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Lee faces newcomer in state Senate race

BRANDON - AGE: 62 EDUCATION: Graduated Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., with a bachelor's degree in psychology. FAMILY: Married with one honorary daughter who was a foreign exchange student. PLACE OF RESIDENCE: Seffner
PROFESSIONAL EXPERIENCE: 27 years as a criminal investigator with the Internal Revenue Service. Retired. POLITICAL EXPERIENCE: Community advocate speaking on zoning issues, the weigh station on Interstate 4 in Seffner, fighting to get a library in Seffner, committee member to devise the Seffner Community Plan, served as treasurer of special taxing district for Hickory Hills. CAMPAIGN WEB SITE: www.votebelcher.com AGE: 50 EDUCATION: Associate in Arts degree from Hillsborough Community College and a bachelor of science degree in business from the University of Tampa. FAMILY: Wife, Laurel and two children, with one on the way. PLACE OF RESIDENCE: Brandon PROFESSIONAL EXPERIENCE: Vice president Sabal Homes of Florida; advisory board member, Bank of Tampa. POLITICAL EXPERIENCE: Represented Eastern Hillsborough County in the state Senate, 1996-2006; Senate President, 2004-06 CAMPAIGN WEB SITE: www.votetomlee.com For political newcomer Elizabeth Belcher, a Democrat, going up against political heavyweight Tom Lee for the District 24 state Senate seat is akin to the biblical story of David and Goliath. She's David. "The power brokers up there in Tallahassee have decided he is the person that will be senator," she said. But, not so fast. Belcher, a community activist from Seffner, said people aren't happy with what is going on in Tallahassee and she can give Florida's needs a fresh look. Lee, a Republican who spent a decade in Tallahassee from 1996 to 2006, including a stint as Senate president, said his focus is not on Belcher. "It's on the community and trying to address some of the challenges and frustrations (voters) have as they are trying to raise families, educate children and survive their retirement." The winner will replace outgoing Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, who is seeking the Hillsborough County property appraiser position. Lee went against one-term State Rep. Rachel Burgin in the Republican primary and won handily. As the general election nears, Lee has accrued nearly $400,000 for his campaign, to Belcher's $12,000, with $5,000 of that coming out of her own pocket. And District 24 is heavily Republican. Still, she said, she is knocking on doors and talking to voters about what she would like to accomplish. Ethics in Tallahassee is at the top of her agenda. "I tell people if you don't have ethics, it's like building a house on top of a sinkhole. It's gonna collapse. If I only do one thing in Tallahassee it's to get legislators' names next to line items that get in the state budget," she said. Belcher was particularly miffed at being unable to determine who put money in the state budget for fancy trappings at The Regent, an opulent structure near Winthrop Village billed as a Brandon community center and built with taxpayer money. While she sees job growth as a priority, she doesn't like the way it is pursued by the Legislature. "We need to stop bribing big corporations to come to Florida (using huge tax-break incentives) and start supporting our small businesses," she said. "Forty percent of the money that goes out in that way goes to businesses that end up failing." And there needs to be more emphasis on renewable energy in Florida, she said. "We have a lot of brownfields in this state. (Brownfields are former industrial sites that must be cleaned up before other businesses can move in.) "We need to start pushing for solar farms on brownfields." It is a good way to reuse soiled land and build public-private partnerships for clean energy, she said. "We also need to look at bringing in businesses that recycle" steel and other metals that otherwise might be lost to landfills, she said. Belcher also said she would like to take a hard look at education funding in the state and thinks the FCAT, a test intended to measure student progress, should be eliminated and replaced with a better system of accountability. "I've been out shaking hands, attending events, going to candidate forums, getting sign wavers lined up," Belcher said. "I feel like I'm getting a definite positive response." Belcher said she has crunched numbers and if the Democrats in District 24 show up and vote, she can beat Lee. Lee is focusing on the economy and education. He has said his priority is to improve the economy through development and by creating jobs, focusing on the region's assets, including MacDill Air Force Base, the Port of Tampa, Tampa International Airport, the University of South Florida and the county's agricultural base. "People are concerned about jobs and economic development," he said. "They are concerned about education policy in Florida, including FCAT. From most people's perspective, they want to make sure people in Tallahassee understand public education and its relative importance to the long term quality of life in our region. They are looking for people to make that a priority. "Between health and human services and education, they account for where revenue is being spent" in Tallahassee, Lee said. Lee said he grew up in Brandon, is raising his family and building his business as a developer in eastern Hillsborough, and knows what the community needs. "I don't think you can be a whole lot more eastern Hillsborough County than Tom Lee," he said. "To me, everybody needs to focus on the community and the region and which one of us in the best position to represent the people of Hillsborough County. "I'm not running as some hot shot that has all the answers, but I have ability to identify problems and a track record of solving them."

yhammett@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7127
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