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Senator at top of his game

TALLAHASSEE — When Florida legislators approve the state's slimmed down budget this week, no one may be as proud as Sen. Mike Fasano.

Despite the smallest state budget in four years, the New Port Richey Republican wedged in $10-million to help build roads near schools on his home turf, Pasco County. There's also $5-million to recruit companies to Pasco. And another $10-million to improve affordable housing in three counties. One of them: Pasco.

And that's just a partial list for the senator, whose district also includes parts of Citrus, Hernando and Pinellas counties.

"Somehow, it all ends up in Pasco," said Sen. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg.

After 14 years in the Legislature, Fasano has emerged as the Tampa Bay area's most powerful lawmaker — however unlikely.

It's not because he's the most popular. In fact, he is among the Senate's loners, sometimes at odds with his fellow caucus members, and often a critic of his Democratic colleagues.

But through study, hard work, and an uncanny ear for populist causes — from U.S. flag-flying issues to bashing insurers — he has had success after success passing legislation.

This makes him respected, but not beloved. Lobbyists rue his bad side, but laud his know-how of the system. Democratic Party leaders grit their teeth. Some Republicans do the same.

He holds sway over the state's road and economic development budget. He used that post last week to trumpet Gov. Charlie Crist's push for a gasoline tax cut and to come to the rescue of the Road Rangers service that helps distressed motorists.

In a town where money means power, lobbyists trail his moves, grasping for budget dollars.

"I didn't come up here to Tallahassee to win a beauty contest with the 'third chamber,' the lobbyists and the special interest groups," Fasano said. "I came here to do what I believe is good policy for my constituents."


The senator's workday starts early, often before 6:30 a.m. By then, he is well into his e-mail in his dimly lit Capitol office, where every pen has an exact place.

Fasano, a local Morgan Stanley associate vice president, served in the House for eight years before joining the Senate in 2002. But he's not on anyone's list to be Senate president.

Though chairman of the Tampa Bay delegation, he skipped a reception in its honor this spring. Fasano said he hasn't been to Clyde's & Costello's, a popular bar a block from the Capitol, in 14 years. At home, he lives with his mother.

His main fellowship comes with a group of lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, who meet to share their faith. The lawmakers call themselves the "God Squad," accepting the name others gave them.

"He's hardworking and very loyal," Webster said. "Those two things, it doesn't matter what you do, you go a long way."

In the House, Fasano was one of its most partisan members while catering to west Pasco constituents. But Fasano angered people in a place with memory, leading to his resignation as majority leader in 2001. He said he has learned from the process.

Democrats still remember. Asked about Fasano, Sen. Steve Geller, the talkative minority leader, wouldn't comment. Rep. Dan Gelber, the House minority leader, paused, too. He called Fasano "very dogged. … I mean that in a good way."

In 2001, Fasano tangled with lobbyist Ron Book over a bill involving the Florida Marlins. The bill ended up dying, and a client of Book called Fasano a "liar."

"I don't ever want to be in that place again," said Book, who gave $5,000 last year to Fasano's electioneering committee, Floridians for Principled Government.

But there's respect that comes with Fasano. His staff is meticulous and efficient, sending reams of messages to the media and residents. Insurance lobbyist Mark Delegal calls Fasano "disciplined."

However, Fasano's aggressive populism can cause other lawmakers to scoff. On Monday, he proposed a gas tax holiday, just after top lawmakers had finished talks on a budget that faced a $3.2-billion revenue shortfall.

"Sen. Fasano has not talked to me, so I don't know what his plan is," said the Senate's top budget writer, Sen. Lisa Carlton, R-Osprey, after floor debate ended.

In the background, a cameraman hired by Fasano was shooting video for a campaign ad.

But Fasano isn't above helping a special interest.

In 2005, he had to back off a proposal to help Bank of America keep millions in disputed bank fees. Last year he unsuccessfully pushed two measures that would have helped a business' bottom line: a tax break for the Tampa Bay Lightning and a requirement that middle school girls be given a controversial cervical cancer vaccination.

This year, the money for affordable housing led lobbyist Richard Pinsky to chide Fasano for helping boost the value of private housing and business for banks. Pinsky lobbies for public housing.

"It's a bill that's a sweet deal for the banking industry," he said.

Fasano disagreed, saying it will help people stay in their homes. "It shows sour grapes on his part," he said, "because he wasn't able to get what he wanted for his clients."

And Fasano did. Again.

Tallahassee bureau chief Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

Senator at top of his game 04/29/08 [Last modified: Friday, May 2, 2008 10:03pm]
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