BROOKSVILLE — U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite announced Friday that health problems are forcing her to drop her re-election bid for the seat she has held for eight years. Her proxy: Hernando County Sheriff Richard Nugent.
Nugent, 58, qualified Friday to run for the 5th District seat just before the noon deadline on the last day of the qualifying period and paid the $10,440 filing fee. Eleven minutes after the deadline, Brown-Waite's chief of staff sent out the news that she would not be running and had encouraged Nugent to take her place.
The substance and the timing of the surprise announcements angered Republicans who said they would have considered running had they known that the Brooksville Republican was stepping down.
State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, lives just outside the District 5 boundary but said he would have considered entering the race.
"It was certainly something I would have looked at," he said.
He called Brown-Waite's tactics questionable.
"She has every right to (tap Nugent),'' he said. "But I just think the people should have had an opportunity to have more participants in the race."
"This is another example of the Republican Party cutting its own throat,'' said Public Service Commission Chairwoman Nancy Argenziano, adding that she believes that she and Fasano were the targets of the surprise announcements.
Argenziano formerly held state Senate and House seats included in Brown-Waite's congressional district, and, when she heard two weeks ago that Brown-Waite was considering retiring, she inquired about the seat. She was approached by a Republican Party official and asked whether she would challenge state Democratic U.S. Rep. Allen Boyd instead, she said.
"I knew something was up,'' she said.
Brown-Waite's statement avoided mention of her strategy, focusing on her health concerns.
"As I have prepared for my campaign, I have been troubled by persistent health problems and have come to the disappointing and sad conclusion that I cannot run for re-election," she said.
"There are simply too many unresolved issues around my health and my pancreas in particular. As of this morning, my doctors are still undecided about what course to pursue next for my treatments."
Her husband, Harvey Waite, died Aug. 19, 2008, at age 68 after a six-month battle with pancreatic cancer. She recently announced her engagement to Anthony "Tony" Selvaggio, a Pennsylvania business owner.
The move sets up a two-way Republican primary in August between Nugent and Jason Sager, a 36-year-old Brooksville Republican who is closely aligned with the tea party movement. The winner will oppose Jim Piccillo, 36, of Land O'Lakes, the only Democrat to qualify.
Brown-Waite, 66, apparently hatched the plan weeks ago. Nugent said she called him at his Spring Hill home on March 31 — his 35th wedding anniversary — and asked him to consider a bid.
"You could have knocked me over with a feather," Nugent said.
Nugent, who was elected sheriff in 2000 and has two years left in his current four-year term, told her he'd think about it. On Saturday, Nugent met with Brown-Waite and told her he was game.
"My wife questioned me: 'Do you think you can make a difference and have a positive influence on Washington?' " he recalled. "I hadn't thought about it in those terms, but as we talked it became obvious I had those feelings."
Pasco Property Appraiser Mike Wells said he knew of several people — including himself — who might have run. Instead, he said, Brown-Waite "effectively slammed the door in the face of several top-notch candidates."
Lake County Republican Chairman Joseph Rudderow said he trusts Brown-Waite's strategy.
"Ginny is a square shooter and always has been," he said. "She doesn't have a deceptive bone in her body."
Hernando Republican Chairman Blaise Ingoglia didn't know about Brown-Waite's move until told by the Times.
"It is what it is, and we have to press on and get Republicans elected," he said.
Brown-Waite won the seat in 2002 in a narrow victory over Democrat Karen Thurman after a Republican-dominated Legislature redrew the district lines to favor a GOP candidate.
She built a reputation as an advocate for veterans and senior issues and has won re-election with ease, facing no challenges from within her own party and defeating Democratic nominees.
Sager, an unemployed former audio visual technician who has taken to full-time campaigning, called Nugent "the new establishment candidate."
Piccillo, a small business consultant, said he fielded some two dozen calls within a couple of hours after Brown-Waite's announcement. One, he said, was from the finance chairman of the Democratic National Convention.
"Let's just say, if this was a car, we just went from 0 to 60 in 4.2 seconds," Piccillo said.
Times staff writers John Frank, Alex Leary and Jodie Tillman, Miami Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas and Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]