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Political bedfellows cut a swath of intensity

Citrus activists Joe and Cindy Cino, seldom accused of shyness, bring a bare-knuckled swagger to their vision of Democratic politics.

By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 22, 2002

The last thing Cindy Cino remembered seeing on the afternoon of Nov. 4, 1986 -- just before a train collided with her car and hurled her through the windshield -- was a man holding an election sign for a County Commission candidate.

It is tempting to search for meaning in that detail since Cino and her husband, Joe, have become two of the best known political figures in Citrus County in the 16 years following the accident.

And it is easy to liken their political history to a train wreck. Time and again the Cinos have mounted unsuccessful campaigns for County Commission and School Board.

But there is nothing simple about the story of their involvement in local politics. It is sad and explosive to some, triumphant and lasting to them, and interesting to anybody who pays attention to such things.

"Whether people agree or disagree with them, they have given this community some spark," said Chris Becker, a close friend and member of the Democratic Executive Committee, which the Cinos lead.

This election season in particular has illustrated that point. In a number of incidents, the Cinos have displayed their resolve in bold fashion, so much so that some Democrats have called for them to retire.

The most recent episode came when Mr. Cino publicly declared that Republican Charles Dean would "squash" the Democratic candidate for state House of Representatives, Jimmy Carr, "like a worm."

On a day when Democrats were supposed to rally behind Carr, who trounced Cino's longtime friend Alex Ilnyckyj in the Sept. 10 primary, they instead found themselves plotting to overthrow their chairman.

Cino was defiant in the face of the criticism, saying he would not allow his personal opinions to be stifled. He dared his detractors to try to oust him. They didn't take the challenge.

If critics do not lay off, Cino said he will forgo plans to step down voluntarily after the November general election and stick around for the remaining two years of his term, "just to be a pain in the a--."

Cino traces his off-the-cuff nature to his childhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., and his Italian heritage. It seems both an apology and excuse.

"If I told you I've never been arrogant or rude to someone, I'd be lying," Cino said in an interview at a diner in Homosassa, where he lives and runs an auto repair shop. He and Cindy have seven children.

"I am a strong-willed person," Cino said. "I don't ride the fence ever. I don't enjoy controversy but I'm not afraid to look it in the eye."

Pollitics, he said, "keeps me sharp. It keeps me alive. And sometimes, you do make a difference."

His confidence and candor, wrapped in an oversized body and certain charm, make him an endearing figure to some, a joke to others.

"He's irritating as hell," said Ruth Anderson, a Democratic leader in Sugarmill Woods. "He's kind of uncouth with his attitude, his speaking, his mannerisms. If he doesn't like what somebody says, the fisticuffs come up."

Earlier this spring, Cino nearly came to blows with a fellow committee member, Mike Gudis, after a heated committee meeting. Gudis claims Cino called him a "Jew boy." Cino contends Gudis made the first threat.

Mrs. Cino also has made headlines. On the day before the Sept. 10 primary, she got into an argument with two residents at the elections office in Crystal River after bringing a woman there to cast an absentee ballot.

Some Democrats were quick to blame Cino for the flap, saying her aggressive posture had once again embarrassed them. A party committeewoman, Mrs. Cino said she was just doing her job pointing out a possible flaw in the ballot.

Separately, during a function in Orlando this spring, Cino confronted Janet Reno and told her she should drop out of the race for governor.

* * *

Joe Cino grew up in a four-room apartment in Brooklyn he shared with five siblings and his parents. "You always shared a bed with someone and you had to fight for your food," he said. His father drove a city bus and his mother cleaned office buildings. They were Democrats but not active in politics.

Joe's parents moved to Inverness in the early 1970s and he soon followed, finding a job as an auto mechanic. Cino met his wife, who has lived most of her life in Citrus, in the most unlikely of places: He had a hernia and checked into Citrus Memorial Hospital, where Cindy worked as a nurse.

"I thought she was the rudest person I met in my life," Cino said, laughing. They bumped into each other again as students at Central Florida Community College and began dating.

"If you ever ask Joe why he married me, he'd say it's because I could hit a baseball farther than any man he knew. But if you ask me why I married Joe, it was because he was the kindest person I ever met," Mrs. Cino said. She likes to tell a story of Joe giving free tires to a customer who could not afford them.

To better understand their political inclinations, it is useful to revisit the train accident in 1986.

Joe had opened his own business, J.C.'s Auto Repair, on U.S. 41 in Inverness two years earlier and quickly found himself involved in a protracted permitting battle with the county.

It was still going on as Cindy lay in the hospital with serious injuries, he said. The day after the accident, his accountant urged him to go to the county offices and ask for the permit. "They gave me the permit on the spot," Cino said, suggesting that staff acted on sympathy, not the merits of his claim. "Right then I decided to get involved in politics. I felt the system was corrupt."

He first ran for County Commission in 1992, then again in 1994, 1996 and 1998. He has offered himself to voters twice as a Democrat and once each as a Republican and Independent. Each time he has failed.

Even now Cino is somewhat of a hybrid. He espouses Democratic concern for the elderly and poor but is also squarely "prolife" and supports the right to bear arms.

When critics hammered him for his comments about the House race, he dismissed them as "crybaby left-wing liberals."

Cindy Cino, who has equally unsuccessful results in several attempts to land on the School Board, is also proudly antiabortion. When she was 17 years old and pregnant, she said, she was told repeatedly to have an abortion. She chose not to and gave birth to a daughter, whom Joe has adopted as his own.

Mrs. Cino, now 46, has been a frequent speaker at antiabortion rallies and written many letters to the editor on that subject. In intensity and personality, she is Joe's equal.

She has an almost nervous energy to her. During last week's meeting of the Democratic Executive Committee she was in and out of her seat, strenuously arguing points, her arms waving when she wasn't holding a small dog or her granddaughter.

"We were never sore losers because what's important is the big picture," Mrs. Cino said of the defeats at the polls.

She believes their campaigns elevated the debate and got people interested in the political process. Joe says he can take pleasure in the smallest things, like a successful car wash or recruiting people to the party, especially when he can convert a Republican.

When not running for office themselves, the Cinos have helped support others, sometimes to extremes. Joe once skipped his son and daughter's Confirmation to attend a fundraiser at the Lion's Club in Homosassa.

* * *

In 1998, Cino got his first victory when he was named chairman of the Citrus County Democratic Executive Committee, replacing Ray Epstein, who resigned. He was elected again in 2000.

What has been overlooked in the high profile antics, Cino's backers say, is his dedication and devotion to the cause.

He has used his own vehicle for parades, pumped hundreds of dollars into party coffers and crisscrossed the state for political functions. He was at Bill McBride's campaign headquarters in Tampa on primary night. "I've worked under six chairs and nobody has worked harder than Joe Cino," said committee secretary Mary "Scap" Gregory. "He has a hard time saying no."

But at age 54, Cino says he is slowing down and wants to step away from the spotlight.

"I've been doing this for 20 years and I'm tired," he said. "I'm not doing this anymore because I want to. It's gotten to the point where people depend on me to do it."

He could walk away from it all, he said, if he no longer watched television or read the newspaper. And then he laughs at the absurdity of his words, bringing a steaming cup of coffee to his mouth.

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