TAMPA — State Sen. Tom Lee confirmed Wednesday he’s being vetted by Gov. Rick Scott’s office as a possible lieutenant governor and Scott’s running mate in the 2014 governor’s race.
Lee, a Brandon Republican, said he’s still not certain he’ll accept the post if Scott offers it, citing personal and professional reasons.
“I do consider it a great honor,” Lee said, “and I do admire the governor and what he’s accomplished politically in our state.”
Lee said he hasn’t discussed any other candidates for the appointment with the governor’s office, but said, “There’s enough information swirling around” to confirm that another finalist on the short list for appointment is Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman, a former state House member from Tampa.
Murman couldn’t be reached for comment.
A third candidate, Joseph Joyner, school superintendent in St. Johns County, has confirmed to a newspaper that he’s also on the list.
One source with close ties to the governor’s office told the Tribune Lee is the top candidate on the list of four individuals, which also includes Seminole County Sheriff Don Eslinger.
Lee said his uncertainty about taking the job is partly because of his own career — he runs his family’s homebuilding company, Sabal Homes — and partly because of his wife’s. Laurel Moore Lee was appointed a Hillsborough County circuit judge by Scott in May, and the couple have a 15-month-old child. Lee has two other children by a former marriage.
Taking the job, he said, likely would separate the family.
He said he wouldn’t want his wife to leave her judgeship, but that he’d want to be in Tallahassee to serve as lieutenant governor.
“If you want to be a full partner to the governor, you have to be present and available.”
On the other hand, Lee said, there’s a reason to take the job, too. “The opportunity to be by the governor’s side is a very compelling honor. I don’t think there’s one election in America in 2014 that’s as important as this governor’s race.”
Partly because the occupant of the governor’s mansion will influence Florida’s presidential vote in 2016, “I think this campaign is going to be under a microscope like none other in America,” he said.
Lee and Murman would provide an electoral advantage to Scott in his 2014 re-election campaign — a foothold in an important swing county that’s part of the home turf of Scott’s likely Democratic opponent, former Gov. Charlie Crist.
Murman could help overcome the disadvantage Republicans often face among women voters, while Lee’s more recent and higher-level state government experience could be an asset.
Lee also would be giving up a possible second stint as state Senate president, but would gain statewide exposure that could help him toward higher office later.
Lee served in the state Senate from 1996-2006, and as Senate president his last two years. He lost the 2006 race for state chief financial officer, then returned to the Senate in 2012.
For a future term as Senate president, he could be competing with a group of Senate conservatives pushing for two other Tampa area senators — Wilton Simpson of Dade City and Bill Galvano of Bradenton — to assume the post in succession late in this decade.
Under Florida’s governing structure, a Senate president has, in effect, a veto over Senate legislation during his two-year tenure and is likely to wield more power over state affairs than a lieutenant governor. The lieutenant governor has no duties or authority specified in law except to take over if the governor is incapacitated, though he may be assigned to important tasks by the governor.
The Senate presidency is “just another unknown,” Lee said. “Those options are way out in the future – who knows what circumstances are going to unfold.
“They’re different jobs with a different shelf life. There’s no question in my mind that for the time you’re Senate president it’s a very influential position.”
The lieutenant governor’s role, he said, “is the decision of the governor and his chief of staff.”
Lee said he wouldn’t take the job as a springboard to future office.
“I’ve always tried to live my political life one day at a time and one decision at a time,” he said. “If those opportunities present themselves, then you can contemplate whether you’re in a place where you can take advantage of them.”
The lieutenant governor’s office has been vacant since March, when Scott’s previous choice for the job, former state Rep. Jennifer Carroll of Jacksonville, resigned shortly after being questioned by investigators about her links to a non-profit organization suspected of fraud and illegal gambling.
Since then, Lee said, the governor’s office “has looked at every (Republican) member of the Legislature, local constitutional officers, mayors, county commissioners and even some business leaders” as potential candidates.
“They’re taking a good long while to do it and they want to get it right.”