Saturday, November 18, 2017

Party inside, outsider face off in Pasco GOP battle royal


Is there a less desirable position than that of committeeman, particularly when the job expectations include four years of meetings?

Just the title of committeeman conjures up images of boring gatherings with an inability to express individualism, but a responsibility to kowtow to the demand for loyalty. Committeeman sounds like it might rank right up there with company man when it comes to voicing sarcastic derision.

Unless the brand is the Republican Party and the branch office is in Pasco County. Then committeeman is highly coveted by ambitious party insiders, political junkies and those seeking to extend a legacy, gain influence or settle a score.

It also carries with it tenured longevity. Over the past quarter century, the Pasco Republican Party has had just three state committeemen: Mike Fasano, John Renke, and current incumbent Bill Bunting.

Bunting, the ex-chairman of the Pasco Republican Executive Committee, bounced former Florida House minority leader and longtime state committeeman Renke from the job four years ago. The normal, under-the-radar party position exploded into the public consciousness with an all-out campaign (combat?) complete with roadside signs and derogatory political mailers.

As Times staff writer Lee Logan reported, Bunting will face his own re-election challenge from an unexpected source, Steve Simon. Simon is a former two-term county commissioner who lost his bid for a third term in 2006 after switching his political allegiance to the Republican Party.

(For those wondering, the Times does not make candidate recommendations for party positions.)

In essence, this race will shape up as the ultimate insider against the ultimate outsider.

Bunting and his wife, Ann, have been active players in the Pasco Republican Party for going on two decades and bumped heads with past chairmen, party regulars, and political club enthusiasts in multiple high-profile disputes. She formed the Spirit of '76 Republican Club. He has been on the state committee for a decade, having served six years as local chairman and the past four as the elected committeeman.

Simon was an unknown Democrat, plucked from obscurity to successfully challenge two-term Republican County Commissioner Ed Collins in 1998. Simon, who had taught classes in real estate law, brought a high intellect and immediate leadership to a board that had been floundering. His switch to the GOP shortly after his 2002 re-election didn't sit well with former mentor, Michael Cox, who defeated Simon in 2006.

Except for a two-year stint at a low-profile radio gig, Simon has been absent from the public eye since his election defeat. He moved from west Pasco to a 55-and-older neighborhood in Land O'Lakes where his itinerary has included golf, walking the dog and riding a modest motorcycle.

Recently, a group of people opposed to Bunting's leadership asked Simon to run for state committeeman. He turned down the idea. That was before he talked with his beloved wife, Lillian.

"You need to re-engage again, and you can have a good, positive impact,'' Simon recounted his wife's encouragement.

So, this week, Simon announced he is in, hoping to re-emerge from political obscurity by running for a job swimming in political obscurity.

"A lot of people don't even know the position exists,'' said Simon.

Indeed. The contest is on the August primary ballot and will be decided by hard-core Republican voters — only 18 percent of the party faithful came to the polls in August 2008 — who might not even know what the volunteer post entails.

Bunting provided a job description that includes: acting as liaison to the state chairman; making sure the local party follows the rules and model constitution of the state party; attending statewide meetings four times a year; helping with fund-raising; and serving on other state party subcommittees. Bunting, for instance, is on the grievance committee that hears party disputes. Even he appreciates the irony of that assignment.

"I had the best experience because… I had grievances against me, so I've seen it from both sides.''

The penchant for intramural squabbling is the motivation for Simon's challenge. There is a long list of Pasco Republicans who believe they have been treated unfairly by Bunting or who think his platform focus is too limited. But, judging by his successful challenge to Renke in 2008, there are even more people who favor his leadership style.

I asked Bunting about the common perception that he is a bully.

"Well, I don't take any nonsense,'' he answered.

Policing the ranks is one thing, but nonsense shouldn't be synonymous with different points of view.

That will be the crux of this campaign. Republicans will be asked if leadership entails more than acting as a sergeant-at-arms — even among the politically obscure.


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