NEW PORT RICHEY — Fred Taylor faced a decision. A Republican with three Purple Hearts from the Vietnam War, he wanted to run for office.
He had gone looking for help among Pasco County Republican leaders to run for Congress — and was turned away because those leaders were backing Gus Bilirakis in his bid for his father's congressional seat.
So on June 28, 2005, Taylor — a fan of Reagan — became a Democrat and ran a short, aborted campaign for the same seat. Though at home on national issues, he couldn't get enough support to continue, so he quit the race.
But the businessman from New Port Richey caught the eye of some Democratic leaders.
When they learned about the Indiana native's story, they liked him.
They agreed to help him run again this year — launching a sunny newcomer against a powerful lawmaker known for cultivating local senior voters, gathering lots of campaign money and making Democrats curdle: state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey.
Taylor acknowledged people have asked him why he as a newcomer would challenge a mainstay, one who wouldn't support him in 2005. Taylor responded the same way he has approached his life:
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His suburban, one-story home tells a lot about Taylor, 59.
Shih Tzus Buddy and Holly cuddle on his lap.
The bookshelf includes The Da Vinci Code, Truman and the Great American Bathroom Book, volumes 1 to 3.
Besides pictures of his wife, Patty, and family, there are also grainy pictures of war. Taylor near trees fried by Agent Orange. Taylor clutching his "trusty" M-16. Taylor recuperating.
He was hit by grenade shrapnel in his right leg in April 1968 at Hamburger Hill in Vietnam, soon after arriving with the 1st Calvary Division (Airmobile).
Purple Heart No. 1.
Taylor recovered before artillery shrapnel pierced his back about two months later. He still has the shard at home, heavy enough to be a paperweight.
Purple Heart No. 2.
"The smoke was coming out of my back," Taylor said.
Several days later, he was sweeping for enemies. Hostile fire hit his foot and shredded his knee.
Purple Heart No. 3.
He was sent home for seven months of recovery, and retired from the Army. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees in education as his "average" life progressed. He kept up on veterans issues such as health care and homelessness, becoming the national commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart.
He rubbed shoulders with Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, including going to a 2005 inaugural ball. He even went to a Medal of Honor event featuring Vice President Dick Cheney.
"He didn't shoot me," Taylor joked.
Right man, right time
In 2002, Fasano first won his state Senate seat, and Taylor moved to his widowed mother's home in New Port Richey to care for her in the home in which he now resides. He created a nursing home consulting business and a mortgage brokerage that have all but dissolved amid poor economics and his political ambition. He now runs a business brokerage firm.
"I think the military trains you to serve," he said.
Taylor said he drifted from the GOP, despite a collection of pictures and paraphernalia of Republicans such as Bush, Newt Gingrich, Dan Quayle and U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez. There were too many scandals and divisive policies, he said. He had been a Democrat before the '80s anyway.
John Reid, the state Democrats' political director for Senate races, said Taylor's integrity made him a good candidate. The state party might not have targeted Fasano's District 11 seat — representing northern Pinellas and coastal Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties — without Taylor as the candidate, Reid said. Instead, the party has spent more than $20,000 on his behalf.
It also doesn't hurt that public opinion of Republicans generally is in the tank.
But Fasano expects to have raised $400,000 by this summer, perhaps 20 times what Taylor has collected. Taylor's name is admittedly more synonymous with a pro football running back that politics. And he has a Democratic primary challenger Aug. 26, college student Richard Skandera of Palm Harbor, though Skandera lacks the party's support.
"One of the things that I would suggest to Mr. Taylor is that he shouldn't take it for granted that he's going to be the Democratic nominee," Fasano said.
Taylor acknowledged victory is unlikely, and Fasano will raise more money than he can. But Taylor said voters seem to want a change, and there's more than enough independent voters to offset the Republican advantage in the Senate district. Republicans have an advantage of 18,000 voters over Democrats, but more than 70,000 third-party and independent voters live there.
After 14 years of Fasano in the Legislature, Taylor said people should ask themselves what they have gained. Taylor argues Fasano has not done enough to curb insurance rate increases, for example.
And they should ask themselves the question Taylor poses:
"What can Mike Fasano do that I can't?"
David DeCamp can be reached at email@example.com or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6232.