Senate veteran Tom Lee faces challenge from two mothers focused on family issues

Published August 6
Updated August 7

Two newcomers to politics, both African-American women and mothers with family concerns near the top of their political agendas, are vying to run against one of the Tampa Bay area’s best-known Republican legislators in state Senate District 20.

The would-be challengers are Joy Gibson and Kathy Lewis, both of the Wesley Chapel area, Gibson in Hillsborough and Lewis in Pasco. They face each other in the Aug. 28 Democratic primary.

They hope to challenge long-time state Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, an east Hillsborough homebuilder with family roots in Brandon, a former state Senate president and a fixture of county politics since the 1990s.

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Lee also has an Aug. 28 primary opponent, retiree John Houman, 71, of Thonotosassa, who calls himself "Mr. Manners." Houman has been in the race since January 2017 but isn’t fundraising. He ran unsuccessfully for the state Senate in 2016; the theme of his campaign is good manners.

The party nominees will face off in the Nov. 6 general election.

District 20 covers the corner where three counties meet and contains much of the University of South Florida area, Tampa Palms and Thonotosassa in Hillsborough; Zephyrhills and Wesley Chapel in Pasco; and part of northern Lakeland in Polk.

The district has a slight Democratic plurality, 36 percent to 35 percent Republicans, but it tends to vote Republican. In 2016, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the district 52-44 percent. Hillsborough has half the district’s voters and Pasco slightly more than a third.

Lee, 56, served 10 years in the Senate from 1996 to 2006, and as Senate president from 2004 to 2006. Facing a term limit, he then ran unsuccessfully for state chief financial officer.

He ran for the Senate again in 2012 and was re-elected in 2016 to a term of only two-years because of redistricting. He’s married to Hillsborough Circuit Judge Laurel Lee and has three children.

In the Senate, Lee has been mostly a loyal member of the Republican majority, but has also taken occasional maverick stances, including pushing as Senate president for more restrictions and disclosure in lobbying.

Lee has decried the influence of lobbyists and corporate donors who fund legislators’ PACs. But his own PAC, The Conservative, raised $3.4 million and spent $1 million until Lee deactivated it in anticipation of a possible congressional race. His campaign has raised $95,500, including $50,000 from the Republican state Senate campaign fund, and spent $10,375.

In his next term, Lee said his priorities will be solving the strain that growth is putting on the state’s public education and health care systems. He said enough choice is now available in education so the state can "stop micromanaging public education," and that innovation, possibly some form of Medicaid expansion, can slow the rapid growth of health care costs from uninsured and unreimbursed care.

Gibson, 40, a Michigan native, moved with her husband, a labor union official, to Wesley Chapel six years ago. They have three young children.

Gibson said she has legislative experience as a congressional district representative and activist in a Michigan consumer rights group.

In the Tampa area, she said, she has established a faith-based non-profit group helping stay-at-home mothers get involved in business and the community. She also has worked as a life coach.

She said her motivation to run is to halt the decline of economic security for working families.

"For me it’s about magnifying voices of everyday people, giving people representation that supports them moving up in society," she said. "What is happening in our communities is a loss of economic security for families."

She said this hurts small businesses.

"Corporations are doing fine, but if people don’t have disposable income, small businesses will fail."

Gibson says she favors "safe, gun-free schools;" more access to health coverage; "policies that support stable income and stable hours for working families"; and attracting employers "who invest in the future of their employees."

Gibson’s campaign had raised $7,940 and spent $6,489 as of late July. She said she hasn’t hired any professional campaign staff and is campaigning mainly by attending events and knocking on doors.

Lewis, 56, originally from Baltimore, moved here with her husband, a physician, nine years ago. She formerly was a writer and motivational speaker, she said, but became almost a full-time caregiver for her autistic daughter, particularly when the daughter turned 19 and had to establish government benefits and services independently. They have one other grown child.

Lewis has also worked as a volunteer advocate for the disabled.

She said she’s running because of her struggle with the state bureaucracy over government aid and services for her daughter. She said the struggle went away when she turned to the federal Department of Health and Human Services officials.

She told the Times her top three priorities would be improving the health care system, increasing funding for public schools and raising the minimum wage.

"I know firsthand how a quality education can help lift people out of poverty. I grew up incredibly poor," she wrote in a Times questionnaire.

Lewis has raised $15,326, including a $900 loan from herself, and spent $14,903 on her campaign as of late July.

Contact William March at [email protected]

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