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.

It comes as little surprise that her top two issues are related to her career in real estate: strengthening Florida's eminent domain laws to protect homeowners and working to lower insurance costs. Riley said that between rising home insurance and taxes, not to mention the real estate boom, affordable housing is getting scarce. She wants to see the state rethink the size of a trust fund for affordable housing that was limited in the late 1990s during tight budgeting times.

(Disclosure: Her opponent in the Republican primary, Ed Hooper, was a client of mine when I was a political consultant.)

5. Building green — and convincing others to join him.

"I don't see myself with a political future," says Josh Bomstein. But the work he's doing as an advocate for green building certainly will impact the face of growth in this area for some time.

Bomstein is on the board of directors and is membership chairman of the Gulf Coast Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, an organization for the architectural/ engineering/ construction industry that advocates using more environmentally friendly methods. He won the group's annual service award for his work on promoting sustainable design and development.

While other green cities movements are at times critical of the trade group's efforts as being only marketing, Bomstein points out that great savings can be achieved for commercial building owners who choose to construct green.

"They see the value. They pay a little more now but they save money over time," said Bomstein, who is the business development manager for his father Alan's Creative Contractors in Clearwater. "For a long time, the green-building advocates have had extreme viewpoints. But now, for the contractors, you don't have to substantially change the way you do things. It's not that out of line with what we're doing already."

Bomstein also has a full plate with other civic endeavors (he starts a three-year term on the Clearwater Arts Foundation in January).

6. Pinellas Democrats' hopes ride with local consultant.

If there is anywhere in Florida where Democrats have a shot at picking up a few seats in the House of Representatives, it is in Pinellas County, where the demographics are shifting to a very independent-minded middle ground. If they are to have any hope at all, they're going to need a big performance from Kevin King, their newly named Pinellas field director.

King is young (26), local (graduate of Gibbs High and the University of South Florida), and experienced (running several Democratic campaigns). That makes him different in at least one important way from the usual consulting suspects that get parachuted in as party field directors: He's from here.

Democrats believe they will be competitive in the House seats now held by Republicans Frank Farkas and Sue Berfield (both running for the Senate); and Leslie Waters. King will work with Democratic candidates to help in fundraising and grassroots organizing. He just came off the Darden Rice campaign in St. Petersburg, which performed well on both those counts. Now if the Party could only dig up a full slate of decent candidates with which he could work...

7. From Tampa chamber to Hillsborough Commission.

Here's another young candidate (34) looking to win in his first race: Brad Swanson wants to succeed Kathy Castor on the Hillsborough County Commission.

In preparation for the race earlier this year, Swanson stepped down as spokesman for the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, which gave him experience dealing with media and good connections to corporate leaders in the area.

The Apollo Beach resident raised a quick $23K during his first fundraising quarter (much of it from development and real estate sources), and he has the support of such GOP activists as Ralph Hughes.

His platform, in his own words: "Smaller government, lower taxes, conservative." He's an unabashed fiscal and social conservative, and he has the successful Republican political consultant Michael Corcoran on board to direct his campaign.

Swanson is playing catch-up to opponent Rose Ferlita's campaign fundraising. Ferlita is a popular city councilwoman (and, disclosure time, a former political client of mine), but it is not clear how her more moderate and urban form of Republicanism will be accepted countywide and in a party primary instead of her usual nonpartisan city races. Swanson is widely viewed as the conservative choice in the race, and with the ways things go in Republican primaries in Hillsborough, that is one heck of an advantage.

8. Putting out political fires.

If you are a candidate for office, there are two big endorsements you want to receive: the police officers and the firefighters. And since the tragedy of 9/11 and the loss of life suffered by the NYFD, firefighters are the endorser of choice to gain public sympathy and street cred.

That makes John Little a go-to guy for candidates in Pinellas County. Little, 41, is the president of the Pinellas County Council of Firefighters, a 17-year veteran of the firehouse and a savvy — and passionate — political operator. He'll help navigate the rank-and-file's support, especially in the pivotal Pinellas House races, where a firefighters' endorsement or grassroots assistance can make a big difference.

More importantly to firefighters and taxpayers alike, Little is a key player in the fight over consolidating fire departments in Pinellas County. Pinellas is a patchwork of 19 different departments, and the county has tried for years to combine them into one, arguing it would save as much as $18 million a year. Little has helped beat back those attempts.

"Its sort of like Groundhog Day," Little says, referring to the Bill Murray movie. "Every three years this comes up. They never change their approach."

Little insists, however, that the union's opposition is not to consolidation per se; firefighters are concerned about their jobs and benefits, sure, but the bigger concern is the lack of a plan by county officials for how those savings would be realized without cutting the level of service to taxpayers who want a firefighter or paramedic at their emergency in the quickest possible time.

9. Democratic war vet, part two.

OK, I'm going to fudge a little bit on this one. Stephen Gorham, a Democrat running in the Republican Senate district now held by Tom Lee, will likely be underfunded and underexposed compared with the Republicans in that race (like Sandy Murman).

But he deserves attention.

Gorham is bright, enthusiastic and running because he cares about the future of a state where he is raising a young daughter. He's also a veteran of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, having been deployed in support of both as a member of the U.S. Navy in the Mediterranean. But those things don't always matter in the money- and partisan-fueled campaigns in Hillsborough.

But the Plant City resident, who is the director of networking and telecommunications at Hillsborough Community College, stays upbeat.

"Things are going great," Gorham said. "We're out there raising hell and we're getting a lot of attention."

10. Moving up from St. Pete City Council.

As a St. Petersburg City Council member, Rick Kriseman is not exactly a new face. But he's leaving that august body to run for the Florida House, and he promises to be a rising star for Tallahassee Democrats who could use a few heroes.

Kriseman was first given national prominence by the Democratic Leadership Council, which pimped him in 2004 as its "New Dem of the Week" for his work in creating a loan program that helps new police officers buy homes in St. Petersburg. He later made that group's "100 to Watch" list, joining state Rep. Bob Henriquez as its only Tampa Bay members.

He's running for the House of Representatives seat now held by Charlie Justice (who is leaving to run for the Senate), and he's already got a lengthy supporter list, which includes former House Speaker Peter Rudy Wallace and rising Florida Democratic star Dave Aronberg from West Palm Beach.

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