Mike Fasano's ambitions to represent Pasco in Congress appear to be dashed.
New political boundaries taking shape in Tallahassee include a new Pasco-centered congressional district that includes portions of northern Pinellas and Hillsborough. That would normally benefit the popular longtime state lawmaker.
The problem for Fasano? The district includes the home of a well-liked incumbent whose name is political gold around these parts: Gus Bilirakis.
"If a seat is drawn to where Congressman Bilirakis would be seeking re-election, I would not right now seek that seat," Fasano, R-New Port Richey, told the Times. "But that can change over the next few weeks or month or so."
Bilirakis plans to run for the new District 12, which isn't entirely new territory. He currently represents much of west Pasco, along with a strip of northern Pinellas and Hillsborough. He would lose a swath of eastern Hillsborough while picking up the balance of Pasco.
"I look forward to representing the entire county and all of its citizens," Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, said in a statement.
Bilirakis' father Mike Bilirakis served in Congress from 1983 to 2006. Until it was redrawn in 2002, his district included much of central and east Pasco, and many residents there are still familiar with the Bilirakis name.
Fasano ally Rep. John Legg — a member of the state House leadership who played a key role in drawing the new maps — said the district was a compromise. He would have preferred a district similar to an earlier proposal that combined Pasco and Hernando. Those two counties, he said, share the Suncoast Parkway and are both booming suburbs and water donors.
"I'm a little disappointed in the final product versus where we were," said Legg, R-Port Richey.
Fasano, who has removed himself from the redistricting process, said "there's no question" the two counties have more in common than what Pasco shares with its neighbors to the south.
Two-thirds of the new district's voters live in Pasco, with 18 percent in Pinellas and another 15 percent in Hillsborough. The seat's also solidly red, with 40 percent of voters registered Republican and 35 percent registered as Democrats. It went for Rick Scott by a 9-point margin in the 2010 governor's race.
The congressional map was approved by the House on Friday. The Senate is likely to consider it early this week, and legislative leaders don't expect any changes. It would then go to Scott for his approval.
If the earlier Pasco-Hernando seat had survived, many observers expected Fasano to challenge freshman U.S. Rep. Rich Nugent, of Brooksville. The new map puts Nugent in another district, though he doesn't get a free pass. His seat also includes U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns of Ocala, a 12-term incumbent with $2.4 million in the bank.
But Stearns said in a statement that he has not decided if he would campaign for the new Hernando-to-Ocala district. He is also considering a run in District 3, an adjacent North Florida seat with 70 percent of the voters he already represents.
Nugent said he is willing to take on a veteran Republican like Stearns to stay in Congress.
"The bottom line is, I hope that doesn't happen," Nugent said. "The ball is now in Cliff's court. I told him that I'm running. I was very plainspoken about it. I understand it's a tough decision for him, but at the end of the day we hope he makes the right decision, to run in District 3."
Nugent handily won his current district in 2010 by quietly filing at the last minute at the request of Brooksville Republican Ginny Brown-Waite, who said health problems kept her from seeking another term. That move angered some Republicans, including Fasano, who could have considered running for the open seat.
Is Nugent relieved that a potential challenge from Fasano was thwarted?
"Mike Fasano doesn't scare me in the least," he said. "We were prepared to go head to head if that's the way they'd drawn the maps."
Fasano's plans aren't chiseled in stone. For one thing, after Scott signs Florida's congressional map, it must still be reviewed by the U.S. Department of Justice to see if it complies with federal voting rights laws. Any changes could have ramifications on the new Pasco seat.
Plus, any citizen could challenge the districts in federal court, though that process might stretch beyond this year's qualifying period and affect the 2014 election.
There's also the chance that Fasano could run for the District 12 seat if U.S. Rep. C. W. Bill Young retires and Bilirakis opts to run in a Pinellas-based district. But many politicos say that scenario is unlikely.
But history shows that even the most likely scenarios can change. Thirty years ago, then-House Republican leader Curt Kiser was thought to be a lock for a new Tampa Bay Congressional district. He was upset by a little-known Tarpon Springs attorney. His name: Mike Bilirakis.
Absent a run for Congress, Fasano could be eyeing a return to the state House. With Legg campaigning for the Senate, Fasano could run for an open west Pasco-based House seat that is closely divided between Democrats and Republicans. (Pasco's other two House seats are almost certain to re-elect future House speakers Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel and Richard Corcoran of Trinity.)
Currently, the House District 46 race includes Pasco Republican Party vice chairman Jim Mathieu and Michael Kennedy, a Hudson Republican who has reported no fundraising activity. County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand has also been mentioned as a possible candidate.
Staff Writer Tony Marrero and news artist Darla Cameron contributed to this report. Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.