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Campaign brings softer political styles

Three years ago, Michael Fasano was the combative politico promising to work "like a pig" to oust some fellow Republicans from the County Commission.

Two years ago, he told everybody who would listen that the Republican nominee to replace state Rep. Phil Mishkin was a crook, though he offered no evidence.

And this year? Fasano is running one of the cleanest issue-based campaigns in any local state House race.

This is the year of transformations into kinder, gentler candidates, not only for Fasano but more recently for his political ally, County Commissioner Ed Collins. The commissioner, who once called for the resignation of a fellow commissioner, has been talking about unity and consensus on the board.

"It certainly is a refreshing change," said County Commission Chairman Ann Hildebrand, who has been a target of Collins' and Fasano's attacks. "I don't think the public particularly cares for confrontation methods, and I think Mike and Ed are cognizant of that."

Their shift in styles is remarkable considering their contentious histories. Pasco County politics over the past four years has largely been defined by infighting and divisiveness, and Ed Collins and Mike Fasano have been at the forefront of the divisive politics. Until lately.

"People are able to change. We all change in life," Fasano said, miffed over questions about his new style. "Why is it that when people change, they are suspect? . . . I'm not trying to pull the wool over anyone's face."

Fasano has run unsuccessfully for County Commission and the state House, and other politicians who have tangled with him suggest the new Mike Fasano is little more than a new, more practical package.

"When you try one thing and it doesn't work, you try something else," said James Hollingsworth, a Republican former county commissioner. "Mike has always been sort of a junkyard dog. He's always been on the attack and very quick to use negative. (Now) he's being the perfect gentleman."

Few local politicians have been the source of as much controversy over the past decade as Mike Fasano.

Even before his aggressive attacks on some incumbent county commissioners, he drew headlines. In 1987, Fasano was forced out of his job as a lottery sales representative for mixing politics with his state job. Another Pasco ally, former state Rep. John Renke, had distributed Fasano's lottery phone number for Republican convention delegates to contact for assistance.

The Fasano fireworks really began soon after Collins and Bonnie Zimmer joined the commission four years ago on a tide of voter anger that tossed two veteran commissioners out of office. Both were closely allied with Fasano and his wing of the Pasco GOP, and soon after they joined the board the other commissioners _ Republicans Hildebrand and Mike Wells and Democrat Sylvia Young _ found themselves under attack.

While Fasano acknowledged a dramatic shift in his public persona lately, Collins did not. The bickering and the regular 3-2 commission votes have subsided lately because other commissioners have been more accepting of him, he said.

"When I first came on the commission, there was a resentment: "Here's these new upstarts and we're going to put them in their place.' It takes a while for people to get to know people and for people to trust people, even fellow commissioners," Collins said.

Hildebrand strongly disagreed. As she recalled it, the bitter divisions began after the board learned that Circuit Court Clerk Jed Pittman had quietly invested tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer money through Fasano, a stockbroker.

A lifelong Democrat, Pittman had begun making the investments about the same time that Fasano and other Republicans convinced him to switch to the GOP. Though Fasano acknowledged making more than $30,000 in commissions, he has maintained that his political dealings with Pittman had nothing to with the investments.

The board voted, with Zimmer and Collins dissenting, to take over responsibility for investing county money. A veritable war was under way, with Fasano leading the charge.

Fasano's West Pasco Republican Club mailings railed about "the three amigos" that should be unseated. Collins and Zimmer supporters started wearing "two down, three to go" buttons, they railed against Hildebrand, Young, Wells, and sometimes against County Administrator John Gallagher on a local radio station owned by another ally, Glenn Adkins. They lambasted commissioners reluctant to grant former Sheriff Jim Gillum, another Collins/Fasano ally, his full budget requests.

By 1992, when the other three commission seats were up for re-election, the "two down, three to go" faction seemed to be on a roll. But it wasn't.

None of the candidates backed by the Fasano/Collins faction won. Fasano himself was running to replace Democratic state Rep. Phil Mishkin, but lost his Republican primary to the late Ken Altman. He ended up offering to give Mishkin negative information on Altman, infuriating some Republicans.

The 1992 elections ground to a halt whatever momentum the Fasano faction may have had. It also may have served as a lesson to him about the effectiveness of brass-knuckles politics in Pasco.

"It's just like selling soap or automobiles or computers or anything else," said Democratic Property Appraiser Ted Williams. "You find out what works. . . . The boy is really smart _ from a practical standpoint, not an educational standpoint _ and he made the transformation."

But can someone with as much history as Fasano convince voters he really has changed?

"Memories aren't real long," Williams said, noting that Fasano has generally avoided controversy since the 1992 elections.

Fasano dismissed suggestions that his new style has anything to do with the elections of 1992 or political expediency. He said it is more a matter of being young, and, since his father died when he was 13, too independent.

"With independence comes a little bit of arrogance. I guess it just took awhile before I realized that, hey, Mike, you're not always correct. . . . I'm not going to say I regret anything I've done. That's too harsh. But maybe at times I should have looked at the situation and thought before I spoke."

This contrite politician is the same guy who three years ago advised, "When you want to go after somebody you use every effect possible," and that in politics, "everything goes."

Collins' change in style is less dramatic, and certainly more recent. Just a year ago, he was accusing Sheriff Lee Cannon of threatening to squash him like a bug. He and Zimmer infuriated the rest of the board when they refused to vote for a final budget that called for a tax increase, but which they had played a key role in shaping.

This year, the budget process went smoothly with virtually no tax increase needed and little dissension on the board. Indeed, the 3-2 votes are becoming rarer on all issues. Whereas his allies used to harp on the county administrator's salary, Collins now tells people Gallagher deserves a raise.

"The last six months, he's been trying to fool everybody that he's Mr. Nice Guy," said Michael Cox, his Democratic challenger. "Since the day that Bonnie Zimmer lost her primary he has been telling people "Bonnie who?' "

Collins dismissed Cox's criticism as rhetoric and downplayed the amount of controversy he has been involved in. "The bottom line is I've been trying to do what's right for Pasco County."

Williams, however, suggested that Collins' less controversial style may have come too late for most voters.

"Ed has been involved in so much negative controversy over the last four years that a lot of people get a negative ding-ding when they hear his name or see his picture," he said. "You can't just change your spots overnight."