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Tom Jackson: In Pasco, all roads lead to Mike Fasano

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Mike FasanoWhatever else we might be tempted to say in the aftermath of last month’s recent primary election, for those who live and/or work in Pasco County, this, above all, is beyond dispute:

Pasco is Mike Fasano’s county. Everyone else is just visiting.

Who but Fasano, the nudging, empathetic, perpetually beatifying champion of the “little guy and little gal” could have done in the Republican race for Pasco County property appraiser what he did with the fundamentally flawed Gary Joiner?

That is, Fasano — officially Pasco County’s tax collector but, increasingly, its kingmaker — took his operations chief, a career bureaucrat whose best-known qualities were philandering, creepiness, dishonesty, and opportunism and created the impression that the virtuous candidate in the GOP primary was not San Antonio’s Ted Schrader, the reasonably well-regarded and accomplished four-term county commissioner, but his guy.

That’s right. The fellow who carried on a workplace affair with a subordinate in 2009, lied about it, attempted to rekindle the romance in 2013 and 2014, got suspended when he was found out and, as a condition of his reinstatement, can no longer be alone with female colleagues — that is the guy local Republicans preferred in an 11-point landslide over Schrader, who was effectively portrayed as Pasco’s own Lyin’ Ted.

To be sure, Joiner benefited from the endorsement of popular Sheriff Chris Nocco, as well as from tens of thousands of dollars in nonstop advertising diverted from the electioneering committee of state House Speaker-designate Richard Corcoran — looking for some payback after Schrader helped choke off his intriguing charter-county plan last year — but it was Fasano, famous for wishing God’s blessing on all he meets, who chiefly midwifed his lieutenant’s campaign.

And it’s not like Schrader, who comes from an influential family of developers, business operators, and citrus growers, was out there flailing alone. His backers included a who’s who of the area Republican firmament: former state House Speaker Will Weatherford, likely future state Senate President Wilton Simpson, state Rep. Danny Burgess, schools Superintendent Kurt Browning and even Fasano’s longtime pal, state Sen. Jack Latvala, whose district includes part of West Pasco.

Looking back, with voters in a throw-’em-out mood, maybe all that establishment worked against Schrader.

Even so, rehabilitating Joiner — or, worse, making voters not care about his indiscretions — is an achievement so breathtaking, if Fasano’s next act were to cause white tigers and hippos to fly in formation the length of State Road 54 from New Port Richey to Zephyrhills, no one would raise an eyebrow.

And he did it all while conveniently removing a potential rival from challenging his future re-election plans. You could look it up.

Joiner made plain his preference would be to run for tax collector while acknowledging that, with Fasano ensconced, that door seemed firmly shut. Now a potential problem — a younger man with ambition — has been positioned, if he subdues little-known Dade City Democrat and real estate broker Jon Sidney Larkin in November, to run a new agency and while being converted into an indebted ally. You don’t get that sort of twofer every election cycle.

Beyond its lopsided margin, what is particularly remarkable about Joiner’s primary triumph is its geographic scope.

You would expect a New Port Richey resident backed by prominent west-county policymakers to do well in his backyard, and Joiner did. A Pasco County supervisor of elections map showing a precinct-by-precinct breakdown indicates a Joiner wave stretching virtually uninterrupted from the Gulf of Mexico to U.S. 41/Land O’ Lakes Boulevard.

But what happened on the other side that reveals, startlingly, the tale of Fasano’s influence. I mean, we’d seen evidence of his considerable sway on the broad county’s west side, when his appointment as tax collector, in June 2013, to succeed the late Mike Olson — the last Democrat to hold countywide office — triggered a special election for his seat in the Florida House.

Fasano’s divorce from Tallahassee was mutually satisfying. He’d been eyeing a constitutional office opportunity back home, and both Gov. Rick Scott and House GOP leadership were weary of his ever-increasing maverick status. But in a delicious episode of being careful of what you wish for, Fasano leaped over party lines to support Democrat Amanda Murphy, who narrowly defeated Corcoran’s choice, former Florida Gator defensive tackle Bill Gunter.

The question in the property assessor’s race was whether the Commutative Property of Fasano would play in the East. Come Election Day, the answer rocked Pasco’s political Richter scale.

In the end, Schrader’s support scarcely extended beyond his home base, the mostly rural northeast quadrant of the county. With exceptions in just a few master-planned villages where newcomers gather, fast-growing Wesley Chapel in the heart of the county rejected Schrader almost entirely. And, cutting Schrader off on his southeastern flank, Joiner dominated in Zephyrhills.

How bad was it?

While Joiner hopscotched around the county, Schrader spent Election Day in The Groves, an over-55 golf and country club community in North Land O’ Lakes that’s also GOP-rich territory.

Nearly 900 votes were cast there, but despite his daylong presence, Schrader lost by 11 votes, a metaphor for the election if there ever was one.

It would be nice to give more credit to the winning candidate himself, but as Joiner himself said, if it weren’t for Nocco, Corcoran and Fasano, he’d have gone nowhere.

I’d say he’s absolutely correct, especially the part about Fasano, who showed himself a shifter of landscapes.

Now we know. It’s his county, after all.

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Recovering sports columnist and former Tampa Tribune columnist Tom Jackson argues on behalf of thoughtful conservative principles as our best path forward. Fan of the Beach Boys, pulled-pork barbecue and days misspent at golf, Tom lives in New Tampa with his wife, two children and two yappy middle-aged dogs.

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