National News

The Trump Factor: How West Pasco holds clues about Florida's political future

Posted June 17, 2018 6:08 p.m. EDT

NEW PORT RICHEY

The key to Donald Trump's success and whether Democrats can regain relevancy in governing Florida is tucked behind the shade-free sea of asphalt and strip malls stretching 20 miles along U.S. 19.

In bucolic-sounding subdivisions like Jasmine Lakes, Beacon Woods and Seven Springs live the type of voters who were essential to putting Barack Obama and Trump in the White House. The answers to questions about whether Republicans will lose the governor's mansion after 20 years or whether Rick Scott will win the U.S. Senate race reside here.

This working class area of west Pasco County is ground zero for Florida's swing vote, about as good a political bellwether for America's biggest battleground state as you can find. And based on dozens of random interviews this month with voters, the widely expected "blue wave" of anti-Trump voters carrying Democrats to victory in November is dubious at best.

"I'm sick of everybody trying to knock him down. Trump's doing a good job," 49-year-old Joe Vellucci, a former personal trainer who voted for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016.

"He's done just what he said he was going to do," Vellucci, a Democrat-turned-Republican, said as he left the Pasco Tax Collector's office with his renewed concealed weapons permit.

He has no use for the barrage of negative news stories about Trump he sees in much of the media.

"You watch Fox News, it's going to show you what the fake news is showing you, yet the other networks don't show you what Fox News is showing because they're afraid."

Florida is carved into 120 state House districts, each home to roughly 100,000 voters. None swung more dramatically to Donald Trump in 2016 than this one covering all of Pasco west of Little Road.

Officially, it is called House District 36, and in 2012 Obama won it comfortably, by more than 5 percentage points. Four years later, Trump overwhelmingly won the district, by more than 20 percentage points.

"People are tired of Republican and Democrat. They wanted someone different and that was their option to vote for," said Doug Taylor, a registered independent and owner of Executive Jewelry and Loan in New Port Richey who is pleased with his vote for Trump.

"I didn't see any other presidents going into North Korea," Taylor said. "I have high and lows with Trump. He's very abrasive. I don't think he is a politician at all, but I feel he has the smarts to put the people around him to get the job done."

The Tampa Bay Times examined statewide elections data to find the 10 state House districts that swung most significantly to Trump -- those districts where Trump's share of the vote increased most over what 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney received. Tampa Bay, the region that typically decides statewide elections, is home to the top three:

• District 36 in west Pasco, where Trump won nearly 26 percentage points more than Romney, is represented by state Rep. Amber Mariano, R-Hudson.

• District 35 covering much of Hernando County, where Trump won about 20 percentage points more than Romney, represented by Florida GOP Chairman and state Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill.

• District 34 covering northwest Hernando and much of Citrus Counties, where Trump won about 18 percentage points more than Romney, represented by Ralph Massullo, R-Lecanto.

These big Trump swing districts share common traits. Their electorates are whiter, older and less educated than Florida as a whole.

In west Pasco's District 36, for instance, 82 percent of residents describe themselves as non-Hispanic, white, compared to 52 percent statewide. Only 12 percent are Hispanic, compared to 24 percent statewide, and the median household income in 2016 was about $35,000, versus $49,000 statewide.

Even in today's deep polarization, voters here are far more populist in their leanings than rigidly partisan.

Former Republican legislator-turned-Tax Collector Mike Fasano, a champion for what he calls "the little guy and gal," -- and frequent critic of insurance companies and power companies raising rates and GOP leaders thwarting Medicaid expansion in Florida -- is a political titan in the area.

Voters overwhelmingly supported Democrat Charlie Crist over Republican Gov. Rick Scott in 2014 and handily rejected Romney and Hillary Clinton, two candidates widely characterized as being out of touch or elitist.

With Trump promising to blow up politics as usual in Washington, turnout in 2016 spiked from less than 53 percent to 62 percent (still less than the statewide average of 72 percent), including more than 17,000 voters who did not vote in the prior two presidential elections.

"On the first day of early voting, the number of new voters lined up in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, was like something never seen before," Pasco Elections Supervisor Brian Corley said.

On top of the other Trump-friendly demographics, west Pasco happens to be packed with transplanted New Yorkers appreciative of Trump's cockiness.

As Midwesterners flocked to other areas of the Gulf Coast, developers aggressively marketed west Pasco to Northeasterners approaching retirement, who in the 1970s could snap up 900-square-foot ranch homes just off the Gulf of Mexico for $10,000.

While 40 percent of the district is at least 55, compared to 32 percent statewide, blue collar west Pasco is less dominated by retirees than it used to be. That means less disposable income and helps explain why Gulf View Square Mall is moribund, its Macy's and JC Penney anchor stores shuttered.

New York attitude remains part of the culture.

"I liked Obama and voted for him, but my homeboy was a little soft. He kept getting knocked down," Brooklyn native Victor Berrios, a 50-year-old dialysis tech and registered Democrat, said over lunch at Sam's Beach Bar in Hudson.

"Trump is my man, and the Democrats need to lighten up a little bit. Let the man run the country," he said, even as he allowed Trump has done a "lousy" job with helping Puerto Rico recover, is "probably prejudiced" against Hispanics like him and takes no responsibility for his mistakes.

"What I like about him? He fights back, and we haven't seen that in a long time. Donald Trump has been hitting back like nobody's ever hit back, and they can't deal with it."

This was a common sentiment among voters interviewed. They don't pay close attention to the president's policies, they may not love his combative tweeting -- and dismiss the Russia investigation as meaningless background noise -- but they appreciate what they perceive as a decisive style. They sense that the president is getting a lot done, and see the economy improving.

"I tell you what, I made so much money in the stock market this last year I had to pay $4,000 in taxes -- double the year before. So I'm happy as a fat pig in the sunshine," Torre Lesser, 81, said while working on his boat in New Port Richey.

He too brushed off the assorted scandals and controversies surrounding Trump and his administration: "They try that crap with everybody in politics."

"Ever since Trump was voted in, our business has increased a hundredfold. People are just more confident in the economy," said Joe Combs, 61, owner of SI Electric, a solar energy business in New Port Richey.

Most of those interviewed said they have yet to feel the effects of an improving economy, but they hear about it in the media and expect to feel the results soon.

In interview after interview, voters dismissed the constant drama and controversy surrounding Trump: his relationship with a porn star; his penchant for praising ruthless dictators and attacking U.S. allies; or Russian meddling in the election and the ongoing probe into possible collusion by the Trump campaign.

"From what I hear, it's been going on so long and there doesn't seem to be anything there," Republican Donald Morse, 69, said of the investigation that so far has resulted in more than 100 charges, 20 indictments and five guilty pleas.

"It's all B.S.," said Magdaline Wise, 73, a sales clerk from New Port Richey. "Russia has always spied up on us, we've always spied on them. There wasn't any more collusion than what's happened in any other election. A lot of it is coming from the press."

In House District 36, thanks in large part to Trump's coattails, political newcomer Amber Mariano narrowly unseated a Democratic incumbent to become, at 21, the youngest person ever elected to the Florida House.

Mariano has been spending a lot of time knocking on doors in the district. Plenty of people dislike Trump, but she has no doubt he would easily win the district again today.

"I have not heard a single person say they regret voting for him, or people who were on the fence before saying they don't think he's doing a good job," she said.

Contact Adam Smith at asmith@tampabay.com. Follow @AdamSmithTimes.