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County leaders switch parties

County Commissioner Steve Simon and Supervisor of Elections Kurt Browning became Republicans on Friday.

By JAMES THORNER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 21, 2002

Two of the Pasco County Democratic Party's leading lights, County Commissioner Steve Simon and Supervisor of Elections Kurt Browning, have defected to the rival Republicans.

Citing dissatisfaction with a Democratic philosophy that has tilted to the left over the years, Simon and Browning changed their voter registration to the GOP on Friday.

Simon becomes the fourth Republican on the five-member Board of Commissioners, although party-line voting is rare on the board. The only Democratic commissioner is Peter Altman.

For Simon, it's a break from a past that began with his childhood in heavily Democratic New York City. Democratic Pasco Sheriff Lee Cannon helped pluck Simon from obscurity to defeat Republican Ed Collins for the commissioner's seat in 1998.

Calling himself a fiscal conservative, Simon said his party switch was "completely philosophical." He and the party have grown apart over the years, he said.

"You make this decision because you don't have any other choice, because you don't have the comfort you once had," Simon said Friday.

Browning, a longtime Southern Democrat who stresses his nonpartisanship, became the leading local voice for electoral reform after the 2000 presidential election in Florida.

His defection leaves Pasco Tax Collector Mike Olson as the last remaining Democratic constitutional officer in the county. Sheriff Bob White, Clerk of Courts Jed Pittman and Property Appraiser Mike Wells are all Republicans.

Browning said the modern-day Democrats are not the same party he registered with as a teenager 25 years ago.

He contemplated a party switch for several years, feeling uncomfortable with left-leaning ideas of party faithful. One of the last straws was the choice of San Francisco legislator Nancy Pelosi to lead the Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

"I'm sitting there going, 'You know, is this really what I'm about?' " Browning said Friday night. "Shakespeare said, be true to yourself."

Republican state Sen. Mike Fasano was bubbly about the news Friday, calling Browning and Simon "great public servants."

But the double blow left the county Democratic establishment reeling. Democrats threatened retribution against their former political allies, although Browning isn't up for re-election until 2004 and Simon until 2006.

"I was fairly dismayed and very upset about it," party chairwoman LuVaunne Miller said. "They think their friends will forget in a few months. But their friends won't forget in a few months."

Also stunned was Mike Cox, former chairman of the Pasco Democrats. Cox was Simon's closest adviser in the last election, which ended with Simon's victory in September's primary against David "Hap" Clark. No Republican challenged Simon in the general election.

Cox heard of Simon's defection secondhand and had an uncomfortable conversation with his friend on Friday.

"I ran his damned race for him. I didn't see it coming," Cox said Friday. "During his last campaign Steve expressed dislike for some of the Republicans."

Added Cox, "He basically used the (Democratic) Party to get another $67,000 a year for the next four years."

Cox said the Democratic Party has always been big enough for a variety of viewpoints, ranging from ultraliberal to conservative. In fact, Cox labeled himself a conservative Democrat. He suspects the two men switched solely for their "political livelihood."

Simon called the charge ridiculous. "If there's a little R next to your name or a little D next to your name, that doesn't have anything to do with how you do your job," he said.

Browning concurred.

"I will continue to run my office in a nonpartisan fashion," he said. "But the reality is, I'm a political animal, just like everyone else in public office."

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