1. Florida Politics

Jim Norman, the mud-spattered white knight?

Published Mar. 1, 2012

Ever watch a TV show faithfully, season after season, until it finally delivers a plot twist so improbable, so absurd — it was all a dream! — that you think: Come on! That could never happen!

Yeah, that's pretty much the Jim Norman story.

This week's installment: Embattled elected official turns white knight, riding in on a thundering steed to save our beloved University of South Florida from evil Tallahassee politics. ("Save" is a stretch, but you get the idea.)

But remember how the story started? Norman was a longtime Hillsborough County commissioner who was once found gambling with lobbyists in Vegas after he told fellow commissioners he would be away on "family matters." He was the guy making $95,000 a year from the Salvation Army but thin on details about what he actually did there.

The plot thickened with Norman under investigation by the feds about a lakefront vacation home his wife got with a helpful half-million dollars from his buddy, who happened to be a politically active millionaire. A judge found Norman's explanations about the house "patently absurd" and booted him off the ballot for state Senate.

But talk about your twists.

Norman ultimately won the day and the Senate seat and the feds went away. And this week he was pride of the Republicans, poised in the perfect position to vow a "showdown" in the drama over vindictive budget cuts that would hurt his hometown USF more than any other university in the state.

Here was Norman taking a stand for all of us against the pouty fallout from Sen. JD Alexander's plan to break off USF's Polytechnic campus into the state's 12th university. Here he was front and center as they worked to whittle $78 million in planned cuts down to $45 million for USF Tampa and $1 million to $2 million for other campuses. Good news, no question.

Said Norman after USF's hit was reduced: "You couldn't wipe the grin off my face." No doubt.

Maybe people who only a year ago were wondering, "You going to jail, Jim?" would switch to a rallying cry of, "You go, Jim!"

Now a good, old-fashioned conspiracy theory (don't all great dramas have them?) would have all of this a craftily engineered, super secret plan to have Norman lead a very public fight to save the day. Because, as a good conspiracy theory would have it, if he stays in the Senate, his party knows he'll be loyal as a beagle and as unlikely to stray outside party lines as if they had put up an invisible fence. But that's just one of those crazy theories, right?

Norman still must contend with dramas past. This week he signed an admission of guilt to a state ethics complaint about not disclosing that nice house out in Arkansas, probably hoping we'll soon forget. He may also feel fallout from the federal indictment of his longtime aide, friend and chief of staff — a guy at his side even back in Vegas! — on charges of failing to file five years of tax returns.

Despite the USF-related applause ringing in Norman's ears, lingering scandals could even be enough for Democrats too wimpy to run anyone against him to seriously give it a shot next time. But that's probably too improbable a plot twist.

What's next in the stay-tuned story of Jim Norman? Lots of us will watch with interest, even as we remember that all that came before this was definitely not a dream.


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