The Great Right Hope

Tom Lee's search for acceptance in his own party.

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click to enlarge CFO? Brandon's Tom Lee will try to break the mold in - his statewide campaign for chief financial officer. - Florida Senate
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CFO? Brandon's Tom Lee will try to break the mold in his statewide campaign for chief financial officer.

Tom Lee took to the podium at the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club with an aw-shucks expression worthy of The Andy Griffith Show. He is probably our most unassuming public leader, a quiet maverick who has upset his share of Republican Party faithful and lobbyists, rising from Brandon homebuilder to the presidency of the Florida Senate.That's because Lee, 43, is a bit of a contradiction who often finds himself at odds with GOP orthodoxy. He likes to talk about better financial planning and the tax bill coming due from the class-size amendment and Medicaid, rather than just chant the party mantra of "No New Taxes." He is a homebuilder who wants to reform and tighten growth management. He has insisted on more transparency in government, from lobbyists' disclosures to legislators' political slush funds, while forming his own political committees and charitable foundations that benefit from a flow of lobbyist-raised dollars.

He is a Republican leader who doesn't run to the easy tabloid headlines and 24-hour news channel coverage of a Terri Schiavo fight. Instead, he'd rather battle for his proposal to reform the way legislators plan the state's budget - much duller stuff.

He's a Republican leader who drew laughs in his speech by mocking his party's gubernatorial candidates in a "Top 10 Things That Show You Are Running for Governor" list: No. 10 - "You are more polite than Charlie Crist and Eddie Haskell combined" and No. 2 - "You fantasize about Tom Gallagher losing a front tooth." (In an aside, he compared the current chief financial officer's choppers to a pack of Chiclets.)

So when Tiger Bay's Pam Meador introduced Lee by saying "he may not be the darling of the Republican Party," she wasn't kidding.

The question, then is, can Tom Lee - whose populist stances seem more reflective of Floridians as a whole, who berates lobbyists and even warmly embraces his Democratic counterpart in the Senate - win statewide office?

With his candidacy for Florida's CFO under way (he faces a strong primary field that could include state Sens. Charlie Clary and Randy Johnson), we're going to find out if there is any hope in a party primary for anyone who isn't on the extreme left or right. Lee understands that.

"Partisan politics tend to be fought on the extremes," Lee said after his speech on July 7. But true long-lasting change generally comes from those leaders who are respectful of everyone's views and can work to bring consensus on issues. "It's not ideology" that defines your accomplishments, "it's your view of being a leader" and how you carry out that view, he said.

"On paper, I have a very conservative voting record," Lee said. There is not much mistake about that; he quickly brushed aside a trap question from the Tiger Bay crowd about which taxes he would consider raising in light of his fiscal concerns about class sizes and Medicaid by saying he doesn't think the state will raise taxes. But still, he acknowledged, his biggest battles come from his own party chafing at his independent streak.

Lee drew a pointed comparison to his brand of leadership and that of his former eastern Hillsborough rival, former House Speaker Johnnie Byrd. Lee was asked during Tiger Bay questioning if he would step down as Florida Senate president so as not to take advantage of the position to squeeze lobbyists for contributions for his CFO campaign.

"I watched Johnnie Byrd from the start, watched leadership ruin him," Lee told the crowd of more than 100. "He lost focus because of his personal political ambitions. I won't lose focus on the people."

Lee said he won't step down and will let voters judge him on whether he "walked the walk" of not abusing his position.

"You don't know this about me, but you're going to find out that I'm willing to lose to stand on the principles I believe in," Lee answered.

Now he's starting to sound like a Democrat.

Media Watch Revisited: Two weeks ago, in our Media Watch column, I wrote about the strange case of the St. Petersburg Times and its coverage of Jeffrey Del Fuoco's employment status at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa.After the story went to press, the Times ran a brief, two-line correction to its June 21 article that had asserted - using anonymous sources and without attribution - that the controversial federal prosecutor "was fired." Del Fuoco's attorney subsequently insisted that the Times' scoop was untrue and disturbing for its lack of sources. It took a week for the newspaper to come up with the following explanation for its readers:

"Federal prosecutor Jeffrey Del Fuoco is employed by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa. A story in last Tuesday's Times incorrectly stated his employment status."

Not exactly enlightenment. After my column ran, I heard from several reporters in Tampa Bay, at both the Times and the Tampa Tribune, that we'd been too soft on "Florida's Best Newspaper" for not coming clean with readers and for using anonymous sources.

I also found a column by Times' CEO, Editor and Chairman Paul Tash, who wrote in May that "The recent fiasco at Newsweek reinforces why we almost never publish stories based on the word of anonymous sources in the St. Petersburg Times …."

Tash was talking about the uproar, violence and deaths surrounding Newsweek's since-discredited report that a Koran had been flushed down a toilet at Guantanamo. He wrote, "It's easy to be smug about somebody else's mistake, but that item in Newsweek would not have met our reporting standards at the Times. We want to tell you what we know - and how we know it. If someone is saying something of consequence, you should know who that person is."

Unless that person happens to be whispering to Times reporters about Del Fuoco's employment status.

Last week, I ran into Tash at the above-mentioned Tiger Bay Club meeting, where he had just asked Tom Lee a question about raising taxes. I asked him about the Del Fuoco story in light of his admonition in the Newsweek case. Tash stuck by the decision to run the account, saying, "Our standards are our standards" concerning the use of anonymous sources, and that editors involved in the story's production believed they had met them. He said he was not personally involved in the decision to run the inaccurate Del Fuoco story.

One more interesting aspect in the Del Fuoco case: His attorney, Craig Huffman, has hinted that Del Fuoco could have a lawsuit because of the leaked story. "One other extreme point of concern is that even had the allegation been true, which it is not, then the source of such information would seem to be within the Office of the United States Attorney for the Middle District of Florida," Huffman wrote in an e-mail to the Planet. "Such a release of information would be a clear violation of certain well known and obvious federal statutes and protections, and will be another matter that will be rigorously pursued."

Such a lawsuit under the federal Privacy Act might end up putting the Times reporter, Candace Rondeaux, in the same boat as four journalists caught up in the Wen Ho Lee case. Lee, if you recall, was accused in 1999 news leaks of spying for China in his position at the Department of Energy. He was indicted on 59 charges and cleared of 58 of them, pleading guilty to a minor charge of mishandling classified data.

An appeals court in Washington, D.C., ruled on June 28 that four reporters who wrote about the Lee investigation must reveal confidential sources. The four have been held in contempt of court for refusing to and could be headed to jail just like Judith Miller of the New York Times in the unrelated Valerie Plame case.

Political Whore claims the disclosure trifecta this week: He worked on Tom Lee's 1996 Florida Senate campaign, managed Johnnie Byrd's 2004 U.S. Senate campaign and worked for the Times from 1992-1994. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected] or by telephone at 813-739-4805.

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