First of two profiles of the leading Republican candidates for state Senate District 24 in eastern Hillsborough County.
With “a little bit of competitive anger in me,” Tom Lee says he’s ready to return as a “foot soldier” to the Florida Senate, which he once headed.
In an interview with Sunshine State News, Lee talked about term limits, his commitment to social conservatism and his GOP primary opponent, state Rep. Rachel Burgin.
Lee is looking to get back into elected office after leaving the Senate in 2006. The Tampa area real estate and development executive said he decided to run after Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Brandon, opted to challenge scandal-scarred Hillsborough County Property Appraiser Rob Turner this fall.
“It’s not the best timing for me. My wife is seven months pregnant and we’re remodeling our house,” Lee said. “But the Senate needs leadership.”
The 2012 Senate disappointed some conservatives. The Tallahassee-based, free-market-oriented James Madison Institute issued a report card listing more losses than victories during the session.
“There was fracturing inside the Republican caucus, an inability of leadership to hold the caucus together on issues important to conservatives,” Lee observed.
“What I bring is the experience as a former presiding officer who understands free will and how to organize a session and build political capital among leadership so they don’t have those problems delivering the 21 votes that are important between the chambers.”
Lee isn’t maneuvering to stage a takeover, however.
“I don’t expect to come back as a former [Senate] president, but as a freshman member of the caucus — a foot soldier — to see where I can help.”
Lee has quickly collected high-profile endorsements from incoming [Senate] President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, the next in line. Perhaps more significantly, he was endorsed by former House Speaker Allan Bense.
“Leaders [of the Senate and House] typically don’t end on the best of terms,” Lee notes.
“No one man or woman has the market cornered on right thing to do. It’s what you get with a little gray hair. You try to be a uniting and calming force.”
At age 50, Lee says he’s a bit more philosophical about life in the Senate, and life in general.
“Sometimes things break down through no one’s fault,” he said of the Senate, where Republicans have held a two-thirds majority.
“The bigger the majority, the more they forget what it was like to be in the minority. We cannot forget this is a big family. You treat people with courtesy, respect and hang together in tough decisions.”
During his first stint in the Senate, Lee was instrumental in pushing through a repeal of Florida’s intangibles tax and helped pass the largest tax cut in state history. He also authored the constitutional amendment requiring a three-year financial planning process at the Legislature.
When Lee left Tallahassee, the state treasury had a $2 billion surplus.
“We anticipated an economic slowdown coming, and knew that the level of growth in government was not sustainable. It seemed like the more we grew, the further we were getting behind,” Lee said of those go-go days.
Lee’s primary opponent, Rep. Burgin, R-Riverview, is known as a “social conservative” who has championed anti-abortion legislation. But Lee isn’t giving any ground on so-called “values issues.”
“They’re a really important part of GOP’s platform, and shouldn’t take a back seat to economic issues. They’re important to who we are as a people,” he says.
Lee was the first to push through a “Choose Life” license plate (which was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles in 1998 and was passed the next year).
“It’s one of the most popular [plates] in the system, and it’s funding good work on crisis pregnancies and adoptions,” Lee relates.
Lee also filed the joint resolution that called for parental consent on abortions, and he sided with “pro-life” constituents in the Terri Schiavo controversy.
Still, Burgin and some of the state’s staunchest social conservatives raise doubts about the former [Senate] president’s commitment to the cause. Rumors are afloat that Lee will ultimately support state Sen. Jack Latvala — a bete noir on conservative circles — to be a future Senate president.
Lee says he’s had “long relationships” with both Latvala, R-Tampa, and John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who also is vying for the top job.
Lee says he’s keeping his options open.
“It’s too early. I’m remaining a free agent, and I don’t respond well to a shakedown.”
Lee observes that the political pressures at the Legislature have intensified since the advent of term limits.
“The term-limited environment forces coalitions to be formed early, and those coalitions can lose sight of public policy.”
As for the Senate’s top post, Lee said, “About 35 of 40 members want to be [Senate] president. You get there by building relationships and respect.”
In that vein, Lee won’t bad-mouth Burgin.
“Rachel has been my [state] representative, and she sings a great national anthem.
“My feeling is just that the Senate needs people who can hit the ground running with the experience to advance a conservative and small-government agenda.”
Chris Ingram, a Tampa-based political strategist who has no connection to the race, is less charitable.
“Burgin could have been a shoo-in for re-election to the House, but apparently pride outweighs common sense in the Burgin household,” Ingram says.
“She has no real-world, practical experience,” Ingram said of the 29-year-old, two-term lawmaker.
Susan MacManus, professor of public administration and political science at the University of South Florida, said, “The key question is who will be seen as the most fiscally conservative versus socially conservative.”
Noting that the eastern Hillsborough County area that comprises much of the Senate district is lagging the rest of the state in bouncing back economically, MacManus suggested that Lee might have an edge on fiscal issues.
But, she added that a strong grassroots effort by Burgin could “equal things out.”
Lee says he’s taking nothing for granted, and even vows to air TV ads — something that legislative candidates can rarely afford to do in the sprawling Tampa media market.
Though Lee said he “never looked back” after losing his 2006 bid for chief financial officer against Alex Sink, he has stayed current on statehouse activities.
“There’s not a regulation or press release or policy that I haven’t thought about in relation to my time in the Senate. I now view it through a prism of the average person.”
As a businessman, Lee says he’s spent “the last six years scratching my head” over some of the policies enacted by state and national politicians.
And as he ponders Florida’s future direction, the former lawmaker muses over what he calls “the final chapter of term limits.”
“They force politicians to go to their own funeral, and you get to see who shows up. You get to see who freshens the flowers on your grave, and you learn who your real friends are.
“Sometimes that’s surprising, and a little grounding.”