A 10-year Tallahassee veteran and a political newcomer will head to the state capital in January to represent eastern Hillsborough County, seeking new job opportunities for constituents and business opportunities for their region.
Republican Tom Lee won election Nov. 6 to represent District 24 in the state Senate; fellow Republican Ross Spano was elected to represent state House District 59.
The former Senate president says he'll be taking along a to-do list that includes strengthening the state's economy, bolstering ethics in the Legislature and helping the state's higher education system align curriculum and job opportunities.
Lee defeated Democrat and political newcomer Elizabeth Belcher and is returning to the Senate after a six-year hiatus. He replaces outgoing Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, who made an unsuccessful bid to become Hillsborough County's new property appraiser.
His "under the radar" work will be to change election rules that allow candidates to pull out of a race at the last minute, allowing the party and former candidates to name their replacements.
Lee, who served in the Legislature from 1996 to 2006, defeated State Rep. Rachel Burgin in the Republican primary to get to the general election. She won her seat as state representative after former State Rep. Trey Traviesa pulled out of the race late in 2008 and the Republican party named her as a candidate.
The economic issues come first, though, Lee said.
"For the people in this community … I'm going to want to work with the Senate leadership and the governor to try to strengthen our economic development agenda," he said. "There are a lot of strategic opportunities for our state to attract business here — everything from the traditional corporate relocations to eco- and sports tourism opportunities — just to try to grow the economy in the state of Florida."
Lee said he is eager to continue his work on ethics reform.
"Seems to me like there are some opportunities to strengthen financial disclosure and deal with the proliferation of committees of continuous existence," he said.
"These political accounts are being used by members of the Legislature to advance political agendas outside their candidacy. There have been a lot of stories about questionable use of these resources for personal expenses and unjustifiable travel."
He also said he is interested in trying to improve the effectiveness of the state's university system by aligning curriculum with job opportunities in Florida.
The greater Brandon community has high hopes for Lee's leadership.
"His track record has been proven in his service previously," said Laura Simpson, vice president of business and community development for the Greater Brandon Chamber of Commerce. "He considers his constituents when he's making decisions."
She expects Lee to continue his work on growth management issues that affect local communities.
Terry Flott, a community activist and head of United Citizens Action Network – Hillsborough County, said she, too, hopes Lee steps up on growth-management issues.
"It seems that money is always available if you have a legislator that really goes to bat for the community," Flott said. "I hope he will take on some of the environmental issues, as well."
For Flott, one concern is that Lee is a housing developer.
"We can't do away with good building codes, and if growth is rampant without quality of life being addressed, it's not going to bring jobs here," Flott said.
"The last couple of (legislative) cycles, the development industry has come in and tried to eviscerate all of our community plans," Flott said.
Flott said she hopes Lee will help firm up legislation in Tallahassee to provide better oversight on local growth issues. The community plans were written by citizens and county staff as blueprints for future growth, but are only being used as a guide. They are not part of the county's land-use code.
"I would be very cautious about eliminating any state oversight," Lee said. "I really don't support duplication. I don't support excessive regulation, but if the theory is that the state shouldn't consider regional consequences, it's pennywise and pound foolish.
"Growing up in Brandon and watching us blossom from 25,000 to 150,000 and watching gridlock and quality of life deteriorate along the way … I have lived the need for us to make adequate provisions for infrastructure improvements as our community grows."
The local charitable community will benefit from having Lee in the Senate, said Ann Nymark, former president of the Brandon Foundation, a nonprofit group that helps families and individuals in distress.
"He has his finger on the pulse of everything that is going on in our community," she said.
"We're all struggling, and I think Tom has a heart for not-for-profits. There are ways government can help out."
Spano, who will be the new kid on the block, said he is already busy getting his office lined up in Tallahassee and has hired John Rees to act as his legislative aide. Because Rees has worked for several years in Tallahassee, Spano said he feels confident he will help him navigate the system in the early going.
Like Lee, Spano said he hopes to work with education officials and businesses to help align curriculum with jobs and not just for students heading to college. He wants the state to bolster its vocational programs to give more students an opportunity to get a good job, with proper training.
Spano said he will work over the next few months to meet with members of the business community, including the Greater Brandon Chamber of Commerce, to set other priorities, as well.
"Another concern I have is making sure I get up to speed on the health care issues we've got coming up this year, including Medicare and Medicaid issues and how the national health care law will impact the state," Spano said. "How we are going to be able to make the two systems mesh?
Then there's job creation.
"We are going to see what we can do to further create an environment where people can get off the sidelines and back in the job game," Spano said. "We can't wait any longer."