SPRING HILL — Jeff Stabins was a local government staple, serving in state and local offices and often snagging attention for his strong stand on issues and his humorous approach to government and life.
The former three-term state House representative and two-term Hernando County Commissioner was found dead in his Spring Hill home on Sunday. Officials with the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office said a preliminary investigation found no foul play involved and did not release a cause of death.
Mr. Stabins, 60, was born in New York and for several recent years since he left the commission seat was a snowbird dividing his time between his two home states.
He toyed with several runs for public office after leaving the commission in 2012. Late last year, he launched a largely-symbolic run for the White House to protest his unhappiness with the tenure of Pres. Donald Trump. A Republican for nearly all of his political life, Stabins adopted the slogan “Make America Good Again” and drove around Hernando County in a truck emblazoned with that sentiment.
Mr. Stabins was a retired teacher who worked in the Hernando County schools.
He was class president and valedictorian at Watertown High School in New York and earned advanced degrees in education at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York.
Friends and family remembered him for his enthusiasm for good government, his vast knowledge of American history, his love of sports and classic TV shows, his often odd answering machine messages and his love of his two dogs who died in recent years.
For a while as commissioner, Mr. Stabins ran a blog about county government he suggested was written by his dog; he called it “Rusty’s Tail." It offered an insider’s look at government, using fake names and sometimes exaggerated circumstances.
He also serenaded former Commissioner Rose Rocco when she left the board, doing his own version of Take Me Home Country Roads, and he sang a Hernando-centric version of the song I’ve Been Everywhere at the county fair several years ago.
Stabins’ cousin Steven Rich said Monday that family members would like their privacy honored at this time. But as Stabins’ campaign manager for the run for the presidency, Rich laughed about his cousin’s passion for politics and his keen ability at satire.
“The campaign he waged until his death was not a punchline, but instead a satirical platform to voice his frustration with the cynicism of politicos and ply his wit in a manner reminiscent of humorist Will Rogers and perennial POTUS candidate Pat Paulsen,'' Rich said. ”He was loved by many, scorned by a few, but left an indelible impression on anyone with whom he crossed paths.''
Mr. Stabins also deeply loved his family, friends and the students he taught, Rich said.
He is survived by his parents, Dr. and Mrs. David M. Stabins of Watertown; three sisters, Julie Stabins, Jessie Buck and Sara Freda; and several nieces and nephews.
"Jeff Stabins loved Hernando County as much or more than anyone I’ve ever known,'' said his friend Tom Barnette. "He was extremely committed to what he thought was the right thing to do, even if other people didn’t think it was.''
"I have known Jeff since 1990 when he ran for school board. Later, I had the honor to serve with Jeff on the County Commission together. Even though we were of different parties, he always had the best interest of his constituents first. Jeff never had a problem making the right vote,'' said former commissioner Diane Rowden.
"Jeff, also had a love for animals and supported improving animal services. Jeff was a very kind person. I am very sad to hear about his death. May his family always know that Jeff has a place in the heart of Hernando County,'' she said.
"I’m kind of in shock,'' said Dan Oliver, a former county employee who was a friends and golf buddy with Stabins. "He was a voice for common sense. He called out a lot of people. He was good at that because he wasn’t afraid of anybody.''
Stabins was also known for his love of cooking and throwing a good party. His friend Paul Wieczorek, formerly a senior planner with Hernando County, remembers that Stabins fought to save his job when the county was cutting jobs a few years ago. Stabins was a supporter of employee rights, he recalled.
Stabins also supported the county’s comprehensive plan for growth and was the author of an ordinance to make changes in that plan more difficult by requiring a super majority vote by commissioners.
He recently was visiting Wieczorek’s home and slipped a “Stabins for President” sign into his friend’s yard.
"I left it there until yesterday,'' Wieczorek said on Monday. "Then I thought it was best to take it down.''