Joe Henderson: Tom Lee’s recent travails could start the guessing game again

in The Bay and the 'Burg by

State Sen. Tom Lee usually keeps people guessing about his plans.

While the Republican from Thonotosassa is well-known in the Legislature and isn’t afraid to stir things up, he has spoken often about possibly running for a seat on the Hillsborough County Commission. He waffled last year about that almost up to the filing deadline before deciding to run for another term in the Senate.

I wonder if recent events in the Senate might start Lee wondering again if it wouldn’t be better to work a little closer to home.

His well-publicized bill to eliminate public subsidies for the construction of sports stadiums failed to get out of committee. This was on the heels of what amounted to a rebuke when he called for an independent audit of the $2.1 billion expansion project at Tampa International Airport.

He tried to attach an amendment to the Senate budget that would have triggered the audit, but it was rejected by a voice vote. Those who spoke out against Lee on that gambit included Republicans Dana Young and Jack Latvala, although Tuesday he did pick up a major ally when the Times/Herald reported House Speaker Richard Corcoran has called for a full airport audit.

Bear in mind, Lee doesn’t have to do anything right away. He was elected to a four-year term in the newly created District 20, covering parts of Hillsborough, Pasco and Polk counties.

But the field is shaping up for the 2018 county commission races in Hillsborough. Veteran Republican Al Higginbotham already announced he will not seek re-election to his countywide seat, while long-serving Republican Ken Hagan said he will try for election to a single-member district.

Victor Crist, who also has been a fixture on the commission, is term-limited in his district, but most people expect he will run for Hagan’s soon-to-be open countywide seat. Right now, he likely would face only token competition in the primary from tea party activist Tim Curtis.

If Lee jumps in, he could go for Higginbotham’s spot. He would be a formidable candidate and likely would campaign about how he could bring his Tallahassee experience to bear for the betterment of his home county, but there is some intrigue there, too. Some prominent Democrats – including former commissioner Kevin Beckner and state Rep. Janet Cruz – might decide to get involved.

Plus, Lee has been linked to a possible run for the state’s Chief Financial Officer, where he would have great influence over spending policies. That’s in his wheelhouse. But he also ran for that job in 2006 and lost to Democrat Alex Sink.

When you talk to Lee, it usually doesn’t take long for the conversation to drift into the direction of impact he could make in his home county. He has also said his prime motivation for returning to the Legislature (he previously served 10 years there) was to help change the way business is done.

He clearly has been fighting that fight, but his nose has gotten a little bloodied in the process. It’s worth wondering whether the bleeding is enough to make him get serious about working closer to home.

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Joe Henderson has had a 45-year career in newspapers, including the last nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. He covered a large variety of things, primarily in sports but also including hard news. The two intertwined in the decade-long search to bring Major League Baseball to the area. Henderson was also City Hall reporter for two years and covered all sides of the sales tax issue that ultimately led to the construction of Raymond James Stadium. He served as a full-time sports columnist for about 10 years before moving to the metro news columnist for the last 4 ½ years. Henderson has numerous local, state and national writing awards. He has been married to his wife, Elaine, for nearly 35 years and has two grown sons – Ben and Patrick.