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Formidable Collins faces pit bull Cox

The little yellow note has hung from Michael Cox's desk lamp for months, a constant reminder.

"Collins says I can't win," it tells Cox every time he looks up from paperwork at his auto repair shop.

Weeks before the Democratic primary, before he trounced primary opponent Al Cortis, Cox pointed to that note. He leaned across his desk and spoke with finality. "I'm going to prove him wrong."

Unseating Republican County Commissioner Ed Collins means overcoming the baggage of being associated with Port Richey's circus-like politics. It means beating an incumbent formidable enough to scare off a primary challenge even from within Pasco's fractious GOP.

But Cox, a 5-foot-4 pit bull of a campaigner, talks as though he couldn't be more sure of himself.

"He's running scared because he is going to lose," he said nonchalantly Friday, after hearing of Collins' accusing him of being responsible for a destroyed campaign sign.

The back and forth between Cox and Collins has been fairly tame so far, but if ever there were a race where the gloves are likely to come off, this is it. Here are two politicians who have never shied away from confrontation or controversy.

Since rising from political obscurity during the past six years, Collins has tangled with such heavyweights as Sheriff Lee Cannon, Property Appraiser Ted Williams and former Republican commission chairman Mike Wells, to name a few. This is a guy who during one famous feud with Cannon submitted to a lie detector test. He now regretfully remembers the way the newspaper photograph made him resemble "the mad bomber."

Cox has survived nearly six years of Port Richey's American Gladiators-style politics, where he rarely stayed on the sidelines. He grew up in a political family; his father was another former Port Richey mayor and local character who last made headlines when he was accused _ never charged _ of selling someone a fake diamond ring in a bar.

The outcome of the District 4 race will determine whether the turmoil and split votes that defined much of the last four years on the County Commission were anything more than a brief anomaly.

Voters in 1990 swept into office Collins and Bonnie Zimmer, and both have often sided together on the losing end of 3-2 votes. Zimmer was ousted in the primary, though Collins said he doubts her loss has any reflection on him.

The election's outcome also will determine whether Collins' sudden political rise was anything more than a blip on the political screen. Certainly, he has grown comfortable in the world of politics, giving up his transportation job to devote his time to the commission. Should he lose his re-election bid, he'll lose his main source of income, the commission's $47,141 salary.

"I don't intend on losing," the 52-year-old Collins said.

Don't look for big differences on the issues in this race, because the candidates offer platforms with few specifics. Cox talks vaguely about setting "pay for performance" standards for county staffers, and Collins says he likes the idea of merging the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority and Southwest Florida Water Management District, for example. But the real issues in this campaign are more general.

"It's a matter of character and integrity," Collins said. He cited the way Cox attacked his Democratic primary opponent, Al Cortis, in a last-minute mailing.

Collins also questions Cox's record in Port Richey, although he does not criticize Cox for any specific decisions. It's more Port Richey in general. He recalled the city's problems with streets, with sewers, with bickering. "If that's the kind of unity he wants to bring to the County Commission, we don't want it," Collins said.

The 30-year-old Cox served for nearly six years in Port Richey government, and maintains he is proud of his record there. More than anything, though, he stresses his experience running a small business, which he maintains will help him keep taxes stable.

At age 20, Cox started making payments on his family's automotive business and eventually bought it. He recently opened his third Pasco repair shop in Land O'Lakes.

He began targeting Collins' seat months before Cox announced his retirement from Port Richey politics in 1993. "Collins has not done a good job. He's been playing politics for four years," said Cox.

Collins questioned Democratic Sheriff Lee Cannon's purchase of a surveillance plan and Democratic Tax Collector Mike Olson's request for a new printing system, Cox recalled. But Collins saw no problem granting Republican Clerk of Court Jed Pittman an additional $112,000 for his budget in the middle of the year.

"The common denominator in all of that is politics. It's clear politics," Cox said.

Collins dismissed those accusations as political rhetoric. "Every decision I make is for the best interest of the county," he said.

His own platform mirrors the general set of goals he offered four years ago: strive to keep taxes down, protect the environment, promote economic development and be accessible to voters. He cites as his biggest accomplishments the enacting of a bingo ordinance that helped shut down commercial bingo halls and striving to keep down budgets.

On the budget, Collins can legitimately claim that he has taken a leadership role in cutting spending out of budget proposals. At the same time, he is vulnerable to criticism for supporting several unbudgeted spending measures, including buying a $1.1-million office building in Land O'Lakes.

He also took heat for refusing to vote in favor of the budget last year, which included a tax rate increase and almost all of the cuts he proposed. This year was a much smoother budget process, with commissioners unanimously passing a budget that required virtually no tax increase.

Indeed, Collins lately has managed to avoid the confrontations that have drawn him into the center of so many controversies. At least until this election.

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