BAYONET POINT — Dan Meahl bounded out of his car, leaving the blinkers flashing next to the circular driveway at Bill Bunting's house.
It was 4:25 p.m. June 19, less than 20 hours before the deadline for paperwork to be filed for the primary election. Meahl clutched an envelope with loyalty oaths from eight people who wanted to join the leadership of the Republican Party of Pasco County.
"Bill," he called out, "I have something for you."
But Bunting, who spearheads building Pasco's party as its chairman, only waived his arm toward the road, Meahl said. Then Bunting bolted off, and Meahl couldn't catch up.
Why? The answers even befuddle Republicans.
• • •
One thing's for sure. Bunting, who is known for playing hard ball, is living up to his reputation.
Eight years ago, he was bounced out of the party for infighting. He returned as chairman in 2002 and leads the state party's gun-rights bloc, serving as a go-to person for major candidates.
But now he's in a dogfight, with his own power on the line.
In June, Bunting, 67, began running to oust longtime state committeeman John Renke II — prompting an unusual campaign featuring a slick mailer and robo-calls to absentee voters in the Aug. 26 primary.
But a band of disaffected neighbors in Beacon Woods, organized by Meahl, posed a different challenge. They want Bunting and his wife, Ann, a party leader, voted out of their precinct leadership posts. It's a rare procedural move that would make Bunting ineligible to run the Pasco Republican Party.
And Bunting has tried to undercut them by saying the challengers' paperwork wasn't filed properly.
On June 24, he tried to get 27 people — including Meahl's band — kicked off the ballot for precinct leadership posts that would place them on the party's executive committee. They had qualified under county rules, but never got Bunting to sign the loyalty oaths required by the party.
Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley, a fellow Republican, refused to remove those candidates from the ballot.
"It's an internal matter for the party," Corley said.
The state Republican Party is now wrestling with what to do with the oaths.
Critics say they know why Bunting never signed their oaths: He ducked them.
But Bunting said 137 people managed to get him oaths by the noon June 20 deadline. The names he challenged also had little or no experience with the county party, and he questioned their sincerity.
"I haven't seen him do one thing for Republicans through the committee," Ann Bunting said of Meahl.
In a letter to the state party, Meahl complained of the Buntings' "underhanded tactics and revengefulness" that started with a 2004 neighborhood squabble and never has ended.
On June 19, Bunting said he remembers seeing Meahl's car near his driveway, but not Meahl. He might have waved, Bunting said, but he doesn't remember that, either.
Taking a new tack
After losing sight of Bunting, Meahl called friends Jack and Judy Kennedy for help. Unlike Meahl, they could turn the paperwork into Bunting at that night's Republican Party meeting because they are committee members. They brought the envelope of oaths.
But Bunting didn't show.
So the Kennedys turned to the party's vice chairman, Steve Graves. After the meeting, Graves called Bunting to decide how to handle signing the 17 or 18 oaths.
As Graves read off the names, Bunting agreed to accept all except two, Graves said.
"It took me aback," Graves said.
Bunting said he did not make it to the meeting for undisclosed "personal reasons." As for rejecting the names? "I don't know what he's talking about."
While Graves won't identify them, the Kennedys say Graves told them the two names were theirs. They were also among the names Bunting asked Corley to remove from the primary ballot.
In January, they filed a grievance with the state party about Bunting's purchase of computers without a vote. With a majority of the committee behind him Jan. 15, Bunting suggested the Kennedys be virtually ignored for the rest of the year, according to party meeting records.
"There will never be a disturbance at this meeting again," Bunting said, according to the records.
The morning of the June 20 deadline, Graves called state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. Fasano, no Bunting buddy, quickly called the state party. Fax the oaths to us, the state party said.
At 11:14 a.m., Graves' fax machine confirmed the some of the oaths arrived at the Tallahassee office. The Kennedys sent the rest. About 2 p.m., Graves called the state party, where field operative Brad Herold confirmed the oaths were accepted.
"This is a heck of a way to run a railroad," said Jack Kennedy, who spent 41 years in the Army and the reserves.
An uncertain future
Amid the strife, Graves insists unity will come after the primary. But before then?
"I'm not really sure what is going to transpire," Graves said.
Gordon said Florida Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer will talk with Pasco Republicans to resolve the strife. But Greer was in Europe with Crist last week, unavailable to help.
"After talking to the state party, they assured me that it would be not chairman Bunting making the decision (about accepting the oaths), it will be chairman Greer," Fasano said. He said the local party shouldn't pull strings to disenfranchise potential members.
Bunting also dismissed Fasano's case for voting rights. Graves wants to be county chairman, and Bunting said Fasano eagerly showed up to help.
"Fasano would like to have a puppet," Bunting said.
David DeCamp can be reached at [email protected] or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6232.