Mike Fasano knows he'd never win a popularity contest among his colleagues in the Florida Senate.
The 51-year-old Republican from New Port Richey has burned a few bridges during 16 years in the Legislature.
He proposed cutting lawmakers' salaries a couple of years ago as a symbolic statement of sharing the pain during tough times. He led the charge against "double-dipping" — the practice of highly paid public servants retiring briefly to start collecting lucrative pensions, only to return to their old six-figure jobs.
What endures is Pasco County populism — Fasano's visceral outrage at what he views as political arrogance, usually in the form of wasting taxpayers' money.
His current crusade: cracking down on lavish spending and insider dealing by a few of Florida's regional work force boards, which dole out millions in federal stimulus money for job creation.
When Fasano doesn't like something, he doesn't just complain. He calls it "outrageous," "unconscionable," "illegal," or "just plain wrong." Then he smiles and punctuates his comments with two words: "God Bless."
It doesn't much matter whose idea it is. He's appalled that some fellow GOP senators want to require the state insurance commissioner to undergo a formal job review and confirmation vote every two years — an idea he says will further politicize insurance regulation.
"Bad, bad, bad," Fasano said this week, sitting a few feet from Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, who's helping push the idea.
Bureaucrats dread entering Room 309 in the Capitol, where Fasano holds court as chairman of the Senate Transportation and Economic Development Appropriations Committee and controls about $16 billion in state spending.
The truth is, other legislators consider Fasano a headline-seeker. But his colleagues won't speak that bluntly on the record.
"Well, let's just say that I prefer to work behind the scenes," says Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, Fasano's House counterpart in overseeing spending for state transportation and economic development projects.
Asked his opinion of Fasano, Rep. Joe Gibbons, a Democrat from Hallandale Beach, said: "On the record?" Then he paused and said: "He has strong opinions, and he voices them."
Fasano is among the most loyal supporters of Gov. Charlie Crist. At a time when other Republicans are distancing themselves from a governor who's sinking in the polls, Fasano is standing by Crist and believes he'll bounce back and defeat Marco Rubio for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination.
His young, dedicated staff, led by Greg Giordano and Giovanni "Gino" Casanova, is a whirlwind of activity, and there always seem to be people lurking outside his door.
Long after other senators have doused the lights and headed out to socialize, Fasano is often in his spacious fourth-floor Capitol office, where he works with the lights off, seated behind a sparsely appointed desk without one paper out of place.
But the man clearly loves his work. At 6:30 p.m. one night this week, that familiar voice with a slightly nasal Long Island accent picked up the phone. "Office of Senator Mike Fasano," he said.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.