Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Senate District 17 candidates maneuver to avoid a quick exit

The quick exit said a lot.

Ten days ago, a quartet of state lawmakers sat before the Leadership Pasco Class of 2012 talking about Tallahassee, public policy and the politics of getting a bill into law. After nearly 75 minutes of talking, three of the four did exactly as expected. Sen. Mike Fasano and Reps. John Legg and Richard Corcoran, all west Pasco Republicans, smiled, shook hands, shared a laugh and worked the room as retail politicians.

The fourth bolted for the door. It was Sen. Jim Norman.

The hasty departure of the Tampa Republican — whether he was pressed for time or simply disinterested in a few extra minutes of campaigning — helps illuminate why Norman now faces a re-election challenge from Legg. The common perception is that Jim Norman won't be able to do enough to turn around his fortunes in Republican-rich Pasco County.

The GOP race for Senate District 17 includes four candidates. Besides Norman and Legg, the contest features former state Rep. Rob Wallace, the solitary figure periodically waiving campaign signs at the morning commuters on central Pasco's main thoroughfares, and John Korsak of Lutz. Korsak's ill-timed ploy to appeal to central Pasco voters — announcing that, if elected, his district office would be located here — came the same evening Legg confirmed he planned to run for Norman's seat.

All but Legg are from Hillsborough County where 55 percent of the voters live. The redrawn District 17, about two-thirds of which is currently represented by Norman, also includes the State Road 54 corridor from Trinity to Zephyrhills as well as Land O'Lakes and Wesley Chapel.

Norman had no serious opposition in the 2010 general election, but more than 21,000 Pasco voters still passed up the chance to vote for him by either picking anonymous write-in candidates or skipping the race altogether. It was Norman's first time on the general election ballot in Pasco and the first time most people considered him as a public servant after his 18 years on the Hillsborough County Commission and one explosive ethics scandal.

Norman admitted guilt in the ethics case for not disclosing a $500,000 gift to his wife from the late Ralph Hughes. Hughes, a Hillsborough County businessman who advocated pro-business and anti-tax policies, died in 2008 owing nearly $70 million in federal taxes and penalties, the Internal Revenue Service said. Norman's wife used the clandestine gift to purchase a vacation home in Arkansas.

Taking secret money from a tax cheat never plays well with John Q. Public. So you can understand why Norman's poll numbers aren't particularly favorable even with multiple direct mail pieces hitting Republican voters' households.

It's why Wallace was back out waiving his signs on Collier Parkway and State Road 54 again Friday morning. Legg's entry into the race has not changed Wallace's campaign plans.

"An awful lot of people are interested in seeing my name on the ballot so that's what we're going to do,'' said Wallace.

Legg had planned to run for Senate District 18, which includes west Pasco and the northern and eastern portion of the county. It is a seat that also drew east Pasco egg farmer and businessman Wilton Simpson as a candidate.

"A lot of folks didn't want us to run against each other. These were people who respected us as members of the community people,'' said Legg.

Switching to District 17 became easier, Legg agreed, because his wife already owned a house there and because "Jim Norman did not have that same level of respect from the community.''

Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, the incoming House speaker, had lobbied both Legg and Simpson to consider changing races. It would avoid a brutal Republican Pasco-based primary and better the chance of the county becoming home to two senators. Of course, it helped that the other seat is represented by a guy considered to be absent political viability.

So a week ago, Legg and his wife, Suzanne, met with Fasano at Panera Bread in Trinity to talk about his future. By Tuesday, they were studying poll data. Legg also met with Senate leaders and Wednesday evening, he revealed his decision at a dinner meeting with Fasano, Simpson and Weatherford at the Cracker Barrel in Wesley Chapel. He called reporters afterward to make a public announcement.

The formal filing period for candidates ends June 8 and the campaign becomes a sprint to the Aug. 14 primary. The trick is avoiding a repeat of Norman's Leadership Pasco strategy.

Nobody wants a quick exit now.

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