BAYONET POINT — A neighborhood mutiny threatens to unhinge Pasco County Republican Party chairman Bill Bunting's clutch on the local GOP.
Bunting's foes in Beacon Woods are challenging him in the Aug. 26 primary for his precinct committeeman post, a low-profile position that rarely invites opposition.
Why? Because the bylaws say a person must be on the committee to run for party chairman.
If his critics can get enough Republicans in Beacon Woods' Precinct 118 to vote him out, Bunting's stint as party chairman since 2002 could be over.
But Bunting is making his own move, too: He's running for the state committeeman post held by longtime ally John Renke II. That job would keep Bunting in a leadership role in the GOP.
Bunting said Friday he's not worried about losing, and he's not maneuvering against Renke to keep power. He chalks up the opposition to people who disliked losing when he won.
"I just think it might be time for a change," Bunting said of his personal ambitions.
The scheming on all sides has made a fracas of the normally docile neighborhood voting for precinct representatives of the party. Thirteen people are running for eight slots.
"That's the most crowded field I've ever seen in this county for Republican or Democratic precinct committeeman," Renke said. "Maybe he figures he's hedging his bets this way."
The personal issues, vendettas from past campaigns and even grievances over a Wal-Mart location lead back to one thing: Bunting's leadership of the party.
And that's not including the recent resignation of state committeewoman Shari Kotsch of Holiday, who criticized Bunting's leadership because she was left out of key roles she previously played, such as running the annual Reagan Day Dinner. Besides "personal" issues, she objected to Bunting barring Ron Paul supporters from taking leadership spots.
"I don't think it's Bill Bunting's job to decide who is a good Republican," Kotsch said.
Making the slate
Four years ago, no one challenged Bunting for his committeeman post. This year, Bunting and six other people are seeking the four available committeemen spots, with the top four vote getters winning.
His wife, party leader Ann Bunting, faces five women for four precinct committeewomen seats. The top four vote getters win.
The precinct leaders across Pasco form the county executive committee, which elects the party chair in December.
Four insurgent candidates began plotting last year, led by Dan Meahl and Bob Ryan, who is Ann Bunting's successor as Beacon Woods Civic Association president.
Meahl had simmering anger over the Buntings' support of a new Wal-Mart near Beacon Woods. Meahl also said he and others didn't appreciate how Bunting treated them as supporters of Tom Gallagher when Bunting backed Charlie Crist's winning bid for governor.
Meahl and others disliked Bunting's penchant for picking sides under the radar among Republicans, such as not giving then-County Commissioner Steve Simon money before he lost re-election in 2006. Or Bunting's lauding of challenger John Nicolette against County Commissioner Ted Schrader this year.
Bunting said those accusations weren't worth answering. If he wanted to back those candidates, he said, the party would have endorsed in the races.
Unlikely to oust Bunting within the executive committee that supports him, Meahl said he got a tip from an unnamed veteran Republican: Beat Bunting in his own neighborhood.
By June 20, they had their slate. The 1,300 Republicans in half of Beacon Woods will choose whether Bunting drops off the executive committee.
A different move
Bunting has other plans. On June 16, he filed to run for precinct committeeman — and for state committeeman against Renke, a former state lawmaker who has held the post since 1994.
The county Republicans have two state committee members, a man and woman, who help lead the Republican Party of Florida.
Renke said Bunting disagreed with him over Renke's support of Will Weatherford, who became a state representative in 2006. Bunting preferred Randy Maggard for the post, Renke said.
"I make my choices on who will be the best person for the job, not just my friend," Renke said.
But Bunting said he's not sure Renke is doing enough work as state committeeman.
Pasco GOP vice chairman Steve Graves said Bunting and Renke both have done good work. And Bunting's actions might not be all about his neighborhood challenge, based on Graves' conversations with him.
Graves, who faces a precinct challenge, said he and Bunting have spoken about Bunting doing something different than being chairman. Without elaborating much on the timing, Graves did have a replacement in mind.
"Hopefully," he said, "it would be me."
David DeCamp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or toll-free at 1-800- 333-7505, ext. 6232.