TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott today will appoint Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, as Pasco County tax collector, a move that puts the office in trusted hands and silences the voice of a populist lawmaker whose blunt talk had alienated fellow Republicans.
"I had some doubts that I would be appointed because of my outspokenness," Fasano said Tuesday. "But when I met with the governor, he never mentioned any of that."
Fasano, 55, replaces Mike Olson, a Democrat who died June 26 after more than 32 years in the agency that handles tax bills, driver's licenses and auto tags. The appointment will force a fall special election so voters can choose Fasano's replacement in House District 36, a Democratic-leaning section of coastal Pasco that has twice favored President Barack Obama.
Fasano, who is in his 19th year in the Legislature, inspired strong feelings on both sides. Widely admired by his Pasco constituents for his devotion to their needs, he's reviled by others as a grandstander. He once infuriated fellow senators by offering a floor amendment to cut their salaries, knowing that most couldn't dare vote against it.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, a young House conservative firebrand, called Fasano "a nice man" and "good-hearted" but added: "He's not a Republican. Him being in the Republican caucus is putting a wolf in sheep's clothing. Republicans have begged Gov. Scott to appoint him for weeks."
Fasano had broad support for the appointment in Pasco's political structure from House Speaker Will Weatherford on down, and they backed him for a variety of reasons. Their joint letter hit Scott's desk Monday, a clear sign that the job would soon be Fasano's.
"He's going to leave a big void in the House," said Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, who still has a Fasano campaign T-shirt from 1994 with the slogan "Taking it to Tallahassee" on it.
"We have to always remind ourselves, you have to always be for the individual who doesn't have an advocate. That was Mike Fasano."
After weeks of pondering what to do, Scott phoned Fasano on Tuesday morning and offered him the job. Scott had asked Fasano to meet him face-to-face last Friday and they talked at a Boca Raton hotel where Fasano said Scott never mentioned the politics that were at work.
"He's passionate," Scott said of Fasano. "He cares about his constituents. He's going to be very customer-oriented."
Said Fasano: "I thanked him and told him I'd do my best and keep up the good customer service."
The tax collector is paid nearly $138,000 a year, more than four times as much as Fasano earns as a lawmaker, and the agency has 150 full-time employees. The appointment does not affect Fasano's state pension because he invests in a private plan, not the state pension fund.
Fasano also earned $107,000 last year as a part-time public affairs officer at Florida Hospital in Tampa. He said he'll resign the job when a successor is chosen.
Three possible Republican candidates for Fasano's House seat emerged: attorney Jim Mathieu, the county GOP chairman who lost to Fasano in the 2012 primary and said he will run again; Bill Gunter, a pastor who lost a County Commission bid last year; and lawyer Jeff Lucas. No Democrats surfaced.
Weatherford said he expects Democrats to aggressively fight to claim the seat.
"It's no doubt a swing seat," Weatherford said. "It's going to take a good campaign, a good candidate and probably a whole lot of resources to keep that seat Republican."
As a lawmaker, Fasano's career came full circle, from a loyal partisan lieutenant of Speaker Tom Feeney in the 2000 recount to a maverick Republican who disliked Tallahassee's increasingly top-down style of leadership.
With his knack for attracting headlines and a passion for pocketbook issues, Fasano was a vocal critic of Citizens Property Insurance Corp. He advocated expanded Medicaid, more money for affordable housing and a well-funded prescription drug database, and opposed more privatization of state prisons. He once publicly blasted a $500,000 severance package handed to the state's ousted top tourism executive as a "sweetheart deal."
"He stands up for what he thinks is right," said Alta Trufant, 77, a Democrat and retired employee of the Pasco Sheriff's Office who thinks little of most politicians. "I think we need him. I hate to see someone who we need so much to represent us go into a safe office."
Fasano also is known for his attention to constituent service, a cornerstone of any tax collector's position. Hundreds of Pasco residents have his cellphone number and email addresses, and his name will be more familiar than ever as Pasco taxpayers write checks in his name.
Scott will go to New Port Richey City Hall at 9:30 a.m. today to personally announce Fasano's appointment, which could not be made until he formally resigned from the House. The appointment is through November 2014, when Fasano would face an election.
"All this appointment does is allow me to continue to serve the people of Pasco, a county I love," Fasano said. "We're still here."