BROOKSVILLE — The most vocal and effective critic of the Republican agenda in Tallahassee stood before a TV camera to assess the 2011 legislative session.
"C minus,'' he graded. "We were unsuccessful at getting any legislation even to the Senate or the House floor that would create jobs or stimulate our economy. We seem to only see legislation that would put more hurt on the consumers of the state of Florida. … The little guy and gal back home, they were not looked after in this last session."
The state Democratic party chairman? The minority leader in the state House or Senate?
Try state Sen. Mike Fasano, the lifelong Republican who was passing out campaign fliers for Ronald Reagan long before the GOP came to dominate Florida politics.
Longtime friends are scratching their heads at Fasano's penchant for regularly criticizing fellow Republicans.
One moment Fasano, 52, is blasting colleagues for supporting an insurance bill he insists will sock consumers with big rate increases. The next he's calling Gov. Rick Scott "clueless" for talking about phasing out state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp. Or telling a Pasco civic group that the session was tainted by Republican Senate President Mike Haridopolos' U.S. Senate ambitions and House Speaker Dean Cannon's prospects as a lobbyist.
"Somewhere along the line, something shifted for Mike. I've noticed the change. I don't know whether deep down Mike is a moderate,'' said state Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who in one committee meeting this spring rebuked Fasano for badgering one of Scott's prison administrators talking about cutting hundreds of corrections jobs. "Mike was a stalwart for Tom Feeney, probably one of the most conservative House speakers Florida ever had. Think about that for a minute.''
Fasano acknowledges he's a lot different from the fiercely partisan GOP activist who in the late 1980s sought to rid Pasco County government of Democrats and moderate Republicans. Not his core ideas, but his style and partisan edge.
"It's not that I'm not a die-hard Republican, I just happen to believe that we as Republicans can be and should be compassionate,'' said Fasano, who consistently supports tax cuts, abortion restrictions and gun rights. "Ronald Reagan was a compassionate Republican. Remember, he didn't grow up with a silver spoon in his mouth. … And Rick Scott grew up poor. That's why it surprises me that he has a difficult time relating to the little guy and gal who are struggling right now."
"The little guy and gal." Fasano refers to them almost as often he peppers conversation with "God bless."
Friends say the populist streak stems from Fasano's connection to constituents like his late parents: blue-collar retirees who flocked to Pasco County in the 1970s, drawn to ranch homes selling for under $10,000. His father, a butcher, died of cancer when Fasano was 15. He quit high school for odd jobs to support his family and lived with his mother until her death six months ago.
That bias for people who live paycheck to paycheck, or Social Security check to Social Security check, drives Fasano's ideology (along with a love of attention, say critics). He has always thundered not only against higher taxes but also insurance and utility rate hikes.
"There are very few people left in Tallahassee that advocate on behalf of the consumer, the little guy, the little gal, the rate payer, the benefit payer. It's very sad, and I believe it's because of the enormous influence of special interests, which is greater than ever before,'' said Fasano, in his 17th year as a legislator. He's also a VP at Morgan Stanley and director of community relations at Florida Hospital Zephyrhills. "The insurance industry came into this session believing they had a governor who would sign anything that was sent to him that would help the insurance companies. And they were absolutely correct."
Fasano did more than anyone to let Scott know even fellow Republicans would not be shy in pushing back on his agenda. A Scott spokesman brushed off Fasano's criticism.
"The governor isn't your typical politician who sees people as 'little guys' or 'big guys,' " said spokesman Brian Burgess. "He sees voters who are tired of career politicians who constantly grandstand for attention, and that is why he ignores silly insults and stays intensely focused on turning the state around, creating jobs and improving education options for parents."
Term-limited in 2012, Fasano is keeping an eye on the next political opportunity, which will depend heavily on redistricting. Among the options? Running for the congressional seat held by Rich Nugent, R-Brooksville, the state House seat held by John Legg, R-Port Richey, or a Pasco County office.
But some critics say Fasano has tweaked the GOP too many times, especially when he aggressively campaigned for former Gov. Charlie Crist against Marco Rubio, the Republican Party's nominee for U.S. Senate in 2010.
"I think he absolutely could run as a Democrat. He wants to be in public office his whole life and he'll do whatever it takes to get there,'' said Pasco Republican state committee member Bill Bunting, a frequent Fasano critic who contends Fasano could have trouble in a Republican primary.
"Fasano spent a lot of money going after Marco Rubio in this county, and Marco's very popular," Bunting said. "Fasano has stepped all over the Republican party and slapped us in the face. … Why should Republicans support him?"
Fasano acknowledged plenty of party regulars were angry at him for standing by Crist after he left the GOP. Loyalty matters, Fasano said, and he believed Crist would be better for Florida.
"Mike Fasano is one of the most courageous people I ever met in my entire life," Crist said. "I love him for his courage, his loyalty, his integrity and his love of Florida."
The state senator from New Port Richey burned some bridges with party activists but don't underestimate his support among constituents.
When campaign volunteers for state House candidate Richard Corcoran went door to door in Pasco last year, they told Republicans Corcoran was backed by Jeb Bush, Rubio and Fasano. Fasano's endorsement consistently carried the most weight.
"They would say if Sen. Fasano supports you, you must be okay. … He's become the Republican version of Claude Pepper. Seniors know that the one person that they can count on to fight for them and protect them is Mike Fasano," recounted Corcoran, a longtime friend who dismisses critics who say Fasano has moderated.
"A lot of his fights are against big industry," Corcoran noted. "He is a free-market guy and what these industries are asking for are not free-market principles. What they're asking for is either help or protection so they can make more money."
As the highest profile voice of the loyal opposition these days, Fasano is flooded with e-mails from across the state hailing his independence. He may be out of step with many in his party, but he is convinced he is more in tune with Floridians.
Especially the little guy and gal.
"We as Republicans run on this philosophy of no increased taxes, no increased fees. Yet some of my colleagues come to Tallahassee and push legislation that mandates utility increases, insurance increases,'' Fasano said. "A poll just came out that showed not only does Gov. Scott have an approval rating of less than 30 percent, but the Republican Legislature has a rating of even less than that. Somebody better take notice of this stuff because it should be a wake-up call.''
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com.