1. Florida Politics

With refusal to renew charter, Pasco's oldest GOP club is no longer

Published Apr. 2, 2015

TRINITY — The club with clout is suddenly the club without.

The West Pasco Republican Club, a fixture in local political circles for four decades, faces a likely demise after party leaders declined to renew the group's charter this week.

The club president called it a political vendetta against one of the group's former longtime leaders, Tax Collector Mike Fasano, who supported Democrat Charlie Crist in the 2014 gubernatorial race.

"If they want to come after me, then come after me,'' said Fasano, "but don't hurt 400 people who are members of a Republican club. That's just wrong."

Under party rules, political clubs using the Republican name must renew their charters every two years, and the documents must be signed by at least two of the three state party officials in the county: Republican Executive Committee chairman James Mathieu, state committeeman Bill Bunting and state committeewoman Sandra Graves.

Graves signed the charter reauthorization March 16 at a Republican Executive Committee meeting, but Bunting and Mathieu refused. Mathieu ran against Fasano in a 2012 primary for a state House seat. Bunting has faced Fasano-friendly opponents for his state committeeman's position the past two election cycles.

"It's a pure shock to me,'' said club president Ann Corona. "It's purely a cop-out for the vendetta between Bill Bunting and Mike Fasano. Unfortunately, we are now the collateral damage."

"This is just a party issue; it's not a big deal," answered Bunting. "It's just a party issue. I can understand where some people could get upset, but these things have a way of working out."

Graves and Mathieu declined comment, saying it was an internal party matter.

Bunting would not say why he declined to reauthorize the charter, but said there are other Republican clubs in the county in Trinity, Heritage Pines, Central Pasco and Wesley Chapel.

"We've got good clubs all over," he said.

But none can match the longevity of the West Pasco Republican Club, which had its origins as a women-only GOP club in the mid 1970s. State records show it incorporated in its current form in 1982. Its membership is dominated by retirees who contribute their money and time to Republican candidates and causes. At 400 members, it is the largest and longest-tenured GOP club in the county, and its slogan is "the club with clout." It has remained active while some other start-ups, notably Bunting's own Spirit of' '76 Republican Club, have dissolved.

In past years, the west Pasco club also has been an aggressive financial supporter of candidates, donating nearly $4,600 to GOP hopefuls in the 2006-08 election cycles, including nearly $600 to the Republican Executive Committee, then headed by Bunting.

Tuesday evening, in what could have been the club's final official meeting, 80 members gathered at Heritage Springs Country Club in Trinity, dined on chicken marsala or sliced beef, and listened to County Commissioner Mike Wells Jr.

"It's ridiculous," state Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, a former club officer, said from Tallahassee regarding the demise of the club. "If you were to take all of the Republican clubs in Florida, I would think the west Pasco club, with the length of its impact, the size of it, the number of people it has trained to go on to do great things for the Republican Party, it is second to none. It is the Michael Jordan, the hall of fame of Republican clubs for the state of Florida."

The roster of elected officials who cut their political teeth as club officers include: Fasano, who served as president for a decade but resigned his membership two years ago; Corcoran; state Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, who joined as a teenager; Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, a former club president; and Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley. Jeb Bush is a lifetime member, as is Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco; one of Nocco's charges, Sgt. Justin Ross, is a club vice president.

Remorse over the club's demise has been nearly universal.

"When I represented west Pasco,'' said state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, "they were a very important part of the party. They supported me. They're not malicious people. It's just plain wrong."

Latvala appealed to Bunting to reverse his decision, without success.

"It wasn't a particularly pleasant conversation," he said.

"It really is sad. This is politics at its worse, its absolute worse," said Legg. "That will cost Republicans elections, plain and simple. That's what people hate about politics."

Corcoran said he was confident the club would survive, even if it reincarnated as a conservative club, as a political group in east Pasco did several years ago.

That idea "holds no allure to me," Corona told the members Tuesday night.

The episode, many said, is damaging to the Republican brand.

"People are likely to be less involved in Republican causes and candidates,'' said Corona, "because they're so disgruntled about this."