The political alliance and friendship between two stalwarts of the Republican Party in the Tampa Bay area is a thing of the past: For now, they are bitter rivals for a state Senate seat.
State Rep. Kevin Ambler and Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman have been political allies for 20 years, but now they are not on speaking terms, as they battle with bruising rhetoric for the Senate District 12 seat being vacated by retiring state Sen. Victor Crist. The winner of the Aug. 24 primary has almost assured the seat; no Democrat has entered the fray, and only two politically unknown write-ins will be on the ballot.
Former friends facing off in a bitter election is unfortunate, but the not uncommon thing in Florida politics, as ambitions and term limits often leave politicians no choice, says University of South Florida political science professor Susan McManus.
“That’s the tough part of politics, you often end up having to run against your friends,” she says.
Ambler and Norman in the past have supported each other’s campaigns. Norman has held several seats on the Hillsborough County Commission since 1992, and Norman worked on Ambler’s successful campaigns for the Florida House District 47 seat, which the Tampa lawyer has held since 2002.
This political season, however, both men found themselves at career crossroads, leading them to an all-out battle against each other. Both Ambler and Norman are facing term limits for their respective state and local seats. With Sen. Crist’s retirement, both saw an opportunity, and both asked the other to step aside.
That didn’t happen, and the candidates both used the word “disappointed” to describe being pitted against each other.
Norman says he always planned to serve on the Hillsborough commission until Crist’s Senate seat opened, and maintains that Ambler promised he would not seek the seat.
“It’s always where I have felt I can be most effective,” Norman says.
It came as a shock, Norman says when Ambler filed to run for the seat this election cycle.
“I was very disappointed,” Norman says.
Ambler claims he made no secret he planned to run for the Senate seat, and tried to talk Norman into running for the House seat he is vacating.
“I urged him to seek my seat. I think he would make a tremendous representative,” Ambler says. “But he didn’t take my advice and I was disappointed, to say the least.”
The political gloves are now off, as the race has drawn the attention of Republican leadership in the Senate and one of the party’s most influential voices, Jeb Bush.
Bush and incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos have endorsed Norman in the District 12 race, which Norman has pounced on — claiming the Republican Party has little faith in Ambler’s abilities.
Norman — who worked for Ambler’s reelection — now calls the representative’s career of service in the House a “failure.”
“I think Jeb Bush and others see that I am the true conservative,” Norman said.
Ambler sees it differently, saying Norman has no experience on the state level and has put himself up as the person who will vote how Bush and Haridopolos tell him to vote on issues critical to the state.
“I am not a puppet and I will never to obedient to anyone,” says Ambler.
Ambler is not sure how much weight Republican voters give to Bush’s endorsement, but if fundraising is an indication, it has given the edge to Norman. The local politician has raised more than $500,000, while the representative of eight years has raised $305,000.
As the primary approaches, the animosity between Ambler and Norman is rising, evidenced by a recent media storm over a $460,000 home owned by Norman’s wife in Arkansas, which the commissioner did not list on his financial disclosure form, and is not bound to.
Norman refused to discuss where the money for the home came from, saying he is not involved in his wife’s financial affairs. But a television story that ran on a Tampa ABC affiliate set off days of media pundits calling for Norman to discuss the home.
On the defensive, Norman chastised Ambler for planting the story in the media and called on him to leave his wife out of the political fray.
“I heard for weeks he was shopping that thing around,” Norman says. “You can say what you want about me, but leave my wife out of it.”
Ambler denies he had anything to do with the controversy emerging.
“I never said a word about his wife to anyone,” Ambler says. “He’s the one that threw his wife under the bus when all this came out.”
Norman’s reaction to a recent effort by Ambler to introduce Arizona-style immigration laws during the recent special session on offshore oil drilling, speaks volumes about how deeply the candidates’ past relationship has been buried.
“It was shenanigans. Pure political posturing,” says Norman. “He waits until the 11th hour of his time in the House to jam something through. Where was he the entire time he was in office?”
Ambler says introducing the bills was not a political move, but was instead his duty as chairman of the House Public Safety & Domestic Security Policy Committee to tackle an issue that is a “critical public safety issue.”
“Jim Norman has said he would do the same thing if elected,” says Ambler. “Well, he doesn’t have the power to do that as a county commissioner. He wants to be the guy. Well, I am the guy who has to do what is necessary to protect the citizens of Florida.”