NEW PORT RICHEY — Democrat Fred Taylor thought his table at the Florida Health Care Association's conference last month would be a good place to drum up support and donations for his Florida Senate campaign. After all, he's an associate member and a former nursing home consultant.
But he got a lot of "no." His competitor, Sen. Mike Fasano, did a lot better, though.
Fasano, R-New Port Richey, was named Legislator of the Year at the same conference in Orlando. Nursing homes and assisted living centers also have contributed at least $10,000 to the re-election bid of Fasano, who is a member of a Senate health care committee.
While Taylor scrimps for money, Fasano has raised nearly $490,000, more than all but three other Senate candidates in the entire state.
But that largesse has provided Taylor with ammunition to attack Fasano's ties to interest groups and his legislative record. Taylor has mined Fasano's 14-year history in Tallahassee, including the past six years in the Senate.
Upset about insurance costs? Taylor's campaign found that Fasano has received more than $130,000 from various insurance interests since he joined the Legislature 14 years ago.
Disappointed over the costs for health care? Taylor calculated Fasano has received more than $300,000 from medically related donors and groups in his political career.
"They want to influence the vote," Taylor said, scoffing, "It can't be that kind of a coincidence that he takes that kind of money."
In fact, political action committees and similar independent groups representing a range of industries have donated at least $80,000 to Fasano to help him win another term in November.
And that doesn't include a separate political committee, Floridians for Principled Government, Fasano created to help other candidates and woo favor. It has received at least $315,000 since 2003, often in $2,500 to $10,000 dollops.
"I'm not going to stop raising dollars just because Mr. Taylor can't raise any money," Fasano said.
Fasano said Taylor skews his record to mask Taylor's own shortcoming. Taylor has raised only $68,000, mostly from the Democratic Party and his own checkbook.
It particularly irks Fasano that Taylor discussed getting support from former Home Shopping Network founder Roy Speer, whose wife has majority ownership of Aloha Utilities, the much-maligned utility that Fasano has blasted for its water service.
Taylor said he hasn't received any money from Speer.
"For him to meet with a company that has neglected its responsibilities to the people of this county. … Who's more of a special interest?" Fasano said.
But Fasano's money-raking is clearly bigger than one company.
Taylor says the result has been Fasano bills helping donors — say, a drugmaker, an aviation company or a bank — and poor lawmaking. He criticized Fasano, for example, for voting to allow for-profit hospices in Florida while taking donations from one such company. For-profit facilities can face more pressure to reduce care to make money, Taylor said.
And that stance, Taylor said, has nothing to do with his own special interest: His wife, Patricia, is a nurse at a nonprofit hospice.
Seizing on voters' anger over homeowners insurance rates, Taylor has attacked Fasano for taking money from insurance companies in his campaigns since 1996.
But the recent contributions are a small fraction of Fasano's donations.
For example, campaign finance records show Fasano has received at least $4,000 since 2005 from property insurance companies as he complained about the companies' practices and requests for higher rates. While he has received at least another $3,500 from insurance agents, Fasano said their interests didn't always line up with companies. The agents wanted to keep customers, even as insurers cut policies.
Taylor also faults Fasano for writing a bill that allowed insurers to make sinkhole coverage optional, casting it as a favor to insurers while leaving residents at risk.
But Fasano notes that state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp. pushed for the change and State Farm is the only major private insurer to offer it. And the option cut some premiums by half.
"With respect to Mr. Taylor, where has he been with respect to the homeowners insurance crisis?" Fasano countered.
A 'crafty' advocate
Yet Fasano, who wields power as a Senate appropriations committee chairman, has a history of representing the interests of campaign donors.
During 2007 and 2008, he authored bills to give tax breaks to Avantair, a Clearwater aircraft company that has threatened to leave Florida without support for its expansion. Avantair gave Fasano $500 in February 2007, and Fasano has received another $1,000 from other aviation interests. The bills have failed, although Pinellas County recently agreed to provide the company $177,600 in tax refunds.
In 2007, Fasano sponsored a bill requiring middle school girls receive a vaccination against a form of cervical cancer. The maker of the drug, Merck, had quietly waged a campaign for the legislation, ultimately failing. Merck gave Fasano $500 later in 2007, among more than $3,000 the company has given him since 2001.
But Fasano said the bill was supported by a "diverse" group. His office reported support from the ob/gyn lobby, cancer research groups, the Junior League — and Women in Government, an advocacy group of female lawmakers that Merck funneled money to.
In 2006, Fasano wrote a subtle amendment into an identity theft bill that would have shielded Bank of America from a lawsuit. He dropped the measure after it made news.
The company's political committee donated $500 to him later that year, which is among $45,000 he has received from finance companies and political groups for this year's campaign through Aug. 22, the most recent reporting date.
"I make my decisions based on whether a policy is right or whether it's wrong," Fasano said, noting the bank ultimately won the lawsuit.
Fasano has become so dependable each year supporting the Police Benevolent Association priorities, the company renamed its annual award to the person most dedicated to its issues. It's called the Fasano Award because he won it so much.
Fasano has supported laws improving pension benefits, increasing pay for the Highway Patrol and increasing protections for officers facing investigation. This election, PBA groups have given him at least $9,000.
"He's crafty," said PBA deputy executive director Matt Puckett, a lobbyist. "He's been doing it for a while. He's proactive. He doesn't take no for an answer."
But no is the answer Taylor, a New Port Richey owner of a business brokerage, has faced as he has tried to raise coin for his bid.
For instance, nursing home officials told him they didn't want to risk angering Fasano by contributing to his opponent.
A group linked to the Florida Medical Association — which endorsed Fasano — sent mailings attacking Taylor before he won the primary last month.
The Florida Democratic Party, calling the campaign a priority race involving a longtime GOP adversary, has given Taylor $48,700. The candidate gave himself $10,600.
Everyone else: $8,300.
John Reid, who oversees the state Democrats' Senate campaigns, said the party still considers Taylor among its top candidates. While he notes the party "constantly assesses" races, he said he expects Taylor to step up fundraising. Taylor promises as much.
"I think right now he's doing everything that needs to be done," said Reid, who acknowledged "he doesn't have the institutional lobbying support."