As early as today, and with a straight face, Republicans could replace disgraced ex-Senate candidate Jim Norman with …
And you thought the drama would die down after last week, when a Tallahassee judge took a hard look at a half-million-dollar vacation home bestowed upon the Norman family and kicked him off the ballot for not disclosing it as required.
It's worth saying again: Judge Jackie Fulford found "absurd" Norman's wide-eyed testimony that the lakefront home in Arkansas was strictly a business deal between his wife and millionaire activist Ralph Hughes about which Norman knew nothing. She effectively outed him as a man willing to weasel out of financial disclosure requirements by funneling a big, fat, appalling gift through his wife.
(Okay, "weasel" was my word. And "gift" just sounds nicer than "potential bribe.")
Tuesday, the judge made it official: Local Republican executive committees get to appoint Norman's replacement on the ballot for the seat that covers northern Hillsborough and central Pasco.
Could they really pick Norman, making him pretty much a sure thing since his two write-in opponents couldn't be less viable if they were cardboard cutouts? (Though I'm sure the guy who works at Petco and the North Carolina college student are very nice.)
No way, you say? Couldn't happen? Not with what we heard in court?
"I certainly think it will come up in the conversation," Bill Bunting, state committeeman for the Pasco Republican Party, said after the judge ruled. Norman is "the one who won it fair and square as far as I'm concerned."
Hillsborough Republican Party chairwoman Deborah Cox-Roush sounded more circumspect: "Obviously, the party could put him back on … I'm not saying what the party's doing."
We have experienced candidates replacing themselves right here in River City. Hillsborough County Commission hopefuls Linda Saul-Sena and John Dingfelder both missed a resign-to-run deadline, both took themselves out of their respective races and both were promptly reappointed as their own replacements by the Democratic Party.
But the difference between them and Norman is as big as, oh, say, an Arkansas lake: Their error hurt no one. It did not shame their party. It did not make voters wonder who lines the pockets of powerful public officials. It did not make us think about the ugly underside of influence.
So Norman could be sitting fat and happy in the Florida Senate after all. And the Petco guy is looking pretty good right about now.
It will be a mystery if the party does not distance itself from this distasteful disclosure (or lack thereof), if it isn't made clear that taking a gift from a businessman who benefited from commission votes isn't something the party condones.
Norman's attorney sent out a statement this week that sounds awfully confident they will win on appeal. "In any event, Mr. Norman expects to be the Republican candidate for Senate District 12 in this election," it said. If so, does that mean our standard for what's acceptable in a public official is: as long as it's technically legal, even if it smells bad?
Surely there's a clean candidate out there, maybe two or three, even. Republicans could use this chance to tell voters: We're better than what Jim Norman did.