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Joe Henderson: Maybe Tom Lee didn’t make friends, but he made a difference

He bucked his own party when it seemed like the thing to do.

Tallahassee is about to lose one of its most enigmatic and complicated characters. Tom Lee submitted his resignation Friday from the Florida Senate, effective Nov. 3.

Although Lee didn’t immediately confirm the reason, there is wide speculation he will enter the suddenly crowded field to succeed the retiring Pat Frank as the Hillsborough County Clerk of the Circuit Court.

While that news probably caused champagne corks to pop in some circles (looking at you, incoming Senate President Wilton Simpson), Lee brought a lot of things to the game that the Legislature needs and will miss.

Start with the fact Lee didn’t always play the “go along to get along” game, even with members of his Republican Party. He was a maverick if he believed the situation called for it.

“I didn’t go to Tallahassee to make friends,” he famously said.

Lee first served in the Legislature as a Senator from 1996 to 2006, including a stint as Senate President. He quickly earned a name for pulling back the curtain on the cozy relationship between lawmakers and lobbyists.

His persistence led to needed reforms. Lobbyists were prohibited from buying gifts and meals for lawmakers, and they had to disclose how much money they made.

That wasn’t a way to make friends, so it’s good that he didn’t hope to find many in the state capital. But it also was the right thing to do.

Lee ran for Florida Chief Financial Officer in 2006 but lost to Alex Sink.

He left politics after that, but got the itch again and successfully ran again in 2012. He immediately saw the difference between life in Tallahassee then and now.

“It is hyperpartisan now,” he told me earlier this year as the Session was about to begin. “People don’t vote against their party for fear of retribution. You can’t govern like that in a purple state.”

His solution for that: Open primaries. Neither major party likes this.

So? Maybe that’s why this is needed.

He said the current primary system “can come down to electing the lesser of two evils.”

Like I said: Maverick.

He repeatedly called for reform in how bills became law. Lee once described what he faced as a lawmaker during the final hours of the 2019 Session.

He and other legislators suddenly had 2,996 pages of complex legalese dumped on them about 24 hours before they were supposed to vote on those bills.

“There is no way my colleagues can read all this stuff,” he said. “But that’s the process, and it’s flawed. We get these big omnibus bills and the train keeps moving until it receives enough votes to pass. People keep adding things to convince (lawmakers) to vote for it.

“So, you might get something good for your district but there might be some radioactive stuff in there too that someone else wanted.”

He did more than gripe about the system, though. He worked to change it, including an appointment by then-House Speaker Richard Corcoran to the 2017 Florida Constitution Revision Commission.

Lee was a prominent voice in pushing to outlaw greyhound racing in Florida.

He also had a quixotic side, frequently dropping hints about seeking other elected positions. He toyed with running for the Hillsborough County Commission but ultimately did not.

In 2018 he had everything set to go against Jimmy Patronis in the GOP primary for the CFO job he didn’t win in 2006.

After months of hints that he was ready to go for it hard, Lee decided to stay put in the Senate.

But now, there’s this.

I’ve known Tom Lee for a long time and respect him for many things. He is tough, smart, eminently quotable, and most of the time his vision for how the state should be run was correct.

Assuming he does enter the Clerk’s race, he will be a formidable presence. He will have money, endorsements, and intimate knowledge of how Tallahassee works. That is invaluable for someone in that position.

But he also is a Republican in a county that has been trending blue. And if he wins the primary, he will face a high-profile and respected Democrat in the general election: Former County Commissioner Kevin Beckner, or term-limited School Board member Cindy Stuart.

It will be fascinating to see how this plays out.

But however that ends, Tallahassee will lose someone who made a big difference and did what he believed was right, even if he didn’t always make friends.

Written By

I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. Florida is wacky, wonderful, unpredictable and a national force. It's a treat to have a front-row seat for it all.

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Publisher: Peter Schorsch

Contributors & reporters: Phil Ammann, Renzo Downey, Rick Flagg, A.G. Gancarski, Joe Henderson, Janelle Irwin, Jacob Ogles, Scott Powers, Bob Sparks, Andrew Wilson.
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