NEW PORT RICHEY — He's one of Pasco's best-known Republicans, someone who worked his way up as an ambitious party volunteer knocking on doors to a high-ranking state senator wielding his power to bring home money for roads and a hurricane shelter that bears his name.
But now, local Republicans are trying to exile state senator Mike Fasano from the party.
The New Port Richey Republican's offense? Remaining a loyal supporter of Gov. Charlie Crist despite the Senate hopeful's switch to independent.
The five-member executive board of the Pasco Republican Executive Committee filed a grievance against Fasano with the state party this week, saying Fasano had violated the party's loyalty oath by supporting a non-Republican candidate.
"The senator continued to support publicly Charlie Crist for his senate run," said Pasco GOP chairman Randy Maggard, hours before he announced the decision Thursday to about 100 general members. "He broke every rule there is. We thought it was wrong. … If you're not a Republican, you don't need to be in the party. … I don't call it infighting. I call it cleaning house."
On Thursday night, Maggard said he was putting "RINOs" — Republicans In Name Only — on alert. "We will not put up with it in Pasco County," he said, to applause. "We're going to weed them out."
Fasano was floored when he heard about the grievance Thursday afternoon, saying Maggard and state committeeman Bill Bunting were heavy-handed and misguided.
"I'll match my Republican credentials with Bill Bunting and any of his followers," he said. "I was volunteering for Republican causes while Bill Bunting was still a Democrat.
"The bottom line is I'm going to support any candidate I believe will do the best job for the constituents. The day we roll over for people like Bill Bunting and Randy Maggard is the day democracy comes to a standstill in this county."
Bunting, reached by telephone, said Fasano's comment was sour grapes.
"He said that because I beat him at everything he does," Bunting said, referring to past party disputes.
Bunting said he was a Democrat while living in New York, then became a Republican during the Reagan administration.
A spokeswoman for the state GOP confirmed Thursday that the party headquarters had received a copy of the grievance but said officials were still reviewing the details and had taken no action.
But Maggard said a state party official told him that Fasano had "resigned" from both the state party executive committee and the Pasco executive committee, a move that would effectively deprive Fasano from voting at any of the meetings.
When Maggard made that announcement to the membership, people gasped before applauding.
But there's a problem with that: Fasano said he didn't resign. "What does that even mean?" he said.
Fasano said what he did was tell Senate President Jeff Atwater that he didn't have the time to attend the quarterly meetings of the state executive committee because of his work on Crist's campaign, House candidate Richard Corcoran's campaign and his general fundraising work for the party.
He said he asked the party to replace him just through the election.
Fasano, along with Republican state Reps. Will Weatherford and John Legg, spent Thursday afternoon talking to a local civic group about state issues ranging from state employment benefits to double-dipping to raids on the transportation fund.
After that meeting, when a reporter told Fasano about the grievance and the statement that he had apparently resigned from the state party, the state senator shared the news with Weatherford and Legg as they passed by. The two representatives shook their heads and rolled their eyes.
A history of conflict
Pasco Republicans have long had rifts among some of their better-known names. Fasano and Bunting, for instance, have never made it secret that they are not pals.
Fasano rarely attends the Pasco GOP functions, including the biggest one earlier this month when former Gov. Jeb Bush and Crist's Republican rival, Marco Rubio, made their first joint campaign appearance.
The county party was the first in the state to hold a straw poll between Crist and Rubio. Rubio won hands down.
Fasano said the local GOP was just a small representation of the county's Republicans, and he noted that Bunting has taken heat in the past for endorsing candidates in nonpartisan races.
"I wish they'd focus in on Democrats instead of eating their own!" he snapped.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at [email protected] (727) 869-6247.