Jim Norman is now clear with the law. But how 'bout with the voters?

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For local Democrats, it looked another case of the party being overwhelmed by their GOP brethren.

Chris Mitchell took over the helm of the Hillsborough Democratic Party last fall, in the wake of the Republican tsunami that included former two Tampa City Council Democrats losing their bids to graduate onto the County Commission (John Dingfelder and Linda Saul-Sena). He says the party will look for a viable candidate against Norman, but a lot depends on how Senate District 12 will be re-drawn by Norman's GOP colleagues.

Pasco County resident Alison Burke Morano is vice-chair of the state party, and former the chair of the Pasco Democrats. She says that the district actually has more Democrats registered in it than Republicans, but says that until the new map for the district is released, it's impossible to gauge how a Democrat will fare there. "It's a pretty moderate area," she maintains.

Census figures from 2000 show slightly more Democrats than Republicans in the district, and Morano said she has seen similar updated numbers from 2010 voter files.

Currently, SD-12 contains more of Pasco County than Hillsborough, and Mitchell said he will undoubtedly work with Pasco Chair Democratic Chair Ron Rice on finding an appropriate candidate.

"When we know we have a very good idea what that map is going to look like, then we can move forward," Mitchell said. Like Morano and all state Democrats, he's critical about the fact that there are not even any preliminary maps of proposed changes to every one of Florida's congressional and legislative districts.

Of course, this story is written under the assumption that Norman will be the nominee in 2012, but perhaps he might find a challenger within his own party ranks? He will be vulnerable either way, and not just because of his gift he received from Ralph Hughes (Hughes' son Shea testified earlier this year that the $500,000 "gift" to Mearline Norman was a loan).

Presumably an issue could also be made of his long time service to the Salvation Army, service that paid him a very healthy $95,000 annual salary at the same time he was working full-time with the County Commission.

In any case, it still looks like an uphill battle for Democrats. While the national party was knocking out Republicans in Congressional seats all across the country in 2006 and 2008, in Florida statewide elections, the GOP held their ground. And then 2010 happened.

With the economy and the uncertainty of the GOP's national ticket right now, it would be silly to state what the trend will be next year. So until otherwise noted, Jim Norman, for all his baggage, is probably still the guy to beat in 2012 in SD-12.

The U.S. Attorney for the Middle section of Florida, Robert O'Neill, announced Monday afternoon that after a year long investigation, his office would not pursue charges that state Senator Jim Norman violated criminal laws.

Norman was under investigation after media reports surfaced in the summer of 2010 revealing that he never listed an Arkansas vacation home that was purchased in the name of his wife, Mearline, in 2006 on his financial disclosure forms. The home, it was discovered, was purchased for half a million dollars, all courtesy of former GOP Hillsborough county power broker Ralph Hughes, who passed away in 2008.

Hughes was a campaign contributor to Norman and nearly every other Republican on the board for years.

Even after his exoneration, Norman is maintaining radio silence on the issue, declining to go on the record with either of the two Tampa dailies who wrote about O'Neill's announcement on Monday, the Tampa Tribune and the St. Pete Times.

But if Norman is no longer under the cloud of possible prison time, he still faces an investigation by the state Commission on Ethics, an investigation that began after a complaint from occasional CL contributor George Niemann.

But perhaps more importantly, the question becomes, what do voters think? Norman's toughest competition in the conservative leaning senate district last year was in his own primary, which took place just a month after the scandal broke. But Norman easily defeated then-state Representative Kevin Ambler.

And the Democrats? They couldn't even muster up a live body to oppose the ethically challenged former Hillsborough County Commissioner (Norman ended up soundly defeating two write-in candidates).

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