TAMPA — The appointment of Mike Fasano as Pasco County tax collector removes from the state Legislature a populist maverick who occasionally has been a thorn in the side of his party’s legislative leaders and of the man who made the appointment, Gov. Rick Scott.
Once known as a loyal, partisan Republican, Fasano in recent years has opposed GOP legislative leaders on issues including prison privatization, property insurance and charter schools — even backing longtime friend Charlie Crist, running as an independent, against Republican nominee Marco Rubio for the Senate in 2010.
The recent appointment makes Scott look forgiving toward a sometime opponent, but both he and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel Hill, who argued for the move, may have an easier time without Fasano in the Legislature.
“Mike was one of the last of the members in the majority party that questioned policies of his own leadership when he felt they weren’t in the best interest of Floridians,” said former state Sen. Paula Dockery, of Lakeland. “With his departure, there’s few left to do that and nobody as effective.”
In an interview, Fasano, whose political career began as a county-level Republican Party activist in the 1980s, said both he and the Republican Party have changed during his 20 years in the state Legislature.
“I’ve always been a Republican, a Reagan Republican, but I’ve seen some in our party move much too far to the right. I’m a social and fiscal conservative, but when it comes to helping the little guy and gal, some in our party have forgotten who that little guy and gal are,” he said.
“I leave with no regrets, hoping and praying that those left in the Legislature and those coming in, especially in my party, will begin to focus on issues important to their constituents back home, not the special interests in Tallahassee.”
If they don’t, he said, he fears the GOP will lose its control of Florida government. But, he added, “I think they’re going to get it. They’ve lost some seats; they’re going to wind up losing some more. The bell will ring and somebody will realize what’s going on.”
Fasano, 55, served in the House from 1994 to 2002, in the Senate from 2002 to 2012 and then returned to the House last year.
He replaces Mike Olson, who died in June at 68 after a stroke. Olson, Pasco’s only elected Democrat, was a former banker and county commissioner who served as tax collector beginning in 1981.
Fasano will take office as tax collector immediately, without a formal swearing-in, he said. The job pays $139,835 a year, compared with the $29,328 he makes as a legislator. Scott is expected to be in New Port Richey City Hall at 9:30 a.m. today for a public announcement.
Fasano also immediately vacates his House seat representing District 36, coastal Pasco County. It will be filled with a special primary and general election, the dates to be set by Scott and Secretary of State Ken Detzner.
Besides Fasano, applicants for the appointment were Ed Blommel, a retired TECO executive who ran against Olson in 2012; Matthew Abbott, a member of the county’s mosquito control board; and Eileen Ferdinand, Olson’s top assistant.
Pasco political leaders, many of whom lobbied Scott to appoint Fasano, praised the appointment.
“Whoever replaces him in the Legislature can’t fill his shoes, but hopefully they will pick up where he left off,” said Commissioner Henry Wilson, who lives in Fasano’s House district.
In a news conference Tuesday, Scott said, “Anybody who knows Rep. Fasano knows he cares about his constituents; now he’ll care about his customers.”
Asked about Fasano’s criticism of Scott’s administration, Scott deflected the question, saying, “He’s passionate. He cares about our state. He’s going to be very customer-oriented. ... I’m comfortable that Rep. Fasano will do a great job.”
Weatherford said he also lobbied Scott to appoint Fasano.
“I think he (Scott) knows there’s a lot of support in Pasco County for it and that if Mike runs he’ll win anyway,” Weatherford said. For Scott to appoint a critic, Weatherford said, “shows maturity and grace.”
Weatherford denied that he was eager to have Fasano gone from the state House, even though the two have clashed on issues including Weatherford’s opposition to expanding the state Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act.
“I don’t think he’s been a thorn in my side. Over the years we’ve had a great working relationship,” Weatherford said, although they “agreed to disagree” on some issues.
Weatherford noted that at one time, Fasano was a member of GOP House leadership — as majority leader in 2000-01, with the job of pushing other legislators to vote with leadership.
“I think with time in the Legislature, Mike Fasano has changed from the type of legislator he was when he first came in. I think he would acknowledge that,” Weatherford said.
Dockery, who entered the Legislature in 1996, just after Fasano, when Republicans first won a narrow majority after decades of Democratic dominance, said individual members had more autonomy then.
“As our majority grew, individual members weren’t as important as caucus positions,” Dockery said. “A few years ago, when the party took such a hard turn to the right, those of us who had been considered more conservative were more in the middle.”
She said Fasano had a pro-consumer orientation that put him in conflict with regulated industries, including insurance and utilities, industries that tend to make large political contributions.
Fasano hasn’t hesitated to bash Scott, often over Citizens Property Insurance Corp. Scott wants to shrink the state-sponsored property insurance company, sending its policyholders to private companies, and Fasano has argued to keep its rates low and provide protection against sinkholes, a problem in his district.
Fasano supported Scott’s proposal in the spring session for a pay raise for teachers but called it a political “gimmick. ... With poll numbers being low, all of a sudden you become the education governor.”
Fasano’s sharpest clash with his party came when he backed former Gov. Crist, a longtime friend and political ally, in the 2010 Senate race against Rubio, even after Crist left the party to run as a no-party candidate.
Still, Fasano later got a powerful chairmanship of the criminal justice subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee under former state Senate President Mike Haridopolos.
In 2011, however, he clashed with Haridopolos and other GOP leaders by opposing a major move for prison privatization, and Haridopolos removed him from the seat.
In other signs of independence:
He voted against the controversial 2011 rewrite of Florida election laws that cut early voting hours and was blamed for long lines in the 2012 election, a law supported by Scott and GOP leaders in both houses of the Legislature.
In 2012, he opposed a “parent trigger” bill pushed by conservative education reformers eager to create more charter schools; it failed on a tie vote on the final day of the session.
In 2010, he unsuccessfully argued for confirmation of Public Service Commission members appointed by Crist, who was then becoming alienated from conservatives in the party. Fasano said the appointees were consumer-friendly.
He voted in 2006 for legislation allowing utilities to increase rates to collect from customers in advance for the cost of new nuclear power plants, but he later decided it was a bad vote and unsuccessfully sought repeal.
“We were told a bunch of lies by the utility companies,” he said.
The law has been blamed for major costs imposed on customers for the abandoned Duke Energy nuclear plant in Levy County.
Reporters Laura Kinsler and James L. Rosica contributed to this report.