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Carlton: The House that fell on Jim Norman

Probably it was a sign things weren't going so well for would-be comeback kid Jim Norman when he started hollering at a voter.

The once-powerful politician did this at a neighborhood forum days before this week's primary election. It was exactly the kind of gathering where Norman could once count on voters to listen raptly to his conservative causes and then sail him smoothly back into his comfy seat on the Hills­borough County Commission.

This time, not so much.

This time, a concerned citizen dared speak of The House.

In Norman's decadeslong career in local and later state politics, The House was the first trouble that really, truly stuck. Okay, there was that business about him turning up in Las Vegas with a garbage lobbyist after he told fellow commissioners he would be away on family matters, and the evolving explanations that followed. But that was nothing compared to The House that would be his political undoing.

It was a very nice house, a lakefront vacation home in an Arkansas resort town, the kind of place where a man could really get away from it all. When news of The House got out, Norman first declined to discuss it except to say it was his wife's "investment" about which he knew nothing.

Although, well, yes, he had been there a time or two, now that you mentioned it.

The questions kept coming and it was revealed that The House had been bankrolled to the tune of six figures by Ralph Hughes, an antitax millionaire, close Norman friend and campaign supporter, and a man whose business benefited over the years from the County Commission's pro-growth votes.

And who was more pro-growth than Norman, credited with much of the sprawl that plagues the county to this day?

In the shadow of that House, Norman left politics for a time. But after a hiatus, he was back and raring to go, armed with a poll that said he could win, a pile of campaign cash and a carefully worded lie detector test that said he never got anything of value for an official act specifically benefiting Hughes. Norman was confident, counting on voters to show him the love. Why not? They always had.

Before The House, anyway.

Probably it did not help that his commission race drew a slew of interesting, varied and legitimate candidates — business folk, lawyers and politicians, nary a one of whom inspired questions about a spouse and a House.

Maybe the polls weren't looking so good for Norman. When that citizen brought up The House — a subject that could not possibly have been unexpected — Norman more or less blew. "There's no funny stuff about it," he fumed as the rest of the candidates looked embarrassed. "My wife has a right to go into business just like every lady in this room," he said.

The end was like the sound of a front door shutting with a definitive click.

In November, it will be not Norman but fellow Republican Tim Schock who faces off against Democrat Pat Kemp. Norman was beaten by an embarrassing 62 to 38 percent. Meaning this was neither a squeaker nor a tweener, but a message from voters about what they thought about The House, and where Norman was in it.

Contact Sue Carlton at carlton@tampabay.com.

Carlton: The House that fell on Jim Norman 09/01/16 [Last modified: Thursday, September 1, 2016 9:18pm]
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