TAMPA — Ralph Hughes pumped tens of thousands into the campaigns of politicians who shared his desire for lower taxes and smaller government.
He took a particular interest in Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman. For the better part of two decades, until Hughes' death two years ago, they marched in lockstep on fiscal issues that appeared before the county.
"Ralph was extremely close to Jim," said former County Commissioner Joe Chillura, a fellow Republican who had a close relationship with Hughes. "I was closer to him on a political basis. With Jim, it was more personal. The two of them had almost a father and son kind of relationship."
Today, that relationship is at the center of an unfolding scandal that threatens to derail Norman's budding state Senate career and brought about an FBI investigation.
The depth of the relationship between Norman and Hughes is being revealed in a lawsuit that seeks to have Norman, a candidate for the state Senate, removed from the November ballot.
Norman's Republican opponent in the August primary election, Kevin Ambler, accuses him of not disclosing a 2006 joint investment in an Arkansas home with Hughes. Norman's attorney has said the investment was between Hughes and Norman's wife, who considered him a "friend, mentor and adviser."
Those who were politically close to both men are surprised by the arrangement. Those who observed them from a greater distance are mystified.
"I would never even have thought of such a thing," former Commissioner Ed Turanchik said when asked if he or his relatives ever had a business relationship with someone who advocated issues before the commission. "It's such a conflict."
The seeds of a relationship that ultimately led to Hughes' partnership with Norman's wife began when Jim Norman was elected in 1992. By then, Hughes had been active in local politics for about half a decade. Hughes was known as someone who fought the impact fees assessed on new development, pushed for lower property taxes and opposed new assessments, including a half-cent sales tax to pay for health care for the poor.
A couple of months after Norman took office, commissioners approved the indigent health care tax. A legislative liaison for the Salvation Army, he narrowly won primary and general election contests to represent much of northern Hillsborough, campaigning on a platform of reduced taxes and less government regulation.
It's unclear exactly when Jim Norman's relationship with Hughes was forged. But both shared an interest in sports — Hughes was once a boxer, and Norman coached youth athletics. And both came from families with modest financial means.
Hughes' humble beginnings and subsequent business success shaped his political views, said former commissioner and current state Sen. Ronda Storms, who was close with him.
Hughes viewed higher taxes and fees as a burden that made it difficult for working families to own a home or start a business.
"He had a lot of compassion for people who were down and out," Storms said. "I appreciated that. I don't think he's getting a fair shake after his death."
Norman did not return calls seeking comments. As a commissioner, he similarly invoked concern for the working man when fighting tax increases, fee hikes and government regulations.
He has been a skeptic of the indigent health care tax Hughes opposed, once winning support to temporarily cut it in half after large reserves accumulated. Hughes also advocated for a bigger homestead exemption for seniors, and Norman helped get one passed.
Hughes pushed to create a performance auditor to serve as a watchdog on county spending. Norman defended the post, even as questions mounted about its effectiveness.
Hughes' pet issue was impact fees. Norman helped win approval to waive them in depressed areas to encourage development.
"Jim was more vocal in supporting the impact fee zones than anyone else was," said former commissioner and current Hillsborough clerk of courts Pat Frank, a Democrat.
When other commissioners supported raising impact fees that go to schools, Norman vigorously fought them.
Hughes wasn't as vocal about taxes that went toward sporting arenas, which Norman championed. And when Norman proposed a big spending project — a $40 million amateur sports complex — Hughes lobbied other commissioners to support it.
Norman was hardly alone in receiving campaign money from Hughes. From 2000 until he died, Hughes, his family, businesses and associates gave at least $126,000 to local political candidates.
Norman got at least $6,500 in his 2002 election bid and another $8,000 in 2006, while other commissioners who crossed Hughes got cut off.
Current commissioners Ken Hagan and Mark Sharpe lost his support over the school impact fee vote. Al Higginbotham wouldn't support Norman's park plan and got no more money.
For his campaign largesse, Hughes was seen as a bogeyman to those who thought he wielded too much influence, particularly opponents of unbridled growth. Some commissioners say his donations came with strings.
Republican Commissioner Rose Ferlita recalled a meeting during her 2006 commission campaign. He asked her if she would "look my way" on issues. Ferlita said she declined.
"I found very quickly that Ralph expected something back from me if I was going to be one of his chosen candidates," she said.
Her comments came shortly after Hughes' death, during a commission meeting where Norman proposed naming the county's prestigious Moral Courage Award after his friend and supporter. Norman blasted those who protested the move.
In an impassioned speech, Norman described Hughes as a champion of the American dream who fought for those less fortunate. He said Hughes consistently stood up to government when it tried to raise taxes. He even had a video made of some of Hughes' speeches.
"Politics twists things around. I admire everybody that puts money into the process," Norman said. "I've never seen anybody put their money where their mouth is like Mr. Hughes."
Commissioners agreed to rename the award, but later took his name off when the IRS said Hughes died owing millions in unpaid taxes, an allegation his family disputes.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Bill Varian can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3387.