GOP leadership shaping key Florida Senate races

Article Courtesy of  The Tampa Tribune

By William March

Published June 15, 2012


Florida state Senate leaders are taking sides in two local Republican primary races, hoping to make sure Tom Lee of Brandon and Pasco County state Rep. John Legg win state Senate seats in districts that border Tampa.

In a Florida legislative race, backing from powerful legislative leaders can make a candidate a near shoo-in.

Their opponents say that raises the specter of local election outcomes dictated by what one called "the Senatocracy," powerful puppetmasters seeking compliant legislators.

State Rep. Rachel Burgin of Riverview is running against Lee for the District 24 seat representing most of East Hillsborough County.

Legg faces former state Rep. Rob Wallace of Carrollwood along with John Korsak of Tampa, a Marine retiree and security consultant, for the District 17 seat representing northwest Hillsborough and southern Pasco counties.

Democrats have filed in both districts, Wes Johnson in District 17 and Elizabeth Belcher in District 24. Both are little-known dark horses, however, making it likely the GOP primaries will choose the senators.

If those primaries were decided by the backing of powerful Republicans, they'd be over already.

Legg's backers include former governors Jeb Bush and Bob Martinez and incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford.

Lee's include Bush and a roster of top local Republican Congress members, county commissioners, constitutional officers and state Cabinet members.

Both also have been endorsed by the most powerful people already in the state Senate: incoming Senate President Don Gaetz of Niceville; his likely successor as president, Andy Gardiner of Orlando; and Jack Latvala of Clearwater, a possible successor to Gardiner.

In Florida, leaders of the state Legislature, including the Senate president and House speaker, and the allies they appoint to top legislative posts, have the ability to advance or stall almost any legislation.

That means they have influence on those with an interest in what the Legislature does they can tap businesses, interest groups and lobbyists for contributions to their favored candidates.

Local GOP political campaign consultant Chris Ingram, asked what the leadership endorsement means to a legislative candidate, said simply, "Hundreds of thousands of dollars."

"No other candidate can match the money for direct mail and TV this will produce," he said.

Legislative leaders, he said, tend to look for "team players" to serve in the houses they control, and Burgin and Wallace may not fit that mold.

Burgin, he said, "may have an independent streak," and Wallace developed a reputation as "dogged and determined, not really prepared to compromise or take marching orders," while in the state House.

To Burgin and Wallace, the leadership's influence undermines democracy.

" 'The Senatocracy' has put the word out that (Legg) is the one they want to come to Tallahassee," said Wallace. "They've forgotten what a primary is about."

Burgin told the editorial board of The Tampa Tribune, "I will not let the party leadership in Tallahassee decide who our next state senator is."

Wallace suggested Legg's District 17 candidacy was engineered by Senate leaders to replace Sen. Jim Norman, R-Tampa.

Legg recently moved into the district, to a home in Trinity owned by his wife, after representing West Pasco in the state House and living in Port Richey. Previously, he had been running a Senate campaign focusing on Pasco County; District 17 is roughly split between Pasco and Hillsborough.

Legg made the move shortly after Norman, weakened by ethical controversy, dropped out of the race.

Legg denied Wallace's suggestion, saying he had been campaigning in Pasco because with redistricting incomplete, no one knew where the new district lines would be.

He said he and his wife decided to live in Trinity in part because their Port Richey home would be easier to sell.

Lee and Legg rejected the notion that they won support because they are compliant with leaders.

Legg noted his backers include outgoing Sen. Mike Fasano, who has become known as a rebel against GOP leadership in the Senate. Legg said his endorsements come because other legislators have worked with him and value his contribution on issues.

Lee has shown his own willingness to take on powerful interests in the past. In 2003 he clashed with Bush, then governor, about restrictions on medical malpractice lawsuits; the two later healed the breach and are now friends.

Lee also pushed groundbreaking legislation requiring lobbyists to report their fees, over the objection of lobbyists and some of their legislative backers.

That didn't earn him love from the lobbying community, and now, three prominent Tallahassee lobbyists Ron Book, Jack Cory and Guy Spearman back Burgin.

All three denied that the regulations were the reason, although Book and Spearman unsuccessfully sued to have the regulations overturned. Spearman said Lee's angry reaction to the lawsuit explains his decision to back Burgin.

Cory said leadership involvement in primaries "is relatively new to the process and it's not something I think is appropriate," noting that Weatherford, the incoming House speaker, has stayed out of contested primaries.

Weatherford said his leadership team backs incumbents if they have primaries, but stays out of primaries for open seats, like the two state Senate primaries.

But he also defended Gaetz's moves.

"The politics of the Senate are different from the House," Weatherford said, noting the House has three times as many members. "Sen. Gaetz has his reasons for engaging in primaries, and there's nothing wrong with that."

Gaetz said it's not unusual in his experience for legislative leaders to take sides in primaries. He denied he's looking for compliant senators to follow his leadership, or that the endorsements are dictating the election outcomes.

"I don't operate under the illusion that anybody in the Tampa Bay area studies who I'm endorsing and votes one way because of it," he said.