Lee says Senate post race possible
TAMPA - Brandon Republican state Sen. Tom Lee says he is interested in seeking the Senate presidency toward the end of this decade, and if he does, he's likely to end up competing with another Tampa area Republican lawmaker.
Both Sen. Bill Galvano of Bradenton and Sen. Wilton Simpson of Dade City also are interested in seeking the Senate presidency - Galvano probably in the 2019 and 2020 legislative sessions and Simpson after that.
Galvano and Simpson, along with Sen. Joe Negron of Stuart, are part of what some Tallahassee-watchers see as an alliance of Senate conservatives seeking to set a "line of succession" of conservative Senate presidents well into the future - though some of those involved dispute that.
If he seeks the presidency, Lee would be challenging that line, probably with help from others in the Senate viewed as more pragmatic or moderate, including state Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican.
Latvala is currently battling with Negron for the Senate presidency in the 2017 and 2018 sessions. Because the Senate president can influence candidate recruiting and campaign contributions to Senate candidates, Latvala's success or failure could influence Lee's chances.
Senators campaign for the leadership posts by seeking pledges of support from their colleagues, who elect the leaders.
The players in the contests, all Republicans, are assuming that Republicans will continue to hold the state Senate majority, and therefore control of the Senate presidency.
Although the minority Democrats hope to make gains in the Legislature, it's not likely they could challenge for a majority in either House prior to the next remapping of legislative districts, which won't take effect until the 2022 elections.
The president of the state Senate, like the speaker of the state House, is one of the most powerful people in state government, competing with the governor for influence. These legislative leaders can appoint or unseat committee chairmen, who control whether legislation reaches the floor for a vote. That gives the speaker and president an effective veto over legislation.
That power showed clearly in this year's session, when a move by Gov. Rick Scott to expand the state's Medicaid program with federal grant money under the Affordable Care Act was frustrated by Speaker Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel. The Legislature also revamped Scott's proposal for teacher pay raises.
Lee, who served from 1996-2006 in the Senate and was Senate president from 2004-06, has been widely expected to seek another top leadership post with his election again in 2012.
He and Latvala both criticized what they said is a new trend in the Senate for members to begin campaigns for leadership far in advance - an approach that's been common in the House but less so in the Senate.
"As a result of other senators jumping in and announcing their interest in 2018 and 2020, I'm being forced off the sidelines to do the same thing," Lee said. "As much as I think this is awfully early, I've contacted other members of the Republican caucus to let them know that if they're interested in considering future leadership, I'd like to have a conversation with them.
"I've got the history and the experience that would add a lot of value to the way the Senate functions, the history and the ethics the Senate tends to run by."
Current Senate President Don Gaetz will hold the post through next spring's legislative session, and is expected to be followed by Sen. Andy Gardiner, an Orlando Republican, in the 2015 and 2016 sessions.
The battles will be over successors to Gardiner - Latvala v. Negron in 2017-18 and Galvano, Lee and possibly Simpson after that.
Galvano couldn't be reached for comment Thursday, but Simpson said he supports Galvano and expects him to win the presidency for the 2019-20 term.
Simpson could be interested after that, "if my constituents think I'm doing a good job and I'm re-elected, and if my colleagues think I deserve a position in leadership," he said.
"Right now, I'm pretty green; I'm the new guy on the block. There's plenty of time for my colleagues to choose someone from my class, and anyone in my class could be a candidate."
Simpson wouldn't comment on whether he supports Latvala or Negron and denied there is any alliance involved: "All these races are in different silos."
But some insiders differ.
"I think there are two different factions that are out trying to arrange succession after the Negron-or-Latvala term," said veteran Tallahassee lobbyist Guy Spearman.
Latvala, who vowed to help Lee if Lee runs for the presidency, said leadership campaigns are happening earlier because of the influx of former House members who run for Senate seats after reaching term limits in the House. That group includes Negron and Galvano.
"I personally think it's ridiculous to talk about who's going to be Senate president in 2018 and 2020," Latvala said. "The Senate traditionally has never done that. We want to make sure we have time to see what people are made of before we commit to them.
"Now there are some folks who have come from the House who are trying to have a succession plan. I don't think that's good for the state or for the Senate."
But some Tallahassee insiders said the trend comes as much from term limits as from the movement of House members to the Senate.
"It's because of former House members in part, but it's at least as much term limits themselves," said veteran lobbyist Brian Ballard. "You now only have two terms" - eight years - "to get to be Senate president."
Editor’s note: In an earlier version of this story, statements by state Sen. Jack Latvala were incorrectly attributed to someone else.