Friday, April 20, 2018
News Roundup

Bowen: Token opposition doesn't halt Mariano dash for cash

Eight years ago, Commissioner Ted Schrader emerged victorious from a hard-fought Republican primary in a year when no Democrat ran. The November ballot, however, still listed space for a write-in candidate.

Between the primary and the November election, Schrader raised a grand total of $280 for his campaign, including $30 in interest from the credit union handling the account. He still received 96 percent of the vote.

Four years later, now-superintendent of schools Kurt Browning faced the same scenario. He had defeated two-term incumbent Heather Fiorentino in the August primary, but still faced write-in candidate Kathy Lambert of Dade City in November. Browning raised just $758 after the primary from two contributions and a refund from a media outlet.

"I did no phone calling, I didn't go door to door. I didn't do any mailings. None of it,'' Browning said.

It didn't matter. He still collected 97 percent of the November vote.

In 2016, Commissioner Jack Mariano has a different tactic. He won his party's Aug. 30 primary with 52 percent of the vote. He faces no Democratic opposition. And the November ballot includes a blank space for a write-in candidate, Bruce Hall, who has said he only joined the race over the summer to block Democrats and non-party voters from participating in the Republican primary. Hall has done no fundraising or campaigning.

Mariano's re-election to a fourth term is such a foregone conclusion that his race was not included on an Oct. 18 telephone poll of Pasco County races conducted by the Republican Party of Florida.

But, unlike Schrader and Browning in past years, Mariano's campaign account is open for business. Since Aug. 30, he has accepted more than $16,000 in contributions, much of it from companies with interests pending before county government. He still had $20,000 on hand, according to his most recent campaign statement, after spending more than $4,400 on promotional work and consulting in early October.

"I'm not asking. The checks are just coming. I'm not looking for anything,'' said Mariano.

He said the unspent money would be donated to charity.

Coincidentally, some of the same contributors also are sending checks to the campaign account of Mariano's daughter, Amber, who is running for the state House District 36 seat held by Rep. Amanda Murphy, D-New Port Richey.

The largest contributions to both Mariano campaigns came from Metro Development Group and its affiliated companies, which are seeking county permission to develop the 7,800-acre connected city corridor in Wesley Chapel and east Pasco.

Metro and its affiliates bundled $3,000 to Amber Mariano on Oct. 3, making them the top donors to the campaign of the 21-year-old political science student at the University of Central Florida.

Combined, the contributions represent nearly 10 percent of Amber Mariano's fundraising through mid October, even though Metro Development has no projects in District 36.

"We are proud to offer our support to both Commissioner Mariano and Amber Mariano in their efforts to help Pasco County continue to grow and prosper,'' Metro said in a statement released to the Times.

Metro is developing Union Park in Wesley Chapel, and Epperson Ranch South, Epco Ranch North, Ashley Groves and Mirada within the proposed connected city corridor — intended to be the nation's first gigabit community built from the group up. It still requires final approval from the Pasco commission, and public hearings are scheduled for December and January.

A day before the companies donated to Amber Mariano, they bundled $5,000 to her father's re-election campaign.

"I am flabbergasted,'' said Michael Ledbetter, chairman of the Pasco Democratic Executive Committee. "I guess the nicest thing I can say is why would I expect anything different from Jack?''

Ledbetter and his wife, Beverly, contributed to Murphy's campaign and also objected to the connected city corridor during Metro's initial neighborhood meetings in Wesley Chapel.

During the primary campaigns, Metro and its related companies bundled $5,000 each to Mariano, commission Chairman Kathryn Starkey in District 3 and District 1 candidates Ron Oakley and Debbie Wells. Starkey also received $5,000 bundled from Metro after the primary. Unlike Mariano, however, she faces a legitimate general election opponent — Democrat Barry Horvath.

"(Mariano) represents the common sense side of county government,'' said Allan Schwartz, president of the River Crossing Homeowners Association in west Pasco, who contributed to Commissioner Mariano after the primary.

In a September interview, Amber Mariano addressed the idea that contributions to her father's campaign would somehow make it to her race.

"Well, that's illegal,'' she said. "It's not going to happen. We like to play by the (rule) books.''

Valid point. Raising substantial campaign contributions while facing only a write-in candidate is not illegal.

But, it certainly can be construed as something else.

"It may be a little disingenuous,'' said Browning, the former Florida secretary of state and Pasco supervisor of elections, "but people do it all the time.''

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