NEW PORT RICHEY — Get ready for a slugfest.
While the Democratic and no-party candidates cool their heels for the next three weeks, west Pasco County is about to witness a fight for the State House District 36 seat.
Presbyterian pastor Bill Gunter and attorney Jim Mathieu represent two very different wings of the Republican Party. Those differences will be on display leading up to the Sept. 17 primary election to replace longtime legislator Mike Fasano, who resigned his House seat to serve as Pasco County tax collector.
Gunter, who tried to unseat Commissioner Jack Mariano last year, is a front-runner after collecting endorsements from party leaders, including House Speaker Will Weatherford and Rep. Richard Corcoran, who is a member of Gunter’s congregation.
Sheriff Chris Nocco was an early supporter. Commissioner Kathryn Starkey and School Superintendent Kurt Browning have also voiced support for Gunter.
But the one Republican whose endorsement would mean the most in west Pasco said he is staying neutral. Fasano said he doesn’t want his successor to be a puppet of the House leadership.
“I want to be sure the person who fills that position is someone who is doing it for the right reasons,” Fasano said. “It needs to be someone who will speak their minds when they see something House leadership is pushing that would be detrimental to the district.”
Fasano’s bad blood with Mathieu dates to 2010, when the local Republican Executive Committee kicked Fasano out because of his loyalty to Charlie Crist in the Senate race against Marco Rubio.
“Right now, I’m not endorsing anyone in the election,” Fasano said.
Mathieu, who was elected chairman of the Pasco REC this year, said the party establishment’s early support for Gunter is an insult to members of the local party.
“The establishment wants to bring in their boy,” Mathieu said. “He’s their minister — and he has no experience or understanding of the legislative process.”
Mathieu, a former city attorney who works primarily as a mediator, said he wants to lead the party back to the mainstream.
“They’re the right wing — not me,” he said. “What drives me crazy is I’m the only one who actually lives in the district.”
Mathieu said he called for revisions to Florida’s “stand your ground” law well before George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin.
He believes issues such as gay marriage and legalizing marijuana should be decided by the voters.
“If 51 percent of the people want gay marriage, I have to respect that,” he said.
Mathieu also opposes laws, such as the one passed in Texas this year, to curb abortion access or to mandate ultrasounds for pregnant women
“I’m a Catholic,” he said. “Religion and politics need to be very separate things. There’s no place for that in government.
“I don’t support abortion, but I can’t look a woman in the eye and tell her you can’t do that. You can’t revoke Roe v. Wade — so I guess that makes me pro-choice, and I’m the chairman of the Republican Party.”
Gunter did not return phone calls for this article, but his sermons provide insight into his political views.
In a sermon last fall entitled “Christian Voting,” Gunter said he disagrees with the assumption that politics should be left out of the pulpit.
“The reality is I believe I not only have the right, but more importantly the responsibility as your pastor to tell you how you should vote as a Christian,” he told his congregation.
“Abortion: Let’s start with that,” he said. “Abortion and the Christian worldview are incompatible. Period.”
Gunter also said the Bible is very clear about marriage: “one man, one woman, for life.”
The New Testament also guides his view on welfare: if a man does not work, he shall not eat.
“You call that harsh — I call it the Bible,” he said.
Also running is political newcomer Jeromy Harding, 23, who has focused on issues that were near and dear to Fasano: insurance reform and utilities.
The fourth generation in his family to work in the insurance industry, he says he brings the expertise to work toward reducing rates for Citizens.
“I don’t just have issues, I have solutions to issues,” he said.
Harding wants to crack down on private, for-profit water utilities that have plagued many older west Pasco neighborhoods.
“I’m 100 percent committed to free markets, but with private utilities, it’s not free enterprise — it’s a monopoly,” he said.
Harding said he and his fiancée have a contract on a house in the district, so he would meet the residency requirement.