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In 2020, GOP primaries could settle Pasco’s top competitive races

So far, Pasco County Commission candidate Brandi Geoit is the only Democrat running for countywide office.
A voter places a sticker on her shirt outside the precinct t the Finnish American Club on Deleware Avenue, New Port Richey. Times staff (2012) [Tampa Tribune]
A voter places a sticker on her shirt outside the precinct t the Finnish American Club on Deleware Avenue, New Port Richey. Times staff (2012) [Tampa Tribune]
Published Jan. 2
Updated Jan. 2

There are 39 candidates, from Michael Bennett to Andrew Yang, seeking the presidency of the United States. The number of people running for public office in Pasco County isn’t quite as extensive.

As 2020 begins, few Pasco incumbents face re-election challenges. Many of them have yet to file their own candidacy papers to open a campaign. Sheriff Chris Nocco, Tax Collector Mike Fasano and Clerk of the Circuit Court Nikki Alvarez-Sowles have not declared their candidacies officially. And two incumbent county commissioners, Ron Oakley and Kathryn Starkey, face no major party opposition — so far.

Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley and two school board incumbents, Colleen Beaudoin in District 2 and Alison Crumbley in District 4 have not yet fielded challenges in their re-election bids either.

It was a similar story in 2016. Nocco, Fasano, Corley, Beaudoin, Crumbley and school superintendent Kurt Browning all ran without opposition. The school board races are non-partisan. Nocco, Fasano, Corley and Browning are all Republicans.

"I would like to think we will have a full slate of candidates,'' said John Ford, chairman of the Pasco Democratic Executive Committee, who said he anticipated more candidates coming forward after the holidays.

If that doesn’t change, the three races generating the most buzz this election cycle could be settled in the Aug. 18 Republican primary. The race for school superintendent, property appraiser, and the District 4 county commission seat have no Democratic candidates.

In the Pasco County School District, the race for superintendent is shaping up to be the marquee event. Browning, seeking his third term in office, won the seat by ousting incumbent Heather Fiorentino in 2012.

This time, two of Browning’s employees — a teacher and a principal — already have announced plans to challenge him in the Republican primary. Hudson High principal David LaRoche and Bayonet Point Middle School graduation enhancement teacher Cynthia Thompson each contend that the district needs a trained educator to take the schools to the next level of accomplishment.

Browning, a former election supervisor and secretary of state, has a master’s degree in public administration but never has taught children. They also have expressed opposition for Browning’s recommendation to take away planning time from middle and high school teachers to generate more money for raises — a plan the district employees union has fought for two years running.

The opposition comes as the historically popular Browning increasingly runs into criticism from groups that have disagreed with his decisions over time. They include parents unhappy with school zoning decisions, conservative organizations that dislike the district’s stance on transgender student rights and educators displeased with the administration’s approach on testing and salaries.

Browning said he intends to run on his record of accomplishments and that he expects most voters to be satisfied with progress the district has made during his tenure. He said he planned to focus on continuing his efforts, rather than responding to political attacks.

Property Appraiser Gary Joiner (L) and Commissioner Mike Wells Jr. (R) both republicans running for Pasco Property Appraiser in 2020. [Handout photo]

The race for Pasco property appraiser features a familiar name. Mike Wells Jr., the county commissioner for district 4, plans to resign his seat to run for the office his father held for 20 years. Incumbent Gary Joiner won the office in 2016, coasting to a victory in the general election after a bruising primary battle against Republican Ted Schrader.

Related: Mike Wells to ditch Pasco commission seat for property appraiser run

Campaign finance reports through Nov. 30 showed that Wells raised just under $109,000 in two months, including 10 $1,000 contributions from companies tied to developer and home builder Alex Deeb. Joiner had raised a little over $3,000.

Related: Republicans Dan Tipton, Gary Bradford seek Pasco commission seat

Wells’ political ambition means there will be an open seat on the county commission. In the district 4 race, former New Port Richey Mayor Dan Tipton is opposing Gary Bradford, a retired police officer and a Tallahassee lobbyist for the Florida Police Benevolent Association.

Campaign reports showed Bradford had raised more than $27,000, about a third of it from Police Benevolent Association affiliates. Tipton had collected $6,800, including five $1,000 contributions from Deeb’s companies. Tipton also received a $1,000 contribution from retired Property Appraiser Mike Wells Sr.

Republicans Dan Tipton, left, and Gary Bradford are seeking the District 4 Pasco Commission seat expected to be vacated by Commissioner Mike Wells who is running for Pasco property appraiser. [Tampa Bay Times/Pasco County]

Bradford said his campaign focus will be on public safety and first-responders. Tipton, who was critical of Pasco’s Republican heavyweights giving earlier endorsements to Bradford, said he wants to improve the county’s transportation system and put more money into reserve accounts to better weather future economic downturns.

Ford, the Democratic Party chairman, said he expected the quality of life in Pasco County to be the top local issue.

“Healthcare is critical when 46 percent of the population is at or below poverty," he said. "They’re sitting in traffic jams and have little public transportation. Is your road paved? Is your school adequately funded? Is there flooding on the west side? These are issues that just won’t go away.''

But, for now, there is only one Democratic candidate to carry that message in a countywide race. Brandi Geoit, who lost a commission race to Wells Jr. in 2016, is running for the district 5 seat held by 16-year incumbent Republican Jack Mariano.

Randy Evans, chairman of the Republican Executive Committee, offered a slightly different list of local issues.

“I would say jobs and the economy are huge,” he said. "Here locally, I can tell you roads in our subdivision are big, and the flooding in New Port Richey is a big deal, although I think that’s been addressed pretty well. The Holiday area and U.S. 19 corridor area is huge ... I think we need code enforcement and to get responsible owners to clean their places up to bring more people into the area.''

In other commission races, Oakley has no opponent for the district 1 seat, and Starkey is opposed only by a nonpartisan candidate, Samantha Lindsey, who has reported no fundraising since announcing her candidacy in August.

That doesn’t hold true for the incumbents. Through Nov. 30, Oakley raised $113,000, Starkey collected just under $100,000 and Mariano’s contributions totaled almost $61,000.

In Washington, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, has drawn three opponents: Republican Zachary Smith of Zephyrhills, Democrat Kimberly Walker of Hudson and nonpartisan candidate Michael Knezevich of Spring Hill.

In the judicial branch, Matt Jowanna of Wesley Chapel and Christopher J. Billings of New Port Richey are seeking the county court Group 5 post. In the circuit court, Eva Vergos of Trinity and Evan Glenn Frayman of Clearwater are running for the Group 28 seat. Those seats are on the Aug. 18 ballot.

In the Legislature, Rep. Ardian Zika, R-Land O’ Lakes, is unopposed. Rep. Randy Maggard, R-Dade City, is opposed by Brian Staver, and Rep. Amber Mariano, R-Hudson has drawn two Democratic opponents, Anthony Jerred Arestia of Holiday and Daniel Endonino of New Port Richey.

Mariano will be seeking her third term, but will be facing voters for the first time since her unsuccessful effort to dissolve the city of Port Richey.

"Amber has stirred up some local interest,'' said Evans.

Staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.

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