Maverick Lee cites Senate savvy

Jeb Bush's about-face is evidence of the finance candidate's political finesse.

Published October 17, 2006

In 2003, Gov. Jeb Bush's office cast about for someone - anyone - to oppose state Sen. Tom Lee in a primary election.

The reason: Lee and a handful of rogue senators had committed the un-Republican act of opposing hard caps on medical malpractice jury awards. Lee's action - and Bush's reaction - was a snap along the fault line dividing the conservative and moderate wings of the GOP that could be felt throughout the state.

Fast forward three years, to the Republican primary race for state chief financial officer.

Lee's first television ad in the race features Bush seated on the edge of his desk. Bush leans toward the camera and tells viewers that Lee is the right Republican to be CFO of Florida. That he has the courage to lead.

"And I'll tell you something about Tom," Bush says with an emphatic nod of his head. "He gives it to you straight. ... Our state needs Tom Lee."

That Lee could emerge from the Senate's biggest smack-down with Bush not just unscathed but with a near unprecedented primary endorsement is, according to his supporters, a testament to the Valrico senator's political prowess.

To his enemies, it's more like reptilian maneuverability.

Either way, Lee says his political finesse is why voters should choose him. He says his decade in the Legislature - and the relationship savvy he has cultivated there- will make him a better CFO than his Democratic general election opponent, former banker Alex Sink.

"You're not just electing the next bureaucrat to run the accounting system, though some might want you to think that," Lee said.

Lee says the CFO job takes a lot more than "a corporate resume." For a CFO to get things done, Lee says, "you have to understand the psychology of those 160 people" in the Legislature.

Lee gets psychology - he knows how to swap one amendment for another, and how to get folks on board. It's diplomacy that sometimes fails him.

He once referred to the Florida Marlins as "terrorists." He has called Republican gubernatorial front-runner Charlie Crist "disingenuous" and said that, as attorney general, Crist was "a better politician than a lawyer." He called the members of the state House cowards for failing to pass one of his bills.

He gets along fine with incoming Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, but he would have to work with a House speaker, Miami Republican Marco Rubio, who endorsed Lee's opponent in the primary.

Lee also has spent the last two years earning voodoo curses from some of the state's most powerful lobbyists, the special interests who raise the money and frequently write the legislation. Lobbyists have called him a hypocrite for vilifying them on one hand while soliciting them for money with the other.

"I would say there's some tension there that wasn't there before," deadpanned L. Carl Adams, president of the Florida Association of Professional Lobbyists.

Despite his brusqueness, Lee did well as Senate president: He pushed through his lobbying reform package and a growth management bill, and he has set the state on a path toward better mid-range financial planning.

But he failed to get the one thing voters are screaming for: property insurance legislation that can stabilize the market and bring down rates. Lee insists that the bill lawmakers did pass - in the last hours of the last night of the legislative session - was a good starting point.

He has promised to get more done next year as CFO.

The chief financial officer doesn't pass legislation directly, but is considered the voice on financial legislation and offers lawmakers bills for their consideration.

Ultimately, everything will come down to the relationships Lee built at a time when his outspokenness earned him the title "maverick."

Things could be especially interesting if there's a CFO Lee and a Gov. Crist. Not only because they would share Cabinet decisions, such as overseeing the state pension fund, buying conservation land and restoring civil rights to felons, but also because any bill Lee convinced state lawmakers to pass Crist would have to sign.

Already, the two candidates differ greatly on a key point in their property insurance plan: Crist wants to require auto insurers to also cover property, and Lee doesn't.

And Crist isn't likely to forget that it was Lee who sat on his "antimurder" bill combating child predators earlier this year, effectively killing it. Crist had planned to make the bill a key part of his campaign platform, but Lee refused to let it come to the Senate floor.

Lee said that the bill would cost too much - $118-million a year - and that it didn't have enough votes to pass the Senate, something its Senate sponsor, Lakeland Republican Sen. Paula Dockery, denied. (Dockery said it died because of "election year politics" where "the powers that be" didn't want to give Crist a big legislative victory.)

Today, Crist says he'll have no problems working with Lee if both are elected: "It's all good," Crist said.

Lee agrees that he and Crist would get along fine. Lee says he doesn't let the personal get in the way of the policy. But he also says being direct has helped get him the legislation he's wanted. And he doesn't see that changing: "I'm going to continue to be the same person that I've been."

Tom Lee

Age: 44

Birthplace: San Antonio, Texas

Current hometown: Valrico

Education: associate's degree from Hillsborough Community College; bachelor's in business from University of Tampa

Family: divorced with two children, Regan, 9, and Brandon, 5


- Vice president of finance, Sabal Homes, 1984 to present

- Florida Senate, 1996 to present

- Senate president, 2004 to present

- Rules and Calendar Committee, 2000-04

- Hillsborough County City/County Planning Commission, 1992-95

- Greater Brandon Chamber of Commerce, 1988-2003

On the Web

For a look at Monday's profile of Democratic CFO candidate Alex Sink, go to politics.tampabay.com

For the latest political news, go to blogs.tampabay.com/buzz

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