1. Archive

Pasco Republicans face growing pains

Published Oct. 13, 2005

Along three of Pasco County's busiest roads, motorists have a good chance of seeing one of these red, white and blue billboards: Unify Pasco County

Register Republican

Half that dream is coming true. In the past 20 years, Pasco has grown from a rural Democratic stronghold to a suburban county with nearly as many registered Republicans as Democrats.

Even so, the GOP in Pasco appears anything but unified. The party's outspoken state committeeman, Michael Fasano, has vowed to "work like a pig" to ensure that two Republican county commissioners do not get elected to anything next year.

Such open hostilities have polarized the party and led some long-time Republicans to question the GOP's effectiveness.

"There's been damage done to the Republican Party," said Donald Ferris, who quit his post as the party's treasurer last year. "We are not the unified party they pretend to be. The party is split wide open."

The split he describes comes at a time when Pasco itself is coming of age in the Tampa Bay area.

With more than 281,000 people, many who commute to jobs in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, Pasco has become a force. It has demanded a say on water supply issues, planned corridors for super highways and sent politicians to Tallahassee who have risen to leadership positions.

The county has changed dramatically from a decade ago, when its government was inefficient and corrupt. Some greedy developers took advantage of that ineptness to make fortunes based on rapid growth.

Then the bottom fell out.

The commission chairman was carted off to prison for taking bribes from developers, and a grand jury called for an overhaul.

County Administrator John Gallagher's cleanup job was made easier as county commissioners, Republican and Democrat alike, pulled together through eight years to build a modern jail and garbage incinerator. It created a network of parks and libraries. It diverted sewage from open ditches to new treatment plants. A county that had been under orders from state regulators to clean up its act did just that.

Of course, it cost money. Tax bills rose, giving politicians on the outside an issue. Last November, Republicans Bonnie Zimmer and Ed Collins rode a wave of anti-tax, anti-incumbent sentiment to victory over two long-time commissioners, Democrats Curtis Law and Allan Safranek.

The election signaled an end to Gallagher's bi-partisan support. And while it shows that the GOP has gained muscle, it is just as clear that local Republicans speak with many voices.

The rift in the GOP went public last year when commissioners denied Republican Sheriff Jim Gillum's request for a 54 percent budget increase.

On the night of their final budget hearing, commissioners were met by a picket line of sheriff's employees carrying signs and chanting:

"What do we need?

"A new commission!

"When do we need it?


Among the picketers was Ed Collins, vice chairman of the Republican Party of Pasco and then a commission candidate.

Gillum got a 31 percent increase, most of it to run the new jail. Later, 13 GOP executive committee members wrote to Republican commissioners Mike Wells and Ann Hildebrand. Ten of the 13 worked for Gillum.

"You can expect from us EXACTLY THE SAME SUPPORT in the primary (and there WILL be a 1992 Republican primary election) as you have given to your fellow Republican officeholder, Republican Sheriff Jim Gillum," they wrote.

Gillum said he had nothing to do with writing the letter. He also said he has no opinion to offer about whether Wells and Hildebrand should stay.

"That's for the voters to decide," he said. "The only thing I've ever said about the commissioners is that I've wanted commissioners who would at least listen to what we have to present."

As it turns out, voters won't get a chance to consider Wells for the commission race next year. He said last week that he plans to run for something in 1992, but it won't be for re-election to the commission. Hildebrand has not said whether she will seek a third term.

In all, three county commissioners, two School Board members, the school superintendent, sheriff, clerk of circuit court, property appraiser, tax collector and supervisor of elections will be up for re-election next year.

The sheriff's race is likely to be hotly contested. Embarrassing disclosures rising from Gillum's divorce could draw a crowd of candidates. Already, the sheriff's former chief legal counsel, Lee Cannon, is considering challenging Gillum in the Republican primary.

Pasco's Democrats once enjoyed such an overwhelming advantage in registration that the GOP was irrelevant.

Most elections were decided in the Democratic primary, so "the Democratic Party was the party to belong to, especially if you wanted to vote," Supervisor of Elections Kurt Browning said.

Browning attributes some of the GOP's gains to momentum it built in the Reagan-era and its standing among young voters.

Demographic trends also have helped. In the 1970s, Pasco's population swelled with retirees from the Northeast and Midwest. Many registered Republican.

"I'm pretty confident that most of the growth in the Pasco Republican Party is due to some demographic changes that have been taking place, especially in-migration," said Darryl Paulson, associate professor of political science at the University of South Florida.

Despite its growth, the GOP is still working to consolidate its gains.

While the party picked up two County Commission seats last year, Bob Martinez got only 39 percent of the vote on the way to losing the governor's mansion to Democrat Lawton Chiles. And former state Rep. John Renke, whose position as House Minority leader made him among the most influential Republicans in Tallahassee, lost to first-time candidate Phil Mishkin.

Finally, despite vigorous campaigns, Republicans Tom Hogan and Charles Canady lost races for state Senate seats representing parts of Pasco.

Ted Williams, the county's savvy Democratic property appraiser, says races such as Hogan's suggest that party affiliation might not carry much weight with voters.

"They spent a fortune in that race, and it was a total landslide," he said. "How do you figure that?"

Undeniably, Pasco's Republican Party has grown. But has it grown up?

The party's leaders say it has. Sitting in the GOP's storefront headquarters on U.S. 19, Chairman Robert Laine said the party is less "fractionalized" than ever. He played down the attack that state committeeman Michael Fasano has launched on commissioners Hildebrand and Wells.

"Yes," he said, "we may have differences of opinion with each other, but it's not out and out infighting with each other."

Moments after Laine made his unity statement, party member Simpson VanOrden walked in to ask that the party's ethics committee discipline Fasano.The day before, VanOrden chastised Fasano publicly for breaking the GOP's so-called 11th Commandment: Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.

"The guy has ruined the party," VanOrden said, and he's not the only person talking about Fasano these days.

Fasano is president of the 575-member West Pasco Republican Club and has been Pasco's state committeeman since 1984. In both roles, he has inspired either fervent loyalty or deep distrust, but little between.

"He young, he's aggressive and he works like a beaver," said Pat Kerr, who chairs the club's membership committee.

Commissioner Wells focuses more on what he sees as Fasano's motives.

"He's a political freeloader and opportunist and has done nothing for this community except promote his own back-room causes," Wells said. "Here is a guy who has been trying to figure out a way for years to make money off of government through his contacts in the Republican Party in Pasco County."

Fasano puts down both reactions to his zeal.

"Somebody said to me one day that you either like Mike Fasano or you hate him," he said. "I'm a Republican first, and maybe that's what gets me in trouble."

A high school dropout who worked as a newspaper carrier, Fasano unsuccessfully ran for the County Commission in 1986 against Curtis Law. A year later, he got a job with the state lottery, only to quit under pressure from former lottery Secretary Rebecca Paul for using his office telephone for politics.

Last summer, while working as a stockbroker for the Port Richey office of Dean Witter Reynolds, Fasano convinced Pasco Clerk of Circuit Court Jed Pittman to invest tens of millions of taxpayers' dollars in mutual funds. Pittman did not seek proposals from other brokers or tell the County Commission before proceeding with Fasano.

At the same time, Fasano was one of many Republicans urging Pittman, a lifelong Democrat, to change parties. Pittman's switch and the investments occurred within weeks of each other.

Fasano and Pittman say the timing was coincidental, but Wells, Hildebrand and Democrat Sylvia Young voted to move the county's money back into a state investment pool. Fasano lost an account that had paid him $32,000 in commissions.

In May, Fasano went on the offensive. His Republican club newsletter said Wells, Hildebrand and Young "voted themselves a trip to Hawaii, paid for by your tax dollars." The newsletter did not point out that although the commissioners authorized the trip, which was for a county commissioners convention, no one went. Nor did it say that the matter was brought up at Zimmer's request.

"When you go after somebody, you use every effect possible," Fasano said. "This is politics, and when it is politics and not personal, everything goes."

Fasano also said that he "will work like a pig" ensure the defeat of Wells, Hildebrand and Young.

Fasano's critics see that as vengeful.

"I think it's time that somebody takes him on," Wells said. "He's made it clear that he's going to do everything he can do to defeat me. Well, he'd better be looking over his shoulder."

Hildebrand is less combative but no less willing to yield to pressure.

"I have to look at myself in the mirror and I enjoy putting my lipstick on straight," she said. "I look at both sides of every issue."

Whether such rancor will hurt the GOP's chances of dominating Pasco one day as Republicans control Pinellas County is, predictably, a matter of some disagreement.

Fasano brushes off the idea of a split.

"Divisiveness is when you have 50-50, or 60-40, not 99-to-1, or in this case, 98-to-2," he said. "Ninety-nine percent of the members of the Republican executive committee are upset at the way Mike Wells and Ann Hildebrand are acting."

Bob Laine, the local party chairman, insists that Fasano doesn't speak for the party.

"Mike has an agenda unto his own," he said. "He speaks his mind, and I have no problem with that."

School Superintendent Thomas Weightman, who has the longest tenure of any Republican officeholder in Pasco, generally stays out of party politics. When pressed, though, Weightman said running feuds can hurt everyone.

"I think because of the increase in voters' registration, the Republican Party at this particular point in time has a great opportunity," he said. "I also know that if there's a lot of turmoil and strife in the party those opportunities can be lost."