1. Florida Politics

Tom Lee telling friends he'll seek re-election to Senate, skip Hillsborough commission race

Published Jun. 14, 2016

State Sen. Tom Lee, the Brandon Republican whose future has kept the Hillsborough County political world in a state of uncertainty for months, has settled the question — he's telling friends he intends to run for re-election to the state Senate in the new District 20.

Lee's announcement, made as the deadline approaches for candidates to reach final decisions about their 2016 campaigns, prevents for now what could have been a last-minute scramble among Hillsborough Republican officeholders.

At least two and possibly four state House members would have been interested in leaving their seats to run for the Senate seat if Lee had vacated it, as well as other potential candidates. That, in turn, would have created a rush of candidates for any House seats left open.

If Lee had entered the race for the District 6 Hillsborough County commissioner's seat, which he had considered, it would also have upended that race, in which four Democratic and two Republican contenders are competing in primaries.

Lee couldn't be reached Tuesday afternoon, but incoming State Senate President Joe Negron confirmed Lee had told him he plans to stay in the Senate.

Negron said he's "grateful," in part because Lee's decision will help Republicans hang onto their Senate majority.

"He's an extraordinarily strong candidate in that region, which allows us to focus resources on other competitive races around the state," Negron said.

A court-ordered redistricting that takes effect for this election cycle has left several Republican-held seats vulnerable to Democratic challengers, and the GOP faces potential shrinking of its 26-14 Senate majority.

If Lee hadn't run for re-election, they might have had to use scarce political resources and money in a fight for the District 20 seat.

Democrats believe they could capture up to four other seats, although Negron denied that. "I'm on offense," he said. "We may take some Democratic seats."

Lee, who was Senate president during a former term, has long been the most prominent political figure in East Hillsorough.

Running for re-election could preserve his option to seek a statewide office, possibly in 2018, which might have been difficult if he had instead run for the four-year county office. Lee ran for state chief financial officer in 2006, losing to Democrat Alex Sink, and has said he might be interested in making another attempt.

Because of the redistricting, the District 20 winner will have a two-year term instead of the usual four years. That suggests that Lee, who has expressed disillusionment recently with the Tallahassee political world, could face the same sort of decision again in 2018.

Last week, he told a meeting of the Brandon Republican Club that Tallahassee was "a cesspool," according to a couple of attendees.

But Lee's decision also means he'll have to move, though he has said he'll remain in East Hillsborough County.

Redistricting put his Brandon home, along with much of southern Hillsborough County, into a district held by Senate Majority Leader Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton. Lee had said he wouldn't challenge the majority leader of his own party in what would have been a costly, hard-fought primary to hold onto the seat.

The new Senate District 20 occupies the corner where Hillsborough, Pasco and Polk counties meet. Lee is the only candidate filed there; the final deadline for such decisions is the qualifying period, June 20-24.

Lee pondered the decision for months, telling friends he faced a tangle of personal and political motives.

Lee's wife, Laurel Lee, is a judge. They have a young child and Lee has two other children from a former marriage.

He won't be returning to his former prominent position in the Legislature as chairman of the Senate appropriations committee. Negron promised that post to Sen. Jack Latvala in exchange for Latvala's agreement to give up his challenge to Negron for the Senate presidency.

What if any leadership position Lee will have, in a body where the leadership team tightly controls legislation, is unclear.

"Obviously as a former Senate president his opinion is valuable to me," said Negron, who will choose the leaders. "In terms of specific roles, that's something I'll turn my attention to after the election."

Randy Larson, former Plant City mayor and Tampa Sports Authority member, had said he intended to run for Lee's Senate seat if Lee left it.

Republican Reps. Shawn Harrison of Tampa and Ross Spano of Dover were likely candidates, and several other House members also live in the new Senate district and were interested.

Harrison faces a challenge from Democratic City Council member Lisa Montelione in his House district. Spano faces a challenge from a new Democratic face, Rena Frazier, who's considered a strong candidate by her party.

In the county race, former commissioner and state senator Jim Norman faces Tim Schock in a Republican primary, while John Dicks, Pat Kemp, Tom Scott and Brian Willis are in the Democratic primary.

All these candidates and others have been keenly interested in Lee's decision, and political chit-chat in the county has focused heavily on the subject for weeks, as the qualifying deadline for the county and state offices has drawn nearer.

Contact William March at