NEW PORT RICHEY — Two political upheavals marked 2013 — Mike Fasano's resignation from the state House and Pasco County Administrator John Gallagher's retirement.
In June, Gallagher's assistant and protege, Michele Baker, took over. She emerged from Gallagher's lengthy shadow only after a bruising selection process that saw the commission's top choice decline the offer to stay put in Irving, Texas. Baker, 52, got the job after a 4-1 vote. Commissioner Henry Wilson voted no, preferring to start the candidate search all over.
Gallagher, who left in late May after 31 years, tapped Baker in 2007 to be his chief assistant. She developed and oversaw cost-cutting moves amid declining revenues and worked with staff and the public to overhaul the county's land development rules. She also collaborated with the Urban Land Institute on its economic and quality-of-life study of Pasco.
Her strong resume was one reason she got the job after Gallagher retired as the longest-serving county administrator in Florida. Gallagher, 66, said he hasn't looked back, preferring Baker to be her own person.
"She's very capable, very knowledgeable," he said.
These days, he's into fishing — he has two boats — mostly to take in the surroundings, he says. And he exercises daily at a local gym. He said he's lost 45 pounds over the past seven months and has about 30 to go.
"It's amazing what exercise can do for you — when you have the time and the energy," he said.
Baker, meanwhile, is constantly pressed for time. Her day starts before she leaves the house, checking email. Then it's back-to-back meetings. At 5, she turns her attention to "signature items" at her desk. After dinner with family, she spends several hours reading reports.
She sees her job as running the government and its $1.2 billion annual budget while carrying forward the commission's vision.
Lately that vision has included projects near to Baker's heart, such as the recent collaborative venture between the county, School Board and a private developer to build a park, athletic fields, a library and a small theater for community use.
"I think Michele is continuing a lot of the good programs we have in Pasco while getting her staff up and running," Commission Chairman Jack Mariano said. "And from what I've seen from talking to people who do business with the county, the staff is much more agreeable to finding solutions and getting projects completed."
Fasano, one of Tampa Bay's most popular political figures, spent 20 years in the state Senate and House before resigning to become Pasco's tax collector. He replaced Mike Olsen, who died in June.
Democrat Amanda Murphy won Fasano's House seat in a special election in October, defeating better-funded Republican candidate Bill Gunter. In the process, Murphy ended Republicans' longtime hold on District 36.
If the fight to replace Gallagher was bruising, this one was a brawl. Vowing to stay neutral, Fasano, a Republican, ended up endorsing Murphy following what he called unfair attack ads.
The campaign's lessons?
Pasco Democratic Party chairman Lynn Lindeman said it revealed two things: A funding advantage, even a huge one, as in this case, is no guarantee of victory and in District 36, voters will cross party lines for a candidate they can relate to.
Fasano agreed, as did Republican Party chairman Jim Mathieu, who added that the electorate was informed on issues and felt "not so much that Murphy was the solution, but that Gunter was not the solution."
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.