As a state senator from 1996-2006, Tom Lee often challenged the political establishment, as with his insistence that lobbyists be forced to disclose their fees. Now, as the Brandon Republican seeks to return to the Senate, he's being warmly welcomed back into the fold of the powerful insiders. Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, the incoming president, and Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, were with Lee Thursday for a Lee fund-raiser at the Governor's Club in Tallahassee.
As a leadership-backed candidate in a GOP primary facing Rep. Rachel Burgin, R-Riverview, Lee will reap the benefits in the form of campaign contributions from lobbyists eager to curry favor with Gaetz. But not every lobbyist is lining up behind Lee, who antagonized many lobbyists by railing against their influence even as he sought their support for his 2006 bid for chief financial officer. Three veteran lobbyists with decades of experience and dozens of influential clients are openly shunning Lee in an act of defiance that's rare in Tallahassee.
Ron Book (left), Guy Spearman and Jack Cory are all behind Burgin. Book and Spearman sued and lost in an attempt to overturn the lobbyist fee-disclosure law Lee championed. Book said Lee has never asked for his help, and Burgin has. Spearman says that when he went to Lee to let him know he was suing, Lee reacted poorly. "Lord have mercy," Spearman recalled. "He acted as if I was a worthless human being." Cory called Burgin a strong candidate and that it's a "mistake" for Senate GOP leaders to take sides in contested primaries.
In an interview, Spearman called it "damn hypocritical" of Lee to insist that lobbyists disclose fees when Lee has never released details of his use of a Republican Party American Express card when he was Senate president. "I don't have those records. Get with the Republican Party of Florida about that," Lee said.
Lee said he didn't take their opposition personally -- and their opposition may even help him burnish his image as someone unafraid to stand up to the powerful. "The people who don't support you tend to be more vocal than the ones who do," Lee said.
Gaetz said lobbyists should not hold "old grudges" against Lee. "They may want to work off an old grudge against Tom Lee because he championed ethics reform that some lobbyists didn't like," Gaetz said, before he was aware of the opposition by Book, Spearman and Cory. "That's short-sighted."
For Book, Spearman and Cory, the task ahead is daunting, but very simple: To make sure Burgin is the new senator from District 24.