BAYONET POINT — The three Republicans looking to replace Mike Fasano in the state House squared off in a debate Wednesday, touching on issues from insurance coverage to standardized testing in schools.
The 90-minute matchup, sponsored by the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce, brought together Bill Gunter, 43, a Presbyterian minister; insurance agent Jeromy Harding, 23; and lawyer Jim Mathieu, 60, chairman of Pasco's Republican Party.
Tampa Bay Times editorial writer C.T. Bowen and Tampa Tribune columnist Tom Jackson moderated the discussion, which remained generally cordial but saw a couple of dustups.
At one point, Mathieu referred to Gunter as the establishment candidate eager to fall in line behind party leaders and lobbyists.
"What we have here in Pasco is influence peddling. We have lobbyist money here," he said. "I'm being outspent 20 to 1."
Gunter replied that despite his endorsements, he is his "own man."
"Sometimes things are said in a campaign, such as this, where accusations are flung about," he said. "I make decisions based on common sense, core conviction and values."
The candidates, who will face each other in the Sept. 17 primary — the only Democrat running is Amanda Murphy, so there is no Democratic primary — at times appeared eager to distinguish themselves but often struck similar chords.
On the topic of Citizens Property Insurance and the lack of competition from private insurers, the three called for bringing in more companies to lower Citizens' rates and spread the risk.
On standardized testing in schools, the three said they back testing but oppose the Common Core education standards, the federal testing program to gauge state-to-state proficiency.
On creating a prescription drug database to fight abuse, the three supported the database but gave conflicting answers on whether the state should fund it.
Mathieu said he supports state money for the database. Harding said he needed more information before deciding. And Gunter said he supports "anything we can do" to fight prescription drug abuse.
They also gave different answers about economic development, increased school funding and Florida's controversial "stand your ground" law.
All three support "stand your ground." Mathieu also said the law needs to be tweaked before it's challenged in the Supreme Court on procedural grounds.
On economic development, Harding said he supports promoting tourism, particularly at the Sunwest Mines in Aripeka. Mathieu said he supports working with county officials on their development plans. Gunter said he'd partner with the sheriff to reduce crime and then "use our power and leverage to bring industry to west Pasco."
As for school funding, Mathieu said he supports more state funding. Harding said he wants better accountability before giving schools more money. Gunter said funding isn't the issue and suggested the private sector play a larger role in education.
Fasano stepped down as the House District 36 representative last month when Gov. Rick Scott appointed him as Pasco's tax collector. The district generally runs west of Little Road from Pinellas to Hernando.
Rich Shopes can be reached at (727) 869-6236 or [email protected]