Leon County Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford performed a public service by disqualifying Jim Norman from the Nov. 2 ballot even though her timing was unfortunate for voters in the state Senate district. The judge found that the longtime Hillsborough County commissioner intentionally deceived the public by failing to report a $500,000 gift from a wealthy Tampa builder and political ally. Now it appears Republican Party officials will effectively choose who fills the Senate seat when it really should be the voters who decide.
Fulford showed appropriate disgust with Norman's story that the half-million-dollar check from the late concrete magnate Ralph Hughes was a private business arrangement between Hughes and Norman's wife, Mearline. The money went toward an Arkansas lakefront home in Mearline's name. Norman did not disclose the asset in financial paperwork he filed to qualify as a candidate. Fulford blasted the Normans' testimony as "patently absurd," finding that the $500,000 from Hughes constituted "a gift to Jim Norman" that the commissioner should have disclosed. Fulford wrote that Norman disqualified himself as a candidate by not fully disclosing his assets, and she removed him from the general election ballot for the District 12 state Senate seat.
Norman is appealing, but the judge's ruling should be upheld and end Norman's political career. The tougher question is how to proceed in choosing a replacement on the ballot. State Rep. Kevin Ambler, who lost to Norman in the August primary and filed the lawsuit that led to Friday's ruling, asked the courts on Monday to give him the nomination. Ambler argues that since the court found him to be the only qualified Republican on the August ballot, he is the de facto primary winner. He has a compelling argument, but it hardly seems fair to voters who already rejected him.
If Ambler loses his bid to be the party nominee in court, Republican Party officials — and not the voters — will probably will pick their candidate. That is unfortunate, and party leaders should not place Norman back on the ballot. That would be a slap to the court's finding that he seriously damaged public faith in the political system. The next senator should have broad appeal in the district, a grasp of the area's priorities and a commitment to transparency.
Times rescinds Norman recommendation
The Times recommended Rep. Kevin Ambler over Hillsborough commissioner Jim Norman in the Senate District 12 primary. After Ambler lost, we reluctantly recommended Norman in the general election solely because Norman was the only viable choice despite his serious ethical misconduct. Two write-in candidates dodged the media, avoided public scrutiny and failed to run serious campaigns. Now that the judge has removed Norman as a candidate, we are rescinding our recommendation and awaiting further developments.