Former county Commissioner Steve Simon is back in the political game, looking to wrest the reins of Pasco's Republican Party from longtime leader Bill Bunting.
Simon said Tuesday that he wants to unseat Bunting for the role of GOP state committeeman, an unpaid job with the state party.
The move could reopen old fissures in the local party and serve as a referendum on Bunting, who many critics think is too heavy-handed. Simon said roughly 25 or 30 people met recently and asked him to run.
"He just picks who he likes, and if you didn't like him, you were in trouble," Simon said of Bunting's involvement in primaries. "You're not supposed to overtly engage in the level that he obviously does. That makes a lot of people unhappy."
He added: "I don't think he represents the party in the best way."
Bunting, 71, was elected to the post in 2008 after serving six years as chairman of the Pasco GOP. He said his critics recruited someone with high name recognition to run against him. He said he has a good idea of who recruited Simon, but he declined to name the person.
"I'm not the guy that turned around to support the Penny for Pasco tax," Bunting said, referring to Simon's support of the 2004 1-cent sales tax initiative that passed with 52 percent of the vote.
The state committeeman race — open only to registered Republicans in the August primary — will pit two strong personalities who have clashed in the past.
When Simon lost his County Commission seat in 2006 to Democrat Michael Cox, several high-profile Republicans blamed Bunting. In the final weeks of the campaign, Simon asked Bunting, then the chairman of the county party, for some financial assistance.
Bunting declined, deciding to put more resources toward nonpartisan School Board candidates who had raised less money.
At the time, some Republicans were particularly upset and said the party did not provide enough support for Simon, who was making his first run as a Republican. He had switched parties in 2002, shortly after winning his second commission term as a Democrat.
Bunting accused Simon of not volunteering or attending fundraising dinners since he left office.
"When he lost in 2006, I thought he was going back to the Democratic Party because I never heard from him again," Bunting said.
Simon, 59, declared his candidacy Monday night at a meeting of the Conservative Club of East Pasco. He plans to file paperwork for the position this week with the Supervisor of Elections Office and the Republican Party of Florida.
Even the venue for Simon's announcement underscored old party disputes. The east Pasco club lost its charter with the Pasco Republican Party in 2005 after a dispute with Bunting over the penny tax and the 2004 GOP primary for schools superintendent.
Simon said his dissatisfaction with Bunting is only half of the reason he's running. He has a litany of complaints about the Obama administration, including the health care law and Obama's decision to have the Commerce Department run the 2010 Census. A state-level position would give him a bigger platform to challenge those policies and "be able to have some impact," he said.
In the Republican Party of Florida, each county is represented by a committeeman and a committeewoman. They vote on state-level party leaders and also have input on the party's platform. Simon said he would also be able to recruit like-minded candidates for office.
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.