PORT RICHEY — When Mike Fasano campaigns for a return to the state House this year, his primary election will be limited to Republican voters.
That's because a Port Richey man entered the race this week as a write-in candidate.
The latest entrant, 66-year-old Joseph Verola, lives next door to Fasano's chief rival, Pasco Republican Party vice chairman Jim Mathieu.
Verola was clear about his intentions. "My initial interest was to close the Republican primary for James Mathieu," he said. "I thought he'd be the best Republican for the party."
Before Verola entered the campaign, only Republicans had filed for the seat. State law allows all voters to cast ballots in a primary if the race only includes candidates from a single party. But if the primary winner will face opposition in the general election, the primary is closed to voters registered with that party.
Verola is not registered with any party, though he called himself a Democrat. He plans to talk with the local Democratic Party about running under that banner. Either way, the District 36 primary will be limited to the district's 35,000 Republican voters, or about 35 percent of the electorate.
Write-in candidates' names don't appear on the ballot and they have little to no chance of winning. But election officials and courts have said they count as "opposition." Critics blast the maneuver as a politician-protecting loophole, but candidates from both parties use the tactic each election cycle.
The latest candidacy was born when Mathieu and his neighbor where chatting about the race. Mathieu said he hoped a write-in or Democrat would run to close the primary.
"I said, 'Jim, you know what, I'd be happy to do it,' " Verola recalled. "So it was my idea."
Said Mathieu: "I'm not too worried about anybody accusing me of gaming the system. I'm running against someone that's termed out twice and doesn't live here."
Mathieu is referring to Fasano's Heritage Lake home, about a mile outside of the West Pasco district's boundary. Fasano has a lease for a townhome in the Shallow Creek neighborhood beginning in June and plans to purchase a home in the district if elected.
Fasano had to leave the House in 2002 because of term limits and he cannot run for re-election to the Senate this year. But the state Constitution does not prevent the 18-year legislator from making a return trip to the House.
Fasano said he had no problem with Verola's candidacy, saying he has a right to enter the race.
"I've run in Republican primaries before," Fasano said. "We do nothing different than it would be in a general election — meeting as many voters as possible and asking them for their vote."
Besides Mathieu and Fasano, the other Republican candidate is Michael Kennedy of Hudson.
Lee Logan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6236.