Fresh Faces

Ten up-and-coming politicos who could rock 2006.

Each new year brings renewed hope: to lose weight, to stop smoking, to finally have some outstanding citizens running for public office in Tampa Bay.

To that end, we have the 2006 Must-Watch List.

Last year's list was right about Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, gubernatorial candidate Jim Davis, Pinellas Democratic chief Carrie Wadlinger and Hillsborough Commissioner turned Congressional candidate Kathy Castor. They all made headlines, if not always as the 2004 column anticipated.

The coming year brings major elections, and new faces already dot the sample ballot. If the list seems tilted toward Democrats, that's because they are offering some exciting candidates, like Michael Scionti — something they have not done in a long, long time.

So here goes, the 2006 Must-Watch List:

1. Democratic war vet, part one.

When Michael Scionti threw his Florida House campaign kickoff party — as is traditional for Latin candidates, at the West Tampa Convention Center on Columbus, complete with spaghetti cooked by Bebe Castro — more than 400 supporters showed up. That matched the crowd that gubernatorial candidate Jim Davis drew a week later, and is a testament to the strength of this first-time candidate.

But then again, he comes from good stock. His dad, Mike Scionti, was the fiery, backslapping chief of the Hillsborough Democratic Party before his death in 2002.

So the kid — at 37 he looks 10 years younger — has pedigree, popularity and a backstory that would make a Hollywood producer drool. Scionti spent five years as a prosecutor in Tampa before 9/11. After the attacks on America, Scionti served in Iraq as an Army reservist, rising to captain. He spent time in Fallujah and at Abu Ghraib working to rebuild the Iraqi justice system. While there, this Tampa Italian-American fell in love with a Romanian volunteer, Zsuzsanna, whom he returned home with and married.

Scionti is a pragmatic Democrat who has his father's zest for people but a more modern approach. His view on the war is not a knee-jerk anti-Bush position, being tempered by the fact that he's been there and is reticent to send a demoralizing message to troops still serving.

But Scionti, fresh from the state Democratic convention, is upbeat about his party's chances.

"It's interesting, not too long ago everybody had counted the Democrats out, they even questioned whether the Democratic Party could still exist," he said. "The Democratic Party is here and louder than ever."

2. The feisty Republican chief in Pinellas County.

If there is one person in local politics guaranteed to make headlines in the next 12 months, my cash is on Tony DiMatteo, a transplanted New Yorker who is the outspoken and unapologetic head of the Pinellas Republican Party. DiMatteo took over from longtime Pinellas chief Paul Bedinghaus in 2005, and immediately established a take-no-prisoners approach to local GOP politics.

In his most controversial move, he convinced the Pinellas executive committee to endorse candidates in Republican primaries — something it had avoided in the past. By anointing those he sees as the strongest candidates, DiMatteo figures to focus his troops' energies on beating Democrats and not each other.

3. Art critic — and progressive politician.

Mary Mulhern has taken a hiatus from her gig as the Planet's art critic, and now figures to be a player in the political mix in 2006. We're not just saying that because she was a member of the home team: Mulhern, a Democrat, has shown some serious chops in politics, and stands to be seen as one of the area's leading progressives, a Tampa version of St. Pete's Darden Rice.

When Mulhern, 46, wasn't spying out some postmodern masterpieces or writing about saving Kiley Gardens in downtown Tampa, she was becoming one of the most knowledgeable grassroots organizers in Tampa, working hard with the Kerry campaign and the 537 Club.

Mulhern was an arts administrator at the Art Institute of Chicago for 13 years before moving to Tampa. In addition to writing for us here, she freelances as a creative director and graphic designer and is on the board of directors of Freedom Playground, Tampa's first handicap-accessible children's playground. The park has been championed by Stephanie Busansky, the daughter-in-law of former county commissioner Phyllis Busansky.

Mulhern is considering a run for the Hillsborough County Commission seat being vacated by Kathy Castor.

4. An army of Realtors for Republican House candidate.

A veteran of Pinellas Republican politics since she was a kid (she worked on her uncle David Anderson's successful House race and now-Congressman Bill Young's state Senate campaign), Nancy Riley starts her own quest for a seat in the House in Tallahassee with a big advantage: the 156,000 or so licensed Realtors in the state of Florida who just might like to help their president-elect win.

The 58-year-old Feather Sound resident is a longtime real estate agent in town, but in the past five years, she's been building her political resume: She's been the state committeewoman from Pinellas since 2000 and was a voting delegate at the 2004 Republican National Convention.

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