Kevin Ambler and Jim Norman: Former Allies Turn Foes in Heated District 12 Senate Race
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They both believe boosting jobs and improving transportation along the Interstate 4 corridor are key issues for Florida’s 12th District. They also agree on states' rights when it comes to protecting our borders from the flood of illegal immigrants and shielding Floridians from health insurance mandates coming down from Washington bureaucrats.
They belong to the same political party and have worked in concert with one another in years past to provide what they hope is a better life for their shared constituents. Yet, state Rep. Kevin Ambler and Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman have now become bitter rivals in their quest for Sen. Victor Crist’s open seat this November.
“This is a big deal,” University of South Florida political analyst Susan MacManus said. “It’s all you hear about in Tampa right now.”
Despite supporting one another in past elections, Ambler and Norman now find themselves at odds. Each is term-limited from continuing in his current position and both have urged the other to step aside in the contest for Crist’s seat. But, to no avail.
This critical race has the potential to determine whether the future direction of the Senate is a more moderate or conservative one, according to MacManus, and given the current mood of the Republican Party base and the emergence of the tea party movement, each is claiming his respective conservative bona fides.
“I believe my platform moving forward is to represent this district as a true conservative Republican,” Norman told Sunshine State News. “I don’t believe government gets you out of this job crisis we’re in. I believe small business and free enterprise will get us out of these problems. Government needs to get out of the way.”
Norman, who boasts an endorsement from former Gov. Jeb Bush, decries the burdensome taxes and fees he says are heaped on small businesses, which constitute 70 percent of the jobs in the country today. He said he wants to bring a more determinative approach to government, while spurring on as many jobs as possible. He points to his accomplishments as commissioner in bringing high-paying biotech jobs to the area.
Similarly, Ambler touts his success in recruiting Digital Domain, a Hollywood-based visual tech company, to relocate to the area. It will bring more than 6,000 high-wage jobs to Florida, he said, adding that accomplishment and real legislative experience trump any political endorsements.
Ambler additionally points to an incentive-based legislative package he ushered through the House that he says will lure entertainment companies to make films in the state and bring in up to $3.5 billion to the area.
“Everyone is worried about the economy, the creation of jobs and the ability to stay employed,” Ambler told Sunshine State News. “There’s a 12.8 percent unemployment rate in the Tampa Bay region, and that’s on everybody’s mind. They’re concerned about property taxes and they want us to continue our efforts to push those lower.”
Both candidates emphasize the importance of transportation improvement and development along the I-4 corridor and the impact the planned high-speed rail project will have on the region. Norman says it’s a serious problem that current plans don’t have the rail connecting to Tampa International Airport as it does to the airport in Orlando.
“My concern is that this will have a focus on Orlando becoming the hub of Florida, with flight increases to their airport and subsequent decreases in flights to Tampa,” Norman explained. “The fact that we didn’t get a connector to our airport is a big disappointment to me and we’re going to have to do what we can to recover from that.”
Ambler also has concerns with the rail project, citing ongoing negotiations with South Korean companies, that would come in and build and operate the rail itself in exchange for valuable development rights to property along the lines. He said these negotiations merit strict scrutiny with as much transparency as possible.
“We may find it’s more advantageous to give them those rights than to have taxpayers operating the rail or we may find it’s better to operate it ourselves … in exchange for the huge development rights along those corridors,” Ambler said. “There needs to be a series of publicly held meetings … the transparency of that will ensure that we’re making the best decisions we can.”
The candidates also have their eyes on current federal machinations that will greatly affect their constituents in District 12 and throughout the state, such as Arizona’s immigration law. Ambler had wanted to introduce Arizona-like legislation during Gov. Charlie Crist's special session in July, but the session was gaveled closed after only 43 minutes.
Norman labels Ambler's immigration-law move political posturing.
“I find it interesting that he brought this up at the last hour in the last session he’ll ever serve,” Norman said. “I’m a states' rights guy and I do believe that we should have the authority to protect our borders if the federal government refuses to do it.”
Ambler dismissed the charge, saying he’s only looking out for his constituents’ best interests. He pledged to reintroduce the bill in September when the Legislature reconvenes after the primaries. Ultimately, he said, the U.S. Supreme Court will need to weigh in on the issue and lay down a definitive law that everyone can follow.
Much the same can be said of the individual health insurance mandate passed earlier this year in Washington. Both candidates pledged to continue on with the work begun by current State Attorney General Bill McCollum in asserting Florida’s 10th Amendment rights and opposing such mandates for Floridians.
“We need a bright line rule of how far the federal government extends and where states’ rights are,” Ambler said. “There’s an institutional indifference and arrogance … in the federal government that they think they can do whatever they want or don’t want to do.”
Despite these well-staked-out and similar positions, most District 12 voters primarily know the candidates from the onslaught of mudslinging and attack ads that have colored the race thus far. This, according to MacManus, closely parallels the gubernatorial race between McCollum and businessman Rick Scott. Like that race, MacManus says, the District 12 race has gotten very negative very fast, which is turning off voters.
“That’s always the sad part of politics when friends vie for the same seat and friendships disintegrate, and that’s certainly what we’re seeing in this race,” MacManus said. “And of course, Republican voters are saddened to see these kinds of family feuds.”
However, when all is said and done, MacManus predicted, it will all likely boil down to who District 12 voters think is more trustworthy.
Steve Brown, who writes this story "special to Sunshine State News," lives in St. Petersburg. Reach him at email@example.com.