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Tom Lee resigning from Florida Senate; no decision on local office yet

Lee’s resignation is effective Nov. 3.

Sen. Tom Lee is resigning from his Senate District 20 seat. But he hasn’t yet made decided whether he’ll run for local office.

Lee, a former Speaker of the House, is leaving his post two years early.

“Today, I officially submitted my resignation from the Florida Senate to Governor DeSantis, effective November 3, 2020. It has been the greatest honor of my career serving as a Senator for a total of 18 years and most recently representing the citizens of District 20. I cannot thank them enough for their unwavering support and trusting me to stand up for their interests in Tallahassee,” Lee said.

The move comes after speculation first reported by Florida Politics Thursday that he was considering running for Hillsborough County Clerk of the Court.

“Off and on, I have considered resigning from the Senate since I finished up as Chair of Appropriations for my friend, President Gardiner in 2016 and my decision to resign from the Senate at this time was independent of any future plans,” Lee told Florida Politics columnist Joe Henderson.

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“During the shutdown, I took the time to teach our daughter, Faith (7) to ride her bike and it got me thinking about all that I am missing by having to reside within my Senate district while they are in Tallahassee full time and to what end. There’s a chance that I decide to run for the Clerk of the Court here in Hillsborough County, but that’s not what motivated me to resign from the Senate at this time,” he continued.

Lee faced a Friday deadline to make a decision about the Clerk’s bid. Under Florida’s 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 waited beyond Friday to file, he would have missed that window. He could still run, but it would haven forced him to resign immediately rather than being able to tender his resignation in November.

Sources told Florida Politics Thursday Lee was 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 had resigned early, it would have left his constituents unrepresented in that process, a conundrum the Senator wanted to avoid.

Lee’s decision opens his Senate seat this election. Senate President Designate Wilton Simpson and Majority Leader Kathleen Passidomo endorsed former Rep. Danny Burgess shortly after Lee made his announcement. Others rumored to be up for the job include former Sen. Dana Young, Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White Pasco County Commissioner Mike Moore and Plant City Mayor Rick Lott. Rep. Jamie Grant had been rumored, but said he won’t run if Burgess does.

It’s hard to imagine anyone running when Simpson has already chosen his preferred candidate.

While the district leans Republican, Democrats have vowed to run a candidate in every open race, a move meant to drum up voter engagement in a presidential year crucial for the party hoping to make Donald Trump a one-term president.

Qualifying for legislative and Hillsborough County races begins at noon June 8, and the state’s “resign-to-run” law requires elected officials seeking other posts to give notice in writing at least 10 days prior to the first day of qualifying. Missing the deadline would require an office holder to resign immediately.

By following the resign-to-run law, Lee noted in a resignation letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis, a replacement can be elected “consistent with the 2020 election cycle and avoid the unnecessary expense of an off-cycle election.”

Lee, a vice president of Sabal Homes of Florida, served in the Senate from 1996 to 2006 and returned in 2012. He ran for state chief financial officer in 2006, losing to Democrat Alex Sink.

Before his re-election to the Senate in 2018, he flirted with runs for Congress and state chief financial officer. He defeated Democrat Kathy Lewis by 7 percentage points in his Senate race.

Locally, the move would also be a shake-up.

Lee’s candidacy would likely position the Clerk’s race as one of the county’s big money races. 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.

Significant money has already poured in with former Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner raising nearly $105,000 and Hillsborough County School Board member Cindy Stuart raised nearly $23,000 in just four months, nearly all of which came in April when she officially announced her campaign.

Lee 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.

Murman has about $134,000 of the $193,000 raised so far parked in the race, should she decide to actually run. Goutoufas has raised just over $10,000.

Without Lee, the Clerk’s race looks like an easy win for Democrats, considering Goutoufas slow fundraising and assuming Murman doesn’t enter the race.

If Lee enters, Beckner and Stuart will be forced to spend heavily on a competitive primary while also having to ensure adequate resources for a general election. A new dynamic could also shift the Democrats’ campaign strategies to focus their primaries more on attacking Lee than each other.

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.

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Content from the News Service of Florida was used in this report.

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a die-hard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and contentious issues surrounding transit. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also a devoted wife and mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder.

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