SPRING HILL — Before congressional candidate Jim Piccillo took the microphone to address the D Club of Timber Pines last week, the Democratic group wanted to welcome a new member.
Club president Mickey Mandel pointed to the front row of seats in the over-55 community's performing arts center, where Maureen Hanson stood up and waved.
Hanson was once a Republican, a beaming Mandel said.
"They tell me she converted during the Bush administration, so that especially deserves a hand," Mandel said.
A few moments later, Piccillo, the Land O'Lakes Democrat running for the 5th District seat currently held by Republican Ginny Brown-Waite, offered his stump speech. The 36-year-old small-business consultant talked about his service in the Army's 101st Airborne Division and his experience as a financial auditor. He pitched his plan to bring clean-energy jobs to the district. And he criticized his Republican opponent, Hernando Sheriff Richard Nugent, for his now infamous collusion with Brown-Waite, who quietly asked Nugent to run in her place before bowing out of the race because of health reasons.
Piccillo (pronounced Pi-CHILL-o) did not mention what he had in common with Hanson: He also converted from Republican to Democrat during the Bush years.
Not that it's a secret. The father of two entered the spotlight in October 2008 after being featured prominently in a New York Times article for his shift from registered Republican to Obama volunteer.
Now Piccillo is locked in a battle with Nugent, a 59-year-old Spring Hill resident and victor in a hard-fought — but ultimately easily won — Republican primary race against tea party darling Jason Sager. Piccillo is preaching post-partisan pragmatism, fiscal restraint and job creation in reaching for an unlikely victory in a sprawling district tailored for the GOP.
"I look at (issues) from a potential solutions standpoint rather than a Republican/Democrat standpoint," Piccillo, who faced no opposition in the primary, told the St. Petersburg Times last week. "It's unfortunate that you have the far left right now and the far right driving that wedge in between common sense."
A native of Buffalo, N.Y., Piccillo joined the Army at age 22, served for six years and then earned his master's in business administration from Canisius College. He moved to Florida in 2003 and lost his job as a financial auditor with HSBC Bank in 2008 after the business moved its consumer lending division overseas. He is now a consultant for a handful of small businesses, but says he spends most of his time campaigning in a district that spans from Levy County to Polk County.
Piccillo says he decided to switch parties after watching the national conventions in 2008, when he saw that one party was "focused on moving the country forward and the other one was focused on, 'Don't vote for that guy.' " He entered the congressional race in April 2009.
"I've always been moderate," he said. "My views didn't change; my belief in the political party did."
Piccillo has not held back criticism of some of Obama's policies, however, and he and Nugent share similar stances on several issues.
Neither man supports amnesty for illegal immigrants or the cap-and-trade emissions control policy. Both support the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Nugent says he may favor some limited additional financial regulation. Piccillo goes further by saying he doesn't see a need for any more restrictions, just more support for small businesses in the form of capital and credit.
Piccillo supports making permanent the tax cuts for households earning up to $250,000 annually, but also believes the cuts for the wealthier should be extended for a few more years. He said that Congress should come up with incentives to encourage investment of those extra dollars in clean-energy research and manufacturing, and he would work to bring those jobs to the district.
Nugent pans the recently passed health care reform bill. Piccillo, who supports a single-payer plan, doesn't like it much, either. Too much expense and government intervention, he says. But he would have reluctantly voted for the measure to get results like closing the Medicare benefit "doughnut hole" and outlawing denial of insurance to those with pre-existing conditions.
Piccillo has already been aggressive in trying to rebuff Nugent's efforts to paint him as a would-be party lackey.
Two weeks before Nugent won the primary, his campaign mailed a fundraising letter calling Piccillo the "hand-picked candidate" of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Piccillo fired off a news release, calling Nugent a "flat-out liar." Piccillo said he has never met Pelosi and would vote to replace her.
"(Piccillo) has also spoken out relentlessly, much to the chagrin of local Democrats, against the Obama/Pelosi reckless and wasteful spending," Piccillo's release said.
"All I can say is he is a Democrat and particularly one who strongly supported Obama in his election, and (the party) decided not to put up any opposition to him," Nugent said last week. "Draw any conclusion you want from that."
After Piccillo's speech at Timber Pines, Hanson, the new member and Republican-turned-Democrat, said she was impressed.
"A lot of the things he said, it's the way I think," Hanson said.
Gene Ehrich, founder and past president of the Wellington Democrats in Spring Hill, called Piccillo the party's best hope since Brown-Waite took the seat from Democrat Karen Thurman in 2002. But Spring Hill resident Glenn Claytor, who ran unsuccessfully for a state House seat in 2006, admits some squeamishness.
"Some part of me still squirms a little that we can't come up with a candidate with a longer history with Democratic policies," Claytor said.
But D Club vice president John Severs said the time has come for candidates with a middle-of-the-road stance.
"I think we could use a little moderation if we want to get anything done," Severs said.
Tony Marrero can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1431.