LAND O'LAKES — When Steve Donaldson first announced his candidacy for Pasco school superintendent, Frank Roder didn't think he had "a prayer's chance" of defeating incumbent Heather Fiorentino.
"The woman has been involved in Pasco County politics for years and years," Roder, a longtime United School Employees of Pasco vice president, said of Fiorentino, adding that she has done "a lot of positive stuff" for the district.
Roder's view of the challenger's chances shifted after visiting the homes of organized labor members for Donaldson over the weekend.
"I was amazed at how many people knew the superintendent's race was going on and who knew Steve Donaldson's name," Roder said. "I guess he's getting his message out there. … I think it's going to be closer than anyone ever anticipated."
Fiorentino's supporters, who have been out walking high-vote precincts, aren't taking Donaldson's upstart campaign lightly. A fifth-year teacher who's never run for public office before, Donaldson might not have the same name recognition as Fiorentino, but he has some other things on his side.
He's a Democrat in a year when Democrats are surging, even though in Pasco they still lag about 5,600 registered voters behind the Republicans. He's a retired military man in a community filled with veterans. And he's got the backing of the single-largest workers' union in the county.
About 4,300 teachers and support staff belong to the USEP, up from about 2,000 a decade ago. About 60 percent of teachers are members, along with about 40 percent of support personnel.
Former superintendent John Long used to call the USEP the district's political "sleeping giant," noted Steve Van Gorden, a Dade City council member and Hudson Middle principal who's backing Fiorentino.
"It's just a matter of motivating your base voters to come out," Van Gorden said, adding that the GOP is working all its usual angles to get people to the polls. "I think in this election cycle, anything is possible."
The USEP is trying to make inroads with what it sees as its traditional base by reaching out to union members of all types in Pasco County. Armed with a list from the AFL-CIO, about 25 teams of activists visited about 900 homes of current and retired labor members.
They handed out Donaldson literature and explained why, in their view, he would better serve the district.
"We were just talking union member to union member," USEP president Lynne Webb said. "The response was overwhelmingly positive."
So much so that it has energized Webb to consider the real possibility that Fiorentino might fall.
"If the school employees get out the vote, I think he can win," she said, predicting a cliffhanger. "The school employees are going to be critical to this race."
Of course, not all employees back Donaldson. Fiorentino has received her share of support from the rank and file, too, as well as from much of the top administration.
Van Gorden and Paul R. Smith Middle principal Chris Dunning both have campaigned on Fiorentino's behalf. They said that while the race could be tight, they see Fiorentino coming out on top.
"People see we're an A district. People are very happy with their schools," Dunning explained. "The one area that brings up concern is people who vote the party line without thinking about the best person. That currently is the only concern."
Retired superintendent Tom Weightman, who also served six years as head of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, said having an elected superintendent in a district the size of Pasco is rife with problems.
The incumbent gets a built-in advantage of being in the public eye, he said, but that person also must make decisions that might help the district but anger employees, parents or others in the community. If the workers get upset, they can turn to the passions of other unions and get the word out.
The challenger might then make promises or commitments to the union that he or she cannot keep once faced with the reality of the job, Weightman continued. That simply might set the cycle off again.
"The teachers union definitely can have an impact," said Weightman, who has endorsed Fiorentino. "I just don't know how big an impact that can be."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.