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Jim Norman speaks: The former Hillsborough county commissioner is plotting a comeback

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Former Hillsborough County Commissioner and state Sen. Jim Norman wants you to know one thing — that everything you thought you knew about what happened to him in 2010 is wrong.

“The media put a message out there that is just inaccurate, and I’m really burned about that, so I’m pretty fired up with setting the record straight,” he said in an interview conducted earlier this week.

In case you’ve forgotten or weren’t around five years ago, “the message” that Norman says the media erred on was the story that led to his ignominious political downfall after two decades in public office.

It goes like this: After serving for 18 years on the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners, Norman was running for the first time for the Florida Legislature in 2010, and was involved in a contested primary with fellow Republican Kevin Ambler. News broke during the middle of that state Senate campaign that Norman had failed to disclose a $435,000 Arkansas vacation home “given” to his wife Mearline from the late Ralph Hughes, the Eastern Hillsborough County power broker and longtime friend of Norman.

Although Ambler did all he could to use that story to aid his campaign, Norman ultimately prevailed in the GOP primary. But Ambler went to court after the primary, claiming that Norman’s election was invalid because of his failure to disclose Mearline Norman’s home on financial forms. A Leon County Circuit Court judge taking up the case initially found Norman’s explanation that he knew nothing about the house “patently absurd,” and ordered him off the ballot after his victory over Ambler. An appellate court later reinstated him. Norman then went on to defeat two write-in candidates in the general election, after the Democratic Party failed to find a sentient human being to run against him.

The FBI began an investigation of the situation as well, though it later determined there was no wrongdoing. In March of 2011, Norman did admit his guilt in failing to disclose the information about the house with the Florida Commission on Ethics.

Norman appeared set to run for re-election in 2012, but then dropped out after he realized that his Senate District 12 seat that contained parts of Pasco and Hillsborough had been significantly redrawn by GOP legislators. The new map included much more of Pasco than Hillsborough, making it more favorable toward one of his Republican primary rivals, state Rep. John Legg.

Norman says he was set adrift in redistricting because he got sideways with top Senate leaders regarding funding for USF and against then Senate Budget Chairman J.D. Alexander, who was determined to split the USF Lakeland campus off into what would eventually become Florida Polytechnic.

“I was either going to sell out (the University of) South Florida or lose Senate support and I was a freshman, and they don’t take kindly with freshmen standing up against appropriations chairs and Senate presidents,” he recounts, laughing.

It appeared that his long career in public service was over. His hometown newspaper,  The Tampa Tribune, offered last rites in an editorial titled, “Norman’s sad departure.” The paper noted that the fallen lawmaker “had no one to blame but himself. Arrogance and ethical indifference grew along with his political success.”

But reports of his political obituary have been greatly exaggerated, apparently.

In February, Norman gave an interview to The Tribune’s Mike Salinero, announcing that he was eyeing a comeback. Since then he’s been meeting with various organizations and opinion makers, and seems poised to announce perhaps as early as next month that he will be a candidate for the Republican nomination to run in the District 6 countywide seat being vacated by a term-limited Kevin Beckner.

Norman’s story begins in Jacksonville, where he was born and raised. He says his work with the Salvation Army brought him to Tampa, where he also ended up becoming the head coach for the junior varsity football team at Berkeley Preparatory School.

An unknown political entity in 1992, Norman says “nobody game me any chance to win” in the County Commission seat that had been held by Democrat Pam Iorio. “I walked every house,” he recounts, something he says he has done in every election. He ended up defeating Democrat James P. Doyle by a total of 227 votes, and never lost any of his re-election bids.

In recounting his victory over Stacy Easterling in a GOP primary in 2002, Norman can’t help but boast about his electoral record, which he claims is 19-0. “It was a very contentious race,” he notes. “I walked in every house, and won handily, so I know what I’m doing.”

During the course of our interview, Norman, who turns 62 next month, emphasizes how much of an “ideas guy” he’s always been, offering up perspectives on issues like transportation that haven’t been explored during the current debate. (He’s not keen on raising taxes of any sort, incidentally.)

Known as a cultural conservative, he was asked if he would side with fellow Republicans Ken Hagan and Al Higginbotham, who two years ago joined their BOCC colleagues in reversing their infamous 2005 ban on gay pride events.

He asks if I can recall why the motion came up in the first place. It was because of a display of gay literature in a library, I note.

“I believe that every human being should be able to make their own choice without being influenced,” he says. “And that was the basis for that vote. If the situation was different, I will look at the situation. That’s where I am. I don’t want them to hurt their family, I don’t want them to hurt other families. That’s kind of where I come down on. If you know my history, I have coached and worked with kids for 25 years so I’ve run across gay children, straight children, and I love them all. I will look at a situation and make a decision, at that time.”

He goes on to add that, “I’ve never had any hatred with anybody. I actually have a married gay couple next door to me. I don’t have any … I personally, my own personal values is that’s not something that I want to participate in. So you won’t see me in the parade, but whatever. If it doesn’t affect kids and doesn’t hurt children and those kinds of things, and the courts have ruled?” he shrugs.

He also passionately defends a previous idea that never caught on with the general public  or his colleagues. That being the $40 million complex called Championship Park, which would have been originally constructed north of Plant City. As envisioned by Norman, it would be a 20,000-seat stadium that would have soccer, baseball, softball and other tournament events, and would be funded by the Community Investment Tax. A review committee supported the proposal and said it could pay for itself and potentially make money.

But it wasn’t very popular with the public, who said the county had more pressing needs. When the issue ultimately came up for a vote in 2007, Norman couldn’t get any support at all from his colleagues.

Going back to the events regarding the Arkansas lakefront home, Norman emphasizes that there was never any “gift.” He says his wife and Hughes were in business together, and “she also put her own money in the thing. It’s not like there was this blank pool (and) it was only his money. She put her own money in, also.”

“Nobody gives anybody a $500,000 home,” he says of the alleged gift by Hughes. “Even though he’s like my stepfather, I’m very close to him. They were in business together!” he says. “And all of that was proven. I’ve got all the documents to prove that. I’ve got him making bids on the house, her making with him on the phone, back and forth if it was a free houses, why would he continue on making bids on other properties if they weren’t in business together?”

At this moment, Norman then takes a single sheet of paper out of file folder. It’s a “Letter of Resolution” indicating that Mearline Norman has resolved all “issues and disputes” with the Arkansas home, signed by Shea Hughes, Ralph’s son.

In the early aughts, there was a feeling among environmentalists and liberals that the County Commission was in the back pocket of developers. Norman counters that by saying that he attempted to be “creative” in using the development community to help rehab economically troubled areas in the community, such as waiving impact fees.

“So I was using all of that, and I got tagged as, ‘Oh, you’re helping out the development community!” he says, mocking such criticisms. “You’re not. You’re helping every aspect of the budget, (and) law enforcement, by trying to be creative with development. Now, you can call that pro-devleopment if you want,” he says, laughing heartily.

Throughout our interview, Norman circles back to his central premise: He was accused of something nefarious, and he’s been totally cleared. “I didn’t do it!” he exclaims at one point. “So how do you expect me tor respond? I didn’t do anything.”

Yet for all of his protestations, a review of what happened back in 2010 shows that this longtime politico hardly was proclaiming his innocence so loudly at the time.

“I handled it poorly,” he admits. “I just did. I mean, I know I did,” adding that when the news media went after his family, “My switch flipped, and I handled it very poorly.”

Political insiders tell that they know Norman’s been working hard in recent months to tout his upcoming candidacy, and he feels that the financial support is there.

When news floated in February that Norman was considering a comeback, Hillsborough County Republican Executive Chair Deborah Tamargo indicated some irritation. She’s more diplomatic now, saying, “You can never underestimate or not give kudos to Jim Norman, that he’ll be out there walking door to door, he’ll get out there walking and he’ll do it everyday, he’ll get out there and be a prolific fundraiser. Any candidate who gets into the race need not underestimate him.”

Tamargo says that she thinks one and perhaps two other Republicans will challenge Norman if he runs.

Those rumored to be considering a potential candidacy include former congressional candidate E.J. Otero, former county commissioner and state Sen. Ronda Storms and Tim Schock, who ran against Al Higginbotham in the GOP primary race for the District 7 seat last year.

For his part, Norman dismisses any GOP challenger. “It doesn’t bother me,” he says. “I know how I apply myself,” adding that he’s not a “typical candidate.”

“I’ve won 19 times, never lost, for a reason. I apply myself like no other person applies himself and if I run, I will be as prepared, and as hard working, as any human being on this planet. And all the people I’ve talked to the past 90 days, 90 percent of the group that has always been with me is all with me. There’ll be that 10 percent, and that’s OK.”

Other Republicans believe he will be formidable.

“At this point I would have to say that Jim Norman would be the favorite in a Republican primary,” says GOP consultant Mark Proctor. “He has tremendous name recognition and the ability to raise substantial campaign funds. I understand that he is already getting pledges of support from most of his regular backers. Mr. Norman has also built a reputation for being a true grassroots campaigner and his door-to-door strategy is legendary. I suspect that there are those detractors who would like to see a fresh face enter the competition. However, so far I have yet to see the Republican regulars rally behind anyone else.”

“Based on the field, I wouldn’t bet against Norman,” adds political analyst Chris Ingram, who has been a noted critic of the former county commissioner over the years. He added that’s based on the field right now, which doesn’t include any Republicans.

The three Democrats already in the District 6 race aren’t impressed to hear about Norman’s potential comeback.

“I’m embarrassed for our community that he’s even considering a run,” said Pat Kemp. “As for me, I’m looking forward to holding him accountable for years of creating sprawl and turning his back on this county while enriching himself.”

“I am out in the community meeting with voters and I consistently here that our community is ready for new ideas and new leadership,” says Brian Willis. “I am confident voters don’t want to go back to the days of investigations and accusations of corruption.  We have gained early momentum because of voters’ enthusiasm for new leadership.”

Tom Scott served for years with Norman on the Board of County Commission in the aughts. He says that while the public may forget or not care about Norman’s legal issues, the press won’t.

“They will always remind you whatever challenges you have faced…so that will always be there,” he says. “We all have a record, and so people have a tendency to remind us of our record, as well.”

“You never underestimate the voters and what they might do,” says Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller, who will run for re-election for the District 3 seat next year. Miller was an underdog in 2010 to then incumbent Kevin White, being badly out fundraised. Even though there were questions about White’s ethics (he later was found guilty of and was sent to prison), there was talk that many in the black community felt that White had been the victim of an unfair press attack, and would prevail.

But Miller defeated him in an upset. Can Norman win with those voters believing he received an unfair shake from the media  in 2016?

“He could be a formidable candidate,” Miller says. “But there are some other formidable candidates in the race, too, so it will be interesting to see what happens.”

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at [email protected]

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