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Pasco Republican House candidates spar over issues in primary debate

HUDSON — Only in Pasco County could the chairman of the local Republican Executive Committee be considered a party outsider, but that’s the message state House candidate James Mathieu tried to convey when he faced off with front-runner Bill Gunter and newcomer Jeromy Harding Wednesday in the Republican primary debate.

Gunter has the endorsements of House Speaker Will Weatherford, presumptive Speaker Richard Corcoran — who hosted a fundraiser for him in Tallahassee — and a host of local elected officials. But Mathieu and Harding painted him as an opportunist who was trying to buy the District 36 House seat, formerly held by Tax Collector Mike Fasano.

“What we have going on in Pasco County is influence peddling...,” Mathieu said. “They don’t want me bucking the system the way Mr. Fasano did.”

Harding said: “We don’t need someone running to Tallahassee to raise money from lobbyists.”

Gunter, a Presbyterian minister, pointed to his long record of community service — feeding the hungry and ministering to undocumented workers at a migrant camp.

“I grew up poor. I know what its like to be on welfare,” he said. “If you look at my record, that’s why you can trust me.”

He said that despite his close ties to leadership, he would be an independent voice. “For the last 25 years of my life, I’m my own man,” he said. “I make decisions based on common sense and core positions and values.”

All three candidates agreed that the Legislature should fund the prescription drug database that has helped reduce pill mills in Florida. Gunter said that fighting prescription drug abuse is “a passion of mine” because his own brother died from an overdose of Oxycodone and Xanax three years ago.

“He got it because he took a $100 bill into a doctor’s office and walked out with a handful of pills.”

Mathieu, an attorney and mediator, said Pasco needs to split from Pinellas County and create its own court circuit. The two counties comprise the Sixth Judicial Circuit, but the state attorney, public defender and most judges are elected from Pinellas County because it has twice as many voters, he said.

“I want us to have that control,” he said.

Harding said one of his first priorities would be to introduce a bill to regulate private, for-profit utilities. He said the Legislature dropped the ball last year after Aqua Utilities decided to sell its Florida assets.

“That bill needs to be picked up and taken to Tallahassee,” he said.

Utility regulation was an area all three candidates agreed on. Gunter said laws to need to be changed so companies like Duke Energy cannot keep fees that were collected to pay for a nuclear power plant that will never be built. “We need to repeal laws that allow that type of behavior to take place,” he said.

All three candidates pledged to work with county commissioners to help redevelop west Pasco, particularly the U.S. 19 corridor. “We need to use our leverage to bring industry here,” Gunter said. “We did that with Amazon and T. Rowe Price. We need to find state money for revitalization projects in this community.”

Harding pointed out that Gunter has been a vocal critic of one of the district’s economic development projects: SunWest Harbourtowne project and the adjacent county park. “That project will bring jobs, tourism and high-end homes to this area, and my opponent opposed that,” Harding said.

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