LAND O'LAKES — One-time state House candidate Ron Rice is poised to become the new chairman of the Pasco Democratic Party.
Rice, now a state committeeman, was the only candidate to file papers by the deadline. He will replace Alison Berke Morano, the two-term chairwoman who has faced criticism from several local Democrats over the party's November performance in Pasco.
"When it came down to the fact that Alison decided not to run again, I said, 'Well I can step in there and really make a difference," said Rice, 42, who lives near New Port Richey. "I think Alison was a good chair … I just hope to carry it on and keep moving forward."
Morano got a promotion at the state level from Florida Democratic Chairman Rod Smith, who has appointed her as one of four vice chairmen. She is also running for the Pasco party's vice-chairman position.
Democrats will meet Saturday to seal the deal on Rice and pick a new vice-chairwoman.
Morano said Wednesday she was proud of Pasco's Democratic turnout last November — 54 percent of the county's registered Democrats voted, which put Pasco in the top 20 counties — even as the party struggled against a "tsunami of national politics."
"We did everything we could," she said.
But Morano came under fire after the elections from one of Pasco's most prominent Democrats, Michael Cox, who lost his seat on the County Commission amid a heavy turnout of Republican voters.
Cox, a former Democratic chairman, said the local party failed to do its basic jobs: recruit candidates, raise money, build its precincts and turn out its base. He said Morano, in particular, had put too much of her effort into statewide politics — she also serves as the chairwoman of Florida Democratic Party Chairs Association
"In Pasco county, in particular, I suffered because there was nobody else on the Democratic ticket trying to get Democrats to go out and vote,'' Cox said. "I don't want to sound like sour grapes or that I'm blaming them for my defeat ... but clearly the fundamental things they're supposed to be doing, they didn't do."
Last summer, Cox told Democrats at a monthly meeting that he wasn't impressed with how they were gearing up for the November elections. Then, in December, at a Pasco Democrat Executive Committee meeting, Cox asked Morano not to run again.
She agreed, though Morano said Wednesday that Cox did not play a role in her decision.
"Even before Michael asked me that, I knew I was ready to pass on the leadership," she said. "It was never in my design to stay indefinitely."
Jim Piccillo, a Lutz Democrat who made an unsuccessful bid for Congress last November, also criticized local party leaders for not recruiting candidates and for not matching the Pasco GOP's more aggressive outreach.
"We're dealing with a machine in the Republicans," he said. "We need to create the machine."
He also cited the low number of Democratic precinct committeemen — just under 40. Pasco has about 109,125 registered Democrats.
"There's a whole lot of irrelevancy going on," he said.
Piccillo had talked about running for the Pasco chairman spot but decided not to. He cited a new health consulting job, but also disappointment that Rice and Morano are still in leadership positions.
"Rather than fight a losing battle I'd much rather put my family first and focus on my job," he said.
Cox said he wasn't sure Rice was the right choice, either, considering he had not seen any specific proposals from Rice for shaking things up.
"I like Ron a lot. I think he's a really nice person," he said. "Without a concrete plan on how they're going to go and recruit people, I don't know if it's going to change."
Rice lost a bid for a House seat in 2008 to incumbent John Legg, R-Port Richey. Rich said Wednesday that he is still developing proposals for recruiting and outreach, though one of his first orders of business will be to reach out to local minority organizations.
"Obviously you can always do better," he said. "Until every office in Pasco has a Democrat in it, we can always keep moving forward."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.