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Tom Lee to retire from Florida Senate in November

Lee submitted his resignation to Gov. Ron DeSantis, effective Nov. 3.
Sen. Tom Lee, R Brandon, discusses a bill involving white nationalists and white supremacists Monday, Jan. 13, 2020, during a Senate Infrastructure and Security Committee meeting at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Phil Sears)
Sen. Tom Lee, R Brandon, discusses a bill involving white nationalists and white supremacists Monday, Jan. 13, 2020, during a Senate Infrastructure and Security Committee meeting at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Phil Sears) [ PHIL SEARS | AP ]
Published May 29, 2020
Updated May 29, 2020

State Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, threw Hillsborough County politics into a tizzy Friday by announcing that he’s resigning from his Senate seat effective in November, with two years left in his term, and letting it be known he’s considering running for Clerk of Court.

If Lee does run for clerk, it upsets the expectation that one of the two Democratic candidates, former county Commissioner Kevin Beckner and School Board member Cindy Stuart, would easily win the office.

It also opens his Senate seat, which wasn’t supposed to be up for election this year, in a district covering the area where Hillsborough, Pasco and Polk counties meet.

That could set off a scramble by potential candidates in both parties for a Nov. 3 election, but Republican Senate leadership apparently will back Danny Burgess, a former state House member from Zephyrhills and now executive director of the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs, as their nominee. That’s likely to freeze out other GOP hopefuls.

In a resignation letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis and an announcement from his office, Lee didn’t give a reason for his resignation and didn’t mention running for clerk.

He said his Senate service “has been the greatest honor of my career,” and thanked his family and staff.

But Stuart confirmed that Lee told her he’s considering running for clerk.

Lee would face a primary against D.C. Goutoufas. County Commissioner Sandy Murman is filed in the race and has a substantial campaign fund, but isn’t expected to qualify and run.

Lee’s state Senate District 20 is significantly Republican-leaning, said local political consultants in both parties, but Democrats believe that with the right candidate, they have a chance to flip it.

“This is a monumental opportunity for us,” if the party can get the right candidate, said state Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, predicting a high-profile battle for the seat.

With Democrats currently holding 17 of the 40 Senate seats and hoping to get close to parity with Republicans, the result could affect such crucial matters as the drawing of legislative and congressional district lines, which the Legislature will do following the 2020 Census, she said.

On the Republican side, besides Burgess, County Commissioner Stacy White, who previously expressed interest in the Senate district if it were vacant, said Friday he’ll remain as a commissioner.

Former Tampa City Council member Shawn Harrison has expressed interest in the past but couldn’t be reached for comment; Plant City Mayor Rick Lott, mentioned by some as a potential candidate, also said he’s not interested.

Burgess didn’t return calls for comment, but incoming state Senate President Wilton Simpson confirmed he’s backing Burgess, and said, “I fully expect that he will run in this race and win this race.”

Democratic insiders including Cruz are hoping to recruit Alex Sink, former state chief financial officer; also mentioned was state Rep. Fentrice Driskell of Tampa, who left the door open Friday.

Cruz said Democrats will need a candidate with a well-known name who can raise money quickly or self-fund, a recipe Sink fits.

Sink couldn’t be reached for comment Friday.

Lee lost in 2018 in the northeast Hillsborough portion of the district, with about 48 percent of its voters, but won big margins in Polk and Pasco. First-time Democratic candidate Kathy Lynn Lewis came within six percentage points despite raising only $25,702, which Cruz cited as evidence that Democrats have a chance in the district.

But local GOP political consultant Brock Mikosky said the district will see substantial pro-Trump GOP turnout in November.

“The Democrats don’t have a chance,” he said.

Lee’s move brings an abrupt, surprise ending to a state Senate career covering 18 years in two separate stints, including serving as Senate president 2004-06 and as Senate budget chief.

He ran for state chief financial officer in 2006, losing to Sink.

Since returning to the Senate, he has openly expressed dissatisfaction about what he calls the special interest-dominated atmosphere in Tallahassee and taken some high-profile maverick stances, including being the only Republican to vote against DeSantis’ removal from office of Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel.

He also reportedly has clashed with Simpson after competing with him for the coming term as Senate president.

Simpson denied that caused Lee’s resignation, or that he intended to sideline Lee in the coming legislative session.

“I’m taking him at his word that it had nothing to do with anything but him and his family,” Simpson said. “Had he stayed in the Senate, his skill set would have utilized — he would have had a prominent role.”

Beckner and Stuart both said if Lee runs for clerk, it won’t affect their plans to qualify and run, and Stuart took a shot at Lee — “I doubt Hillsborough voters will be receptive to a Tallahassee insider using special interest money to buy the clerk’s office.”

Contact William March at