NEW PORT RICHEY — Years ago, state Sen. Mike Fasano helped campaign for an ambitious young legislator he pegged as someone with plenty of potential. The legislator's name? Marco Rubio.
On Saturday, Rubio took a public swipe at Fasano.
Rubio, 38, is running now in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate against Gov. Charlie Crist, a close friend and political ally of Fasano. Asked what he thought about Fasano's support of Crist, Rubio made an off-the-cuff remark:
"Maybe Mike Fasano supports the stimulus package."
These days, especially among Republicans, those are fighting words. And so they were off.
Fasano e-mailed a letter Thursday to Rubio, saying his comment to the St. Petersburg Times "demonstrates a lack of maturity."
"Marco, you give a great speech that excites many, but you are woefully unable to provide solid solutions to the real problems the citizens of Florida face," he wrote. "It is easy when you are not in office to lob bombs at those who still are, but that my friend, is not statesmanship."
Fasano said in the letter that all Republican members of the state House of Representatives, all but one Republican member of the Florida Senate and all Republican governors accepted stimulus money.
"I believe that if you were in the Florida House of Representatives, you, too, would have voted to accept these dollars in order to protect our seniors, protect our school children and keep from adding to our struggling residents' tax burden."
Fasano ended his letter by asking Rubio to specify just how he would have dealt with a $6 billion state deficit without the stimulus dollars. "Concrete answers are needed please, Marco, and not more campaign talking points."
Fasano told the Times that Rubio "is going to be, one day, a great U.S. Senator." But not now. "He's a young man who's got a lot to learn," Fasano said.
Rubio's campaign wrote back a few hours later.
"Thank you for your letter regarding Governor Crist's strong support for the Obama Stimulus. Or should we say his former support for the Obama Stimulus?" said the letter signed by spokesman Alex Burgos. "Or is he supporting it again today? Regardless, thank you for your letter."
The letter does not answer Fasano's question about balancing the budget without stimulus money. But it makes reference to a televised interview earlier this year, before the stimulus was approved, in which Fasano said he did not support the proposed package.
"Your letter misrepresents Marco Rubio's position on the Stimulus package. Unless you have followed Gov. Crist's lead and changed your position, Mr. Rubio agrees with you that Governor Crist was wrong to endorse it."
Burgos said in an interview that "this campaign is about Marco Rubio and Charlie Crist." He said Rubio's criticism of Crist is over the governor's endorsement of the stimulus package before it passed. To have the support of a Republican governor of a large state, he said, "was a bipartisan tipping point."
So would Rubio have taken the stimulus money? "After it's passed, it's obviously a different matter," he said.
In the letter, Burgos also asks Fasano to get Crist to debate Rubio.
"Unless you have recently changed your mind as well, you are both an opponent of the stimulus and a fervent Charlie Crist supporter," the letter says. "Therefore, you are in a unique position to help facilitate these debates."
Fasano didn't appreciate the tone of the response ("Speaking of wasting taxpayer money, we noticed you sent your campaign letter using your official Florida Senate email," Rubio's campaign e-mail said) nor the fact that it was written by a staffer, and not Rubio himself.
"Has Marco Rubio gotten so high in his britches that he doesn't reply to a friend and a senator in his state?" Fasano said. "My constituents deserve a reply. … Shame on Marco Rubio."
Fasano, who earned a reputation as an ambitious and at times tenacious politician, has watched Rubio's political climb over the past decade.
So does Rubio remind Fasano of himself at that age?
"We've all learned from our mistakes," he said. "He's in the process of learning."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.