Bill Gunter locked up the endorsements of Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford and his three successors Tuesday, but the man who matters most in the race said he won’t get involved.
In a race that’s exposing Republican dysfunction, this could be a break for Democrats.
“I don’t plan on endorsing anyone,” said Mike Fasano, who represented the New Port Richey area in District 36 before getting picked by Gov. Rick Scott to be Pasco County tax collector. “This race is very special to me. These are the people I served for the past 19 years as either a senator or a representative. They mean so much to me. They deserve someone who will serve them, who will vote their conscience and not what the leadership wants and special interests want. Right now, I don’t see that in any candidate.”
That’s not exactly what Gunter, who often draws comparisons between himself and Fasano, was hoping to hear. Still, the 43-year-old has had a busy week counting endorsements from elsewhere.
On Monday, Gunter was endorsed by Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco and others in that office. Gunter is part of the chaplain corps at the sheriff’s office. Last week, Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity, endorsed him. Gunter is pastor at Redeemer Community Church, where Corcoran attends.
On Tuesday, Weatherford followed suit with a statement he shared with Corcoran, and two other speaker designates, Rep. Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, who’s expected to lead the House in 2014, and Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, who’s set to take charge in 2018.
“Bill is the type of leader we need in Tallahassee to continue the fight to strengthen our economy, reduce unemployment, and make sure the needs of Pasco County are well represented,” Weatherford said. “I know Bill will carry on the traditions of selfless service that this community has received.”
“Bill has demonstrated a dedication to serving his community, especially the men and women of law enforcement,” Crisafulli said.
Gunter “will be a great addition to the Florida House,” Oliva said. “He will be a genuine advocate for his constituents because he believes in a disciplined, accountable government.”
Weatherford and Corcoran, who are familiar with Pasco’s policial landscape, know Gunter. So how exactly are Oliva and Crisafulli able to endorse Gunter at this point? Oliva says he was introduced to him by Corcoran, and has enjoyed smoking cigars with him on a couple of occasions.
“We’ve had hours of conversation,” Oliva said. “I like his approach to government.”
Crisafulli, through his spokesman Brian Hughes, said in a statement that “Steve’s support for Bill reflects his belief that Bill is the right person for our party. Steve has spoken to Bill and leaders from all over Pasco County. Bill is a respected community servant and Steve feels he’ll be an asset in the Legislature.”
The endorsements are slightly awkward for a couple of reasons. Gunter doesn’t live in the district. Rather, he lives about five miles east. He says he plans to move to the district by Election Day, but he’s also said he would move back to his current home, which he won’t sell, if he loses next year. Also, Pasco’s GOP chair, Jim Mathieu, said he’s running, too. And, unlike Gunter, Mathieu, 59, lives in District 36.
So why is the House leadership jumping in so soon (the primary isn’t until Sept. 17) if the GOP’s local leader is also running?
“It’s a good ol’ boy network,” Mathieu said Tuesday. “We’ve fought this for years. We can’t break into it. I’m the leader of the party, and yet they’re backing him. This is an insult to the public.”
Mathieu, who is the former city attorney for New Port Richey, says he realizes that the endorsements by the speakers are a sign to donors to send the big money to Gunter.
“Can I compete with this?” Mathieu said. “No. If I send out three mailers, they’ll send out 33. But I’m going to stay in this until the very end. They’re going to see a grassroots campaign like no other.”
It’s another reminder of the tension between Pasco’s ground troops, which have been led for years by Bill Bunting, a Republican state committeeman and a member of the executive board of the Republican Party of Florida, and Pasco’s powerful legislative delegation, which is increasingly led by Corcoran. Bunting and Mathieu view Gunter strictly as part of a larger effort by Corcoran to concentrate power in the House by stacking it with loyalists.
“The thing that really bothers people is that Gunter doesn’t live in the district,” Bunting said. “There are more than enough qualified people who already live in the district. Will it cause problems? It might.”
Corcoran denied he was propping up a candidate. He said his interest in the race was purely out of a concern for its residents. Gunter, Corcoran said, is the best choice to follow Fasano, who, despite ideological differences, was a close friend.
“We need to focus on having good men who will go up there and make a difference and not continue with an obsession to toe the party line,” Corcoran said. “Mike Fasano perfected that concept, and Pasco County was a far better place because of it. Bill Gunter is the most capable of filling those very large shoes.”
Yet Fasano wouldn’t follow his friend’s lead and endorse Gunter. He said he liked Gunter, but said he hadn’t seen any candidate yet who he believed would fight for the constituents of District 36.
If he won’t endorse Gunter, he outright slammed Mathieu, who ran against him in 2012 and lost in a primary where Fasano drew 83 percent of the vote. He said Mathieu and Bunting acted nasty toward him in the campaign, which he said he can’t forgive.
“He and his followers are not nice people,” Fasano said.
What’s most intriguing about Fasano’s refusal to follow the endorsements flooding toward Gunter now is that it leaves room for a Democratic candidate.
Fasano points out that he doesn’t “plan” to endorse anyone, while adding in the same breath, “I haven’t seen all the candidates yet.”
Does that mean he would endorse a Democrat, who has yet to emerge? Fasano demurred, saying he planned to remain neutral.“People are struggling in this district, and what they need is someone to continue the consumer advocacy that is seriously lacking in Tallahassee right now,” he said. “And I just haven’t seen that in any of the candidates. That could change in a couple of weeks.”