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GOP primary for Pasco school superintendent closed by write-in candidacy

LAND O'LAKES — Pasco County Democrats and independent voters won't get a say in the district's hotly contested race for school superintendent after all.

Former county Commissioner Ed Collins announced his write-in candidacy for the post on Monday, limiting the Aug. 14 primary to Republicans only.

No other party has yet put forth a candidate.

"I'm a firm believer that Republican primaries should be reserved for Republican voters," said Collins, who served as vice chairman of the county Republican Executive Committee in the late 1980s.

He rejected any thought that his action does a disservice to voters who aren't in the party.

"They were deprived by . . . the Democratic Executive Committee of Pasco County," he said. "They conceded the election to Republicans by not fielding a candidate."

Some early polling conducted by county political leaders suggest that Collins' move could hurt incumbent superintendent Heather Fiorentino more than her opponents.

Those polls show Fiorentino lagging behind challenger Kurt Browning, the county's former longtime election supervisor, by double digits among most likely Republican primary voters.

A third candidate, Moon Lake construction worker Ken Benson, barely registered attention in the battle with the other two political heavyweights.

Fiorentino tried to sound a positive note in the face of the latest twist in her bid for a third term.

"A race is a race," she said. "I always run each race like I'm 20 points behind, and I work very hard to get the votes I receive."

She stressed the district's strong performance on academic indicators, such as this year's FCAT testing and graduation rate, as evidence of her worthiness for re-election.

"I have a proven record to stand on," Fiorentino said. "My concern is with all the people running, I'm the only person with an educational background. It worries me for the system."

Browning said closing the primary would not change his strategy. He intended to continue running as someone with a strong leadership record, and the desire to restore what he considered the district's lost luster.

He has been critical of employee morale and middle-of-the-road academic outcomes as compared to the rest of the state.

"I believe I am the one that can provide the leadership to get the district back on track," said Browning, who resigned as Florida secretary of state this past spring.

He predicted that many Democrats will change their party registration before the July 16 deadline in order to participate in the primary.

Benson, a political newcomer, said the closed primary would not affect his long shot effort to upend the more established county leaders.

"I'm going to have our signs infiltrate this county," he said. "My whole basis is to put prayer back in school, and to run it honestly."

Each of the candidates and their key backers said they had nothing to do with bringing Collins into the race. Collins confirmed that his sole motivation was to close the primary. Earlier this spring, Republican leaders and the candidates said they did not plan to seek a write-in candidate for this purpose.

Collins called both Browning and Fiorentino "qualified people" whom he has known for years. He figured that whichever one wins the Republican primary will become the superintendent.

"After the primary, that race is over," Collins said.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. Visit the Gradebook at tamapabay.com/blogs/gradebook for more education news.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: The Republican primary is Aug. 14. The original version of this article gave an incorrect date.

GOP primary for Pasco school superintendent closed by write-in candidacy 06/05/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 6, 2012 4:00pm]

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