Jim Norman has withdrawn from his state Senate race

Published June 13, 2012

TAMPA — Jim Norman has spent 20 years playing the blood sport of Florida politics, earning a reputation as an advocate for athletics, lower taxes and less regulation.

He suffered bumps and bruises along the way, but always emerged unbroken, rising from Hillsborough County commissioner to Florida senator in 2010.

On Tuesday, Norman took his ball and went home.

He submitted a three-sentence letter to the Florida Division of Elections withdrawing his candidacy for re-election after one term in the Senate, just five days after qualifying to run again. Later, he issued a one-page statement highlighting his work to build recreation complexes and lower taxes for veterans, among other items, but also offering a rare show of humility.

"I step down at this time, knowing I'm leaving Hillsborough and Pasco County a better place from when I was first elected," it read. "I am human and I have made mistakes. I want to apologize if I have offended anyone during my tenure."

Norman, 58, said in the statement that he made the decision after consulting family and friends. But he offered no explanation for the decision and declined comment beyond the statement.

The decision comes after two years of headlines about his wife's purchase of a lakefront Arkansas home with money from one of Norman's political benefactors, and his subsequent guilty plea to an ethics charge related to it. And it comes as Norman was facing a last-minute intra-party challenger who is suddenly the darling of Republican leaders.

Political allies said Norman was left with little choice.

"Anything he does as long as he's in public life, you know you guys are just going to be on him," said Sen. Jack Latvala. R-Clearwater, a candidate for Senate president in 2016. "And every newspaper story about him is going to start with him, 'Norman, comma, who did this, that and the other.'

"I just think he came to the end of the line with that and came to the realization that it would be better for him to get into private life and get out of public life," he added, declining to say if he encouraged the decision.

Norman's exit leaves three Republicans in the race for District 17, which takes in parts of Pasco and Hillsborough counties: state Rep. John Legg, former state Rep. Rob Wallace and security consultant John Korsak. The winner faces Democrat Wes Johnson.

The announcement comes one day after incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said that he is backing Legg, who declared his candidacy only last month after running in another district.

Weatherford said Tuesday his decision "had nothing to do with anybody else in the race.

"I think John Legg will make a good senator," Weatherford said. "Pasco County has a very unique opportunity to have two senators for the first time."

Just last week, Norman met with his chamber's next leader, leaving without his backing. Senate President-designate Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, confirmed he met with Norman last week as both were traveling in Miami.

Gaetz said he gave Norman no indication whether he would be backing him or any of his opponents. He said they discussed recent poll information about his Senate race and Gaetz asked him to describe a path to victory, as he said he does with other politicians seeking his favor.

"We had a frank discussion about the kind of issues he would face, that there would be a replay of the ethics issues that he has confronted," Gaetz said. "We talked as two friends about what it means to go through a campaign."

Gaetz said he left the conversation with the understanding that Norman would talk to his wife over the weekend and let him know Monday what his plans were going forward. As of 9 p.m. Monday, Gaetz said he had not heard from Norman.

Along with Weatherford, Legg has picked up endorsements from several other Pasco officials, including Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey; Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity; and Rep. Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill. Legg is the only Pasco resident in the race and has also picked up backing from state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

Legg now has a sizable fundraising advantage over his primary challengers. He's also close to Latvala, who controls a series of fundraising committees that support favored candidates.

"I'm pleased for John Legg. Obviously he still has a campaign, both a primary and a general election," Fasano said. "John Legg is definitely the favorite to be the next senator."

Said Legg: "I don't recall, at least in my recent years, any sitting senator ever being defeated in an election. We had a tall order in front of us. At least history is not against us anymore."

Until 10 years ago, when Fasano was elected to the Senate, Pasco had traditionally been represented by senators who live outside the county. Norman lives in Carrollwood.

The county could now get two senators if Legg wins election. East Pasco farmer Wilton Simpson is the favorite in adjoining District 18.

"All of us have talked about it and said, 'If this all works out … it's just wonderful for Pasco,' " said Corcoran, another future House speaker.

The developments this week had one of the other Republicans in the race applauding, but the other casting stones. Wallace was the happy one.

"Good riddance," Wallace said. "I got half of what I want. Now I hope the voters will consider my credentials as a small businessman, engineer and former legislator who can hit the ground running in Tallahassee."

Korsak, who promotes cutting government excess, put out a news release Tuesday in advance of Norman's rumored decision. It said his departure from the race smacks of political back-room dealing.

"People should know that Sen. Norman's decision does not automatically bless any one candidate with a nomination," Korsak wrote. "If Jim Norman is to be held accountable for his actions, then John Legg must also answer for his own questionable ethics and political shenanigans."

Legg had been campaigning for the District 18 Senate seat. Then he announced last month that he had changed his mind and would run against Norman so that he wouldn't have to uproot his family.

He has faced questions about whether he lives in the Port Richey home on his voter registration (in his old Senate district) or in his wife's home in Trinity (in Norman's district).

Norman spent 18 years on the Hillsborough County Commission before reaching term limits and running for the Senate in 2010.

As a commissioner, Norman was known as a champion of athletics, particularly youth sports and parks programs. He ran into trouble early in his career when reporters with the Tampa Bay Times found him at a Las Vegas casino with a lobbyist and an aide while missing a commission meeting for what he had described as family reasons.

He survived that episode and challenges since in part thanks to tireless, year-round campaigning, even in non-election years.

On the eve his ascension to the Senate, news broke about the Arkansas home in his wife's name. Courtroom testimony revealed that its 2006 purchase was made possible with $500,000 from late businessman Ralph Hughes, a longtime supporter and mentor to Norman.

Norman claimed to know nothing about the purchase, which a judge found implausible in ordering him off the ballot after his primary victory. An appellate court reinstated him and he defeated two write-in candidates in the general election.

Earlier this year, Norman pleaded guilty to the Florida Commission on Ethics for failing to disclose the gift.

Before arriving in the Senate, Norman also left a job with the Salvation Army after facing questions about what he did for his $95,000-a-year salary.

This past legislative session, he emerged as a champion for the University of South Florida, fighting off a powerful colleague's attempts to slash its funding.

"I'm heartsick," said Todd Pressman, a political consultant who has supported Norman since his first election 20 years ago. "Everybody's career has ups and downs, but I think Jim just showed consistent leadership. No matter what happened, Jim just put his head down and worked through it."

Except this last time.

Staff writer Kim Wilmath and researcher John Martin contributed to this report.