Sen. Simpson rises, from the ground up

Published Sept. 22, 2012

Wilton Simpson is used to working at the ground level. That's what happens when your first job is working for your dad's painting company. Father sprayed the walls. Grade-school-aged Wilton handled the baseboards.

But the ground-up, grass roots level kind of guy just grabbed a prime spot; he became a Florida senator without anyone voting for him. The ascension became complete at the end of the business day Thursday when the Democratic Party failed to find a replacement candidate for Joshua Smith of Hudson who backed out a week earlier.

It's been that kind of foray into political life for Simpson; people keep getting out of his way. The presumed bruising Republican primary battle with state Rep. John Legg for an open Senate seat never materialized when Legg opted to switch his candidacy to the seat held by Sen. Jim Norman.

"John Legg figured out he couldn't beat Wilton Simpson in a primary so he ran against Jim Norman instead,'' Rob Wallace, another Republican Senate hopeful, deadpanned at the time of Legg's about-face.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that Simpson, the guy familiar with the ground level, has friends in higher places. The next speaker of the House, Rep. Will Weatherford, is on the payroll of Simpson's environmental clean-up company. Attorney General Pam Bondi is a good friend and did television commercials for his campaign. And Simpson, a multimillionaire egg farmer from Trilby, could afford such advertising because he is a prolific political fundraiser.

Now though, his job though switches from campaigning to governing. He is a rookie, but one well-insulated from potential legislative pitfalls. Legg, a veteran of eight years in the House, will sit nearby in the Senate. Weatherford becomes House speaker after the November election. State Rep. Richard Corcoran of Trinity is in line to be speaker in 2016 and 18-year legislator Mike Fasano of New Port Richey moves back to the House of Representatives after a decade in the Senate.

"If we don't get this right, shame on us,'' Simpson says of the firepower in the Pasco legislative delegation.

But, it's not a districtwide phenomenon. Senate District 18 also includes all of Hernando and much of Sumter counties and Simpson likely will need to work much harder to serve those areas. His potential delegation partner in Hernando is Rep. Rob Schenck, who, if re-elected in November, will become an immediate lame duck because of term limits and he already acts disinterested, if you ask his opponent. Also on the House side will be the winner of the race between Republican Rep. Jimmie T. Smith — still a neophyte after two years in office — and former Sen. Nancy Argenziano, an independent. Neither candidate resides in the county.

But Simpson is familiar with what awaits. He knows agriculture, wants to focus on transportation and economic development, and already is advocating three road-widening projects he believes are keys to future commerce: State Road 50 east of U.S. 98; State Road 52 through Pasco and U.S. 98 toward Lakeland.

All three counties in his district are well positioned, Simpson said, pointing out that Sumter, like east Pasco, has available land and a rail system. Hernando County has its airport and commerce park.

"We've got to expose these opportunities to the rest of the world.''

Okay, so cheerleading is part of the job description. He's used to that, having served as head of the Pasco Economic Development Council. It's part of a lengthy list of his nonprofit work that includes the Pasco County Fair Association, Habitat for Humanity, Pasco-Hernando Community College and Leadership Pasco where each year he helps provide the guided bus tour of eastern Pasco County to new members.

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Education is on his radar, too, though he believes a bigger investment in schools can be financed by growing the tax base via business expansions aided by fewer government regulations.

It's myopic. Or maybe he's in denial.

Per-pupil state aid to the Pasco School District is $576 lower now than it was five years ago. Government regulation didn't cause the real estate market to crash, property values to free fall, tax revenue to decline and schools to go starving.

Regulations didn't cause insurance premiums to skyrocket, threatening the affordability of homeownership for some. Government regulation didn't stop a private water utility from charging exorbitant prices for lousy service. Government regulation didn't stop a power company from billing customers for a future nuclear plant that may never be built — the Legislature enabled it to do this.

Simpson said he understands the value of consumer protections. He is particularly critical of the performance of privately-owned Aqua Utilities. He also lauds the benefits of the Penny for Pasco sales tax that built schools and roads, bought public safety equipment and preserved green space. Simpson was one of the original architects of the county's environmental land program. Given that, it is easy to understand Simpson's projection that compromises are needed in Tallahassee once in a while to benefit the greater good.

And when it comes to one of the pressing issues of the day, Simpson won't have far to look for counsel. His daughter, a senior at Saint Leo University, wants to become a schoolteacher.

Consider it advice available from the ground level.