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Term-limited out of Senate, Fasano to run for open House district

NEW PORT RICHEY — He's barred by term limits from running for reelection to the Florida Senate. Ambitions to go to Washington weren't in the cards.

So Mike Fasano, the longest serving legislator in Pasco, announced Tuesday he's aiming to return to the place where he launched that career in public office — the Florida House of Representatives.

Ending months of speculation, Fasano, 53, filed paperwork Tuesday for the open House District 36 seat that includes much of West Pasco.

"I've always expressed a desire that if the people would allow me, I would be honored to serve," said Fasano, R-New Port Richey. "I'm not looking to stand out in any way. I'm not looking for a title."

His hope to run for Congress were sidetracked when new redistricting maps blocked a potential challenge to freshman U.S. Rep. Richard Nugent, R-Brooksville. Instead, he would have to challenge U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor. Fasano declined, calling him a friend.

He then aimed for a return to the House. In numeric terms, that means being one voice of 120 instead of one of 40 senators.

Fasano's potential return to the House parallels a power surge by Pasco County: Two of the next three House speakers will be from the county if Republicans maintain control.

He must still survive a Republican primary and the general election if a Democrat runs for the seat. There are two announced candidates: Pasco Republican Party vice chairman Jim Mathieu and Michael Kennedy, a Hudson Republican who has reported no fundraising activity. Retiring County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand also was considering the race, though she said Tuesday she does not intend to challenge Fasano.

Mathieu, a lawyer, is spoiling for a fight. He said Fasano's campaign is an affront to the 1992 Constitutional amendment that bans legislators from running for reelection after serving eight years in one chamber. "It's an insult to term limits," he said. "It's time to go. He just wants to be an elected official for life."

Fasano said he is a full supporter of the term limits law. He even repeated the campaign slogan, "Eight is Enough."

So, is his 18 years in the Legislature enough?

"I served according to the Constitution," Fasano said. "I can only put (my campaign) before the people at election time and ask if they would consider allowing us to continue to serve."

Fasano called it premature to talk about what committees he would serve on if elected. That, he said, would be up to House Speaker-designate Will Weatherford, whom he called a "dear friend."

With the election still months away, Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, was also reluctant to talk about Fasano's role in the House.

"Sen. Fasano has earned a reputation as an extremely hard-working member and an avid campaigner," Weatherford said. "He will certainly be a formidable opponent in (the race for the House seat.)"

Several supporters said Fasano would likely play key roles in shaping legislation instead of simply occupying a desk.

"Even if he were really truly a freshman, that's just not his DNA," said Rep. Richard Corcoran, a close friend and fellow Republican from Trinity. "He's not consumed with the trappings of office. What consumes him is, as he says, fighting for the little guy and the little gal."

Pasco's legislative delegation is particularly strong. Weatherford is set to lead the House next session, and Corcoran has been tapped for the same job four years later.

Fasano was elected to the Florida House in 1994 and rose to majority leader in 2000. He was elected to the Senate in 2002 and represents portions of Pasco, Hernando, Citrus and northern Pinellas counties.

He entered office as a conservative firebrand but over the past several years has taken a more populist tone, criticizing measures he says hurt consumers and seniors. This session, he was a member of a moderate bloc of senators that held up several bills important to legislative leaders.

He also angered many local and state party officials when he supported former Gov. Charlie Crist's 2010 bid for U.S. Senate — even after Crist became an independent.

Plenty of lawmakers jump from the House to the Senate, which some refer to as the "upper chamber." An ex-senator running for the House is much more rare. In fact, there are only two examples in the modern era of the Legislature.

After eight years in the Senate, Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, returned to become House redistricting chairman in 2002. He left after one term and won a seat in Congress. The other example is Don Sullivan, who represented Pinellas in the Senate for 10 years before earning a seat in the House. He stepped down after only one session, saying he did not want to wait several years to gain a position of power.

All legislators — House members and senators alike — make the same salary, $29,697. Fasano also works as a public affairs director for Florida Hospital, and he holds a stock trading license with Morgan Stanley.

State Rep. John Legg. R-Port Richey, said if Fasano is elected he "won't be an average freshman."

"I would be hard pressed to see him not get some sort of chairmanship or some sort of leadership role," said Legg, who is leaving the House and running for Fasano's Senate seat. "Freshman House members are told to sit down and be quiet and learn the ropes. That role will not apply to Sen. Fasano."

The new District 36 is a swing district that could be targeted by statewide Democratic strategists. It now includes all of coastal Pasco, with Little Road forming the eastern boundary for most of the district. Democrats hold a 4,000-voter edge. In 2008, President Barack Obama carried the seat with a 52 percent of the vote, and Rick Scott won the district in 2010 with a 2-point margin.

Those demographics could fit well with Fasano's populist personality. He widely known and his crusades against issues like high insurance rates give him wide appeal, even among some Democrats.

Though West Pasco is his political home base, Fasano must move to get elected. His home in the Heritage Lake subdivision east of Little Road is about a mile from the district's boundary. He has a lease that begins June 1 for a townhome in the Little Creek neighborhood near the corner of Little and Plathe roads.

Fasano said he will begin looking to purchase a home in the district and would likely rent for less than a year. He has no plans to sell the Heritage Lake home.

Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6236.

Term-limited out of Senate, Fasano to run for open House district 04/03/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 3, 2012 8:20pm]

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