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Fasano showed golden touch in House District 45 race

State Sen. Mike Fasano, left, is a friend and strong supporter of Richard Corcoran, who won the Republican primary for state House District 45 on Tuesday. Fasano also supports Charlie Crist.

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times

State Sen. Mike Fasano, left, is a friend and strong supporter of Richard Corcoran, who won the Republican primary for state House District 45 on Tuesday. Fasano also supports Charlie Crist.

One volunteer for Richard Corcoran's state House campaign knocked on doors, left phone messages, dashed off notes to retirees. He pressed for money, he pressed for votes. He stood in the rain with signs and waved.

And last Tuesday night, that Corcoran volunteer — state Sen. Mike Fasano — could barely stand it before the votes started rolling in.

"I've worked hard on campaigns, never to this extent," said Fasano, a New Port Richey Republican. "I was just as anxious on Tuesday as I was on some of my own campaign nights."

Often considered a kingmaker in Pasco's Republican circles, Fasano, 52, is nearing a crossroads in his decades-old political career, thanks to term limits (he's up in 2012) and his unwavering — and politically risky — support of newly independent Gov. Charlie Crist's bid for the U.S. Senate.

Fasano, who has become persona non grata to the Pasco Republican Executive Committee over his support of Crist, resigned earlier this month from the group, which he first joined at the age of 22. He portrayed his departure as no big deal, but his critics cited it as evidence of his diminishing influence.

"Fasano's on his way out," said Pasco state committeeman Bill Bunting.

But last Tuesday, Fasano's familiar political muscle — the same one that helped elevate Sheriff Bob White and school superintendent Heather Fiorentino and others into power — was back on display in the House District 45 race.

Corcoran, a longtime Fasano friend previously little known beyond Republican politico circles, pulled off a surprising victory over popular School Board member Kathryn Starkey, who married into a pioneer ranching family so prominent that a park and road bear its name.

He took 45 percent of Pasco votes and nearly 40 percent of Pinellas votes, beating Starkey and a third Republican, Clearwater businessman Fabian Calvo, in both counties. House District 45 covers parts of north Pinellas and southwest Pasco counties.

"There were a lot of people that didn't give Richard any chance of winning or even coming close when he first announced a year and a half ago," said Fasano. "He not only won on Tuesday night, he won with a great mandate. I don't mind saying 'a landslide.' "

Helping an old friend

After the fact, plenty of explanations helped account for Starkey's loss:

Starkey was outspent $220,500 to $134,000. She was a moderate Republican running in a say-no-to-the-moderates moment. She had never run in a competitive political race. She got no backup from an outside group until late in the game.

But it's hard to ignore the role of Fasano, a state senator who's earned a reputation as the go-to-legislator for constituents who have problems with everything from their medical bills to their water quality.

"Mike campaigned pretty hard for Richard, as did the sheriff," said County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand, who supported Starkey. "You have our state senator, who is excellent at constituent service, works very, very hard … Mike and I both recognize longtime friendships and longtime loyalties."

Indeed, Fasano made the House District 45 race a priority because Corcoran was not simply a useful political ally. He's an old friend whose family provided a sort of second home for a young — and, then, struggling — Fasano.

Fasano helped Corcoran pick out his wife's engagement ring, an anecdote he recounted in an early campaign mailer in the District 45 race. He drove Corcoran's parents to visit when Corcoran was in law school in Virginia; he traveled with them to Corcoran's wedding in Oklahoma.

Fasano "played the role of a close family friend," said Corcoran. "Why does a close family friend support you? They know you. They know your heart, they know your character."

In some ways, Fasano made it his job to reintroduce Pasco to Corcoran, who had left the county in the early 1990s and returned with his wife and five children less than two years ago.

"One of the first things I did was send a letter out to many people in my district," said Fasano. "I wanted people to know right away that Richard was a friend of mine, that I knew him and his family for over 25 years."

White, a Fasano ally and another decade-old friend of Corcoran's, gave him a job as a contract attorney, which pays up to $90,000 a year. White in recent weeks made robocalls on Corcoran's behalf.

(Corcoran didn't have to worry about getting linked to Crist because of Fasano. He worked as a top aide to Crist rival Marco Rubio and touted Rubio's endorsement — right next to Fasano's.)

An old hand himself at political strategy, Corcoran leaned on Fasano for campaign advice, which the state senator gave — forcefully enough to earn him playful comparisons to legendary college basketball coach Bobby Knight.

"He is a consummate coach and sometimes the coach says you need to knock on a 1,000 more doors," said Corcoran. "He says you keep walking, you keep walking."

Fallout and the future

Fasano has arguably taken one of the biggest risks of his political career, not on some hot-button social issue, but on his support for a candidate, Crist.

That's at the state level. Here in Pasco, his loyalty to Corcoran could also put him at risk of alienating Republicans who backed Starkey.

Fasano's political committee, for instance, gave $50,000 to a group that put out attack mailers against Starkey over her time on the School Board and a water basin board. The Times found one of the claims — that she teamed up with "liberal Democrats" on a sales tax hike — to be false.

Just a week before the election, Fasano sharply criticized Starkey over a mailer her consultant's political committee had put out that called Corcoran a carpetbagger.

"Those of us who've been around in the Republican Party have earned friendship, political and personal. Mike is well regarded by some people and not so well by other people," said Pasco Property Appraiser Mike Wells. "It's impossible to keep everybody happy all the time. That's the risk we all take when we support a political candidate. Mike took a stand. Corcoran was his guy."

Fasano, for his part, declined to speculate on any local fallout for his support of Corcoran — or on his postlegislative future.

His long-known ambition to run one day for U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite's seat got scuttled by her behind-the-scenes maneuvering. (Fasano hinted last week that ambition did not die: "Well, with redistricting, you never know what's going to happen.")

If Crist wins the U.S. Senate seat, might Fasano get a shot at a job with him?

"It's the last thing on my mind," said Fasano. "My hope is I can continue to serve the people of Pasco County and possibly the surrounding counties."

He joked that maybe he could work as an aide to Corcoran. Bunting suggested Fasano would be lucky to get that kind of work.

"I think Corcoran distanced himself from Fasano when he saw what was going on," said Bunting. "I know Corcoran was distancing himself because he went to see Rubio at the airport."

With that level of anger against him by local GOP officials, will Fasano continue having the Midas touch with candidates? County Commissioner Ted Schrader, an east Pasco Republican trying to stay in everyone's good graces, said this, cautiously:

"Two years ago in my race I asked Senator Fasano to do a (robocall) and he graciously did that for me the last weekend of the election," said Schrader. "It was obviously important enough for me to do it."

He repeated the word "graciously" before pausing.

"I don't know," he said, "if that answers your question?"

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Fasano showed golden touch in House District 45 race 08/28/10 [Last modified: Saturday, August 28, 2010 1:26pm]

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