janet Zink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3401.