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Partisan fighting gets off to early start

The first shot of the 2010 election didn't show up on TV, in the mail or a press release.

To County Commissioner Michael Cox and the Democratic Party leadership, the blow came from the commission dais in usually quiet December.

Within a month of being branded the Republicans' top target for ouster, the county's only Democratic commissioner has lost his high-profile role with the Pasco Economic Development Council. This month, new Commission Chairman Jack Mariano, a Republican, named himself as Cox's replacement.

"I cannot find any other logical reasoning as to why he wouldn't leave me on there, given the fact I have had some successes in the PEDC, and some that he quite frankly doesn't even know about," Cox said.

Just hours after the polls closed Nov. 4, outgoing Pasco County Republican Party Chairman Bill Bunting called Cox out for defeat in two years.

Fresh off news of the GOP's sweep of the ballot, Bunting boasted, "Are you telling me that I should tell Michael Cox to get his bags packing?"

Cox, a former mayor of Port Richey, won the seat in 2006 by defeating Republican Steve Simon. Back then, Bunting was ripped by top Republicans — Commissioner Ted Schrader, state Sen. Mike Fasano and Sheriff Bob White — for rejecting Simon's request for more money.

Instead, Bunting delivered donations to nonpartisan School Board candidates who lost — as the Florida Democratic Party paid for ads for Cox. Meanwhile, Cox pummeled Simon for surfing the Internet during public meetings.

Pasco Democratic Party chairwoman Alison Morano said the early partisanship is unusual. Recently re-elected to her post, Morano said her party is preparing to help buffer Cox against GOP attacks. Cox's race, she said, is now a "priority, priority race."

"Michael is doing a good, good job as county commissioner for all the people of Pasco," Morano said. "I don't understand why they have to take him out just because he has a D next to his name."

Cox raises profile

Cox's public persona has risen with his involvement in Pasco's bids to recruit big business. When the county briefed reporters on the proposed arrival of 1,650 jobs with financial giant T. Rowe Price to Land O'Lakes, Cox was the commissioner who helped explain it.

That kind of expansion would be something to remind voters of at election time. In fact, Mariano included the potential coup in his own election flier — even though he sat on the county tourism board this year. Cox counts the possible expansion, plus other possible job gains, as part of his own case for re-election.

"There's certainly a record there that I could point to. ... Anything that comes before the commission, I can take credit for," Cox said.

His removal bothered Cox enough that he said he asked the county attorneys about how to overturn Mariano's decision. He was told a majority vote by the board was necessary, but he said he won't take that route.

Bunting and Mariano, both Beacon Woods residents, said they have not spoken about removing Cox, a financial planner. Mariano, who can assign duties as commission chairman, said he made the switch based on his own interests. A former car salesman, Mariano has a bachelor's degree in economics.

He also said he wants businesses adding smaller numbers of employees to the county to be able to receive larger incentives than Cox has backed. In the past year, the board reduced incentives for a hotel and a manufacturer because job increases and salaries fell too far below county guidelines.

Mariano spent the past two years on the tourism board, after losing the role with the economic council. He said he sighed, and unlike Cox, plowed ahead.

"I didn't make a big stink about it," Mariano said.

Bunting said Mariano "did the right thing" by appointing himself to replace Cox because of Mariano's background.

Mariano won re-election last month by defeating Democrat Ginny Miller — who was supported by Cox. In the final week of the campaign, the Florida Democratic Party sent a mailing attacking Mariano. Mariano said that flier had nothing to do with his decision on committee assignments.

And Bunting?

"I just take it personal with that nasty mailing that he (Cox) did with Jack Mariano," he said.

Though he is friends with state party chairwoman Karen Thurman, Cox said he "was not responsible for the mailing."

Cox, GOP make plans

The plotting for November 2010 has begun in other ways.

Bunting said the party will try to cut into Cox's Republican support in east Pasco and his base of Democratic retirees on the west side. Bunting said Cox was "tied at the hip" to Barack Obama in a county that Obama lost. Cox was featured on a mailing urging voters to support Obama and local Democrats.

However, Cox has begun seeking support from people who backed Simon.

Stewart Gibbons, president of the Connerton mega-development in Land O'Lakes, donated to Simon two years ago. He and Cox didn't even speak then. But he said he will support Cox, with whom he worked on the Economic Development Council.

"When we got into the T. Rowe Price opportunity, we really got into a big opportunity. We found him to be a great advocate from a business and a county perspective," said Gibbons, a Republican.

Gibbons also said he has no qualms with Mariano replacing Cox, both of whom he said have worked well with the council. Another council member, developer Trey Starkey, also downplayed the spat over the post.

Starkey still lauded Cox's work, saying it would take "an incredibly strong person" for him not to back Cox in 2010, despite backing Simon in 2006.

"He's a better guy than I gave him credit (for)," Starkey said of Cox.

Wooing Gibbons and Starkey is one example of how Cox is building his campaign. Cox, who learned hardball politics at Port Richey City Hall, said he has been planning this strategy for a year.

He intends to raise "six figures" in contributions to win re-election, up from the $73,000 he raised for the campaign two years ago. He promises to tap support from the state party if needed.

And if the Republicans spoil for a fight? "As you can probably expect with me," Cox said, "I'll run a pretty aggressive campaign."

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6232.

Partisan fighting gets off to early start 12/13/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 16, 2008 5:35pm]
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