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Tom Lee could shake up Florida politics with a bid for Hillsborough Clerk

Lee gave Democratic candidate Cindy Stuart a heads up.

Sen. Tom Lee is considering running for Hillsborough County Clerk of the Court.

Several sources with knowledge of internal conversations said the bid is on his radar.

Lee did not immediately return a request for comment, however according to a longtime Lee confidant and Hillsborough-based lobbyist, Lee is expected to make an announcement Friday. He has also acknowledged, it’s time to come home. The source said Lee is “about 75% there.”

If Lee were to run it would set the stage for a potentially costly race for one of Hillsborough’s constitutional offices.

He would face D.C. Goutoufas in the Republican primary and potentially Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman, who has filed for the seat but isn’t expected to stay in after qualifying.

Former Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner and Hillsborough County School Board member Cindy Stuart are running as Democrats for the seat incumbent Pat Frank is vacating to retire.

Stuart told Florida Politics Lee gave her a “heads up” about his potential bid.

“While I appreciate Tom Lee giving me a head’s up about his plans, I doubt Hillsborough voters will be receptive to a Tallahassee insider using special interest money to buy the clerks office. He lost the Hillsborough portion of his district in 2018 and I am confident he will suffer the same fate if he does decide to run for clerk,” Stuart said.

Significant money has already poured in with Beckner raising nearly $105,000 and Stuart nearly $23,000 in just four months, nearly all of which came in April when she officially announced her campaign.

Murman has about $134,000 of the $193,000 raised so far parked in the race, should she decide to actually run.

As an incumbent Senator, Lee would have access to a deep well of establishment donors, courted over the course of his more than two decades in Florida politics.

But his candidacy would cause a ripple in state politics. Because of Florida’s resign to run law, Lee would have to leave his seat in the Senate this year regardless of whether he won the Clerk’s race.

The timing of his decision would determine when he would leave office. Under the resign to run law, lawmakers running for certain offices, including county constitutional offices, must resign at least 10 days before qualifying begins for the office they seek. If Lee waits beyond Friday, he would miss that window. He could still run, but it would force him to resign immediately rather than being able to tender his resignation in November.

Sources say Lee is concerned about leaving his Senate seat vacant during the coronavirus crisis. It’s likely the Legislature will be called into Special Session to deal with budget concerns. If he resigns early, it would leave his constituents unrepresented in that process, a conundrum the Senator wants to avoid.

When, or if, he announces, it would open his Senate District 20 seat. While the inland district covering parts of northeast Hillsborough, southeast Pasco and northwest Polk counties leans heavily Republican, Democrats have vowed to run a candidate in every open race.

Some possible Republican successors include former Rep. Danny Burgess, Rep. Jamie Grant, former Sen. Dana Young, Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White and Plant City Mayor Rick Lott. Ultimately, incoming Senate President Wilton Simpson would play an outsized role in determining who the Republican candidate would be, pedaling influence both publicly and behind the scenes.

Right now, the Clerk’s race looks like an easy win for Democrats, considering Goutoufas has raised only a little over $10,000 and assuming Murman doesn’t enter the race.

If Lee entered, it would strain Beckner and Stuart who would be spending heavily on a competitive primary while also having to ensure adequate resources for a general election.

While Beckner has raised significantly more than Stuart, her momentum shows promise in the race. She raised nearly $20,000 in April, compared to Beckner who raised just shy of $5,300. Beckner also has a much higher burn rate, having spent more than $38,000 as of the end of April compared to Stuart’s just over $1,000 spend.

Fundraising is further complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has shifted traditional campaigning to an entirely new model void of typical fundraisers.

Candidates instead are tapping internal sources, special interests and other deep-pocket groups, a strategy that favors incumbents and those with high name recognition. While Beckner previously held public office and Stuart still does, neither have served at the state level.

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in Tampa Bay since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as senior reporter for WMNF News. Janelle has a lust for politics and policy. When she’s not bringing you the day’s news, you might find Janelle enjoying nature with her husband, children and two dogs. You can reach Janelle at Janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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