Sunday, May 20, 2018
Opinion

Stevens: Mike Fasano will remain a powerful player in Pasco

Seldom, if ever, has New Port Richey City Hall seen so much firepower.

The heavyweights took turns before the TV cameras Wednesday morning. Gov. Rick Scott stood beside the most powerful legislative delegation ever to represent Pasco County — House Speaker Will Weatherford, future Speaker Richard Corcoran and Sens. Wilton Simpson and John Legg.

Quite a gathering just to announce a new county tax collector.

Of course this wasn't just any new tax collector. Scott delighted in introducing Mike Fasano, but the governor's giddiness had more to do with ridding Tallahassee of a giant burr in his ultra-conservative saddle.

They exchanged compliments and goodwill, illustrating words to live by in the world of hardball politics: "Nothing personal.''

Eileen Ferdinand, the deputy tax collector who also aggressively sought the job after Mike Olson's sudden death June 26, probably didn't feel that way a few hours later when Fasano, in his first official act, fired her. He then installed his longtime trusted friend, Bill Poulos, a former Hillsborough County auditor with a masters in business administration.

This likely will earn Fasano some enemies, but he knew that going in. He said he is trying to help Ferdinand find other employment. Nothing personal.

The rock star treatment Fasano got from the governor and others illustrated more than their admiration of his considerable debating skills or his 19 years in the House and Senate. He has become enormously popular, and not just in Pasco.

A nod from Fasano can deliver votes, maybe even swing an election. And all those men slapping him on the back the other day know it. He might have a new office, but he's not giving up being a kingmaker. Politics is his passion. He'll enjoy his role as local GOP godfather, much as Olson did many years for the Democrats.

But while Olson served effectively and honorably for 32 years, it wouldn't surprise anyone to see Fasano, 55, seek another office someday.

Once known more as a party loyalist assigned to ensure lockstep with the leadership, Fasano has evolved into an effective maverick. He was the only House Republican who supported expanding Medicaid benefits, consistent with his history of advocating for the poor and vulnerable. When he expresses outrage over utilities gouging customers or a fat cat judge wasting money on an opulent "Taj Mahal'' courthouse, he makes you want to yell, "Right on!''

He has changed, all right, and in the process changed a lot of attitudes about him. Longtime Pasco politicos who once locked horns with a young Fasano now admire his record in Tallahassee, his tenacity to make sure Pasco didn't get left behind in the competition for state funds. But more than anything, Fasano has become legendary for constituent service.

He gets answers for people.

Here's a perfect example of how Fasano has endeared himself: Last year, he learned from the Times about a Port Richey woman who had a heart attack and rather than keep driving her car, parked it at the abandoned Service Merchandise store on U.S. 19. A towing company hauled it away and refused to return it unless she paid a few hundred dollars. Fasano went to war with the company and got the money refunded.

This is not an isolated incident. It is vintage Fasano, the most valuable chapter in his playbook and one that all politicians ought to copy.

The other day, as he rode home from the tax collector's office in Dade City, he reflected a bit about his transformation.

"Experience and knowledge changes you,'' he said. "When I was a freshman in the minority party, it was full speed ahead with blinders on. Follow the mantra, follow the leader. I'm so happy I have changed.''

   
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