LAND O'LAKES — Just seven weeks after announcing his candidacy, Kurt Browning is proving a formidable foe for Pasco schools superintendent Heather Fiorentino in one of the county's most-watched races.
The former elections supervisor raised almost three times as much money in campaign contributions as the two-term incumbent in the first quarter of the year. He also claimed some of her past supporters along the way.
"It boils down to leadership," said Browning, who collected $48,707 in his first round of campaign events. "My approach and my style are collaborative. I am not afraid of other peoples' ideas. That sums it up."
Fiorentino, who brought in $17,349, said she wasn't concerned about the challenge. She's seen tougher, she said, noting that she squeaked out a win in 2004 against Chuck Rushe even though he outraised her by $40,000 and had outgoing superintendent John Long in his corner.
Being superintendent has required some tough decisions over the years, she added, and that hasn't made everyone happy. So it's not surprising that some past supporters with vested interests, such as developers seeking lower impact fees, might turn to her competitor, she suggested.
"I'm going to stand on the record that this staff has done for children," Fiorentino said, citing improved graduation and lower dropout rates among the highlights of her tenure.
Browning acknowledged that campaign contributions don't win elections.
"But we've got to be able to get our message out," he said. "That takes money and people."
The people appear to be flocking to his campaign.
They include former School Board members Pam Coulter, Kathleen Wolf, Jean Weightman, Marge Whaley and Kathryn Starkey; Realtor F.I. Grey and Sons; funeral director Merl Faupel; and Center for Independence executive director Emile Laurino.
New Port Richey lawyer Jeff Lucas, who actively supported Fiorentino in 2004 and 2008, was among those to break with her this time around. Others who backed Fiorentino in the past and contributed to Browning this year include developers Dewey Mitchell and Deeb Family Homes.
"I'm very involved in Dayspring Academy," Lucas explained. "Dealing with her administration on the charter school, they're just very incompetent and difficult to deal with. It's been a problem."
Unlike her first superintendent campaign, when Fiorentino ran as a retiring state lawmaker with support from the political elite, this time her primary backing comes heavily from within the school district.
More than half of her 151 listed contributions came from school and district level administrators.
Leadership development director John Mann gave the largest contribution among district staffers, at $300.
"I'm very supportive of the superintendent," Mann said.
Fiorentino also received donations from former School Board member Frank Parker, West Pasco Republican Club leader Henry McAlarney and New Port Richey lawyer Sallie Skipper.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.