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Weeks after election, Jim Norman's battle for state Senate still going

TAMPA — As if a bloody campaign wasn't bad enough, the Republican primary contest between Kevin Ambler and Jim Norman is moving into a new chapter fraught with uncertainty.

Ambler, who lost in the primary, plans to argue in court on Oct. 12 that Norman, a longtime Hillsborough County commissioner, isn't qualified to be elected state senator. He contends that Norman was never eligible to run because he failed to disclose a $435,000 loan from conservative businessman Ralph Hughes that Norman's wife used to buy a lakefront house in Arkansas. The Hughes connection — something Norman neither confirms nor denies — is also the subject of an FBI investigation.

The hearing will take place in Tallahassee three weeks before Election Day. By then, absentee ballots bearing Norman's name will be in the hands of tens of thousands of District 12 voters in northern Hillsborough and central Pasco counties.

The list of possible outcomes is almost endless. While the case isn't necessarily without precedent, "it's clearly unusual," said Tallahassee lawyer Ron Meyer.

Meyer and other lawyers not connected to the case expect that Leon County Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford's final ruling will be quickly appealed, regardless of whether she rules for Norman or for Ambler.

If Norman prevails, he will remain on the November ballot. Should he lose his seat after the election, the governor will order a special election, said Craig Latimer, chief of staff for the Hillsborough County supervisor of elections.

A bigger question is what happens if Fulford disqualifies Norman.

"We're not going to speculate," Latimer said. "The judge will make a determination as to what steps need to be taken."

State law says that if a candidate is removed from the ballot, his or her political party can appoint a replacement candidate. Such was the case in South Florida in 2006, when Joe Negron replaced U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, who was embroiled in a sex scandal. Negron even got credit for votes that were cast for Foley.

But Ambler and his attorney, Mark Herron, contend that if Norman is removed, it will be because he didn't qualify in the first place, and that there was another eligible Republican candidate during the Aug. 24 primary.

Their lawsuit asks election officials to declare Ambler the Republican nominee.

Not so fast, said Republican lawyer Ryan Christopher Rodems, who tried unsuccessfully this summer to have Democrats John Dingfelder and Linda Saul-Sena disqualified as Hills­borough County Commission candidates.

"That's Kevin Ambler's opinion, and it is self-serving," Rodems said.

He believes the Republican Party should be allowed to pick a replacement candidate — even if that replacement is Norman. Dingfelder and Saul-Sena, who were challenged because they missed a deadline to resign from the Tampa City Council, were returned to the ballot much the same way.

But there is a big difference, Rodems said, between Norman's case and that of the two County Commission candidates.

Those two candidates shouldn't have been allowed to re-enter their races as replacement candidates because they broke the rules, he said.

In Norman's case, there is no proven wrongdoing — just an allegation, and one that involves real estate belonging to Norman's wife. Rodems called the lawsuit "gutter politics" and Ambler "a drowning man who is reaching for a stick and grabbing a wet spaghetti noodle."

Norman's supporters are expressing similar sentiments. John Bodack said he would feel cheated if, after campaigning and voting for Norman, Norman were removed from the ballot.

"It leaves me not voting this year," said Bodack, 29. "That whole house thing is nobody's business. It's between Jim and his wife," he said.

Meyer said it's best to withhold judgment until the trial, which promises testimony from Hughes' widow, his son and a former business associate who might have witnessed alleged loan documents.

"A lot of this lawsuit turns on what the facts will ultimately show," he said.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at sokol@sptimes.com or (813) 624-2739.

Weeks after election, Jim Norman's battle for state Senate still going 09/25/10 [Last modified: Thursday, September 30, 2010 6:52pm]
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