The Democrats' Crist

A future governor? Look no further than West Tampa

In the closing days of the legislative session, Michael Scionti stood chatting with the Democratic House Minority Leader Dan Gelber, a South Florida political veteran.

Scionti, his military-short haircut testifying to the active-duty status as an Army intelligence expert that kept pulling him away from his work as a freshman state representative, had been troubled by which way to go on property tax reform. The Democratic Caucus did not have a formal position on Speaker Marco Rubio's wild GOP tax-swap plan, but almost all the Democrats planned to vote against the sweeping and risky change to Florida's financial structure.

That left Scionti a little wiggle room. He told Gelber he disliked Rubio's tax-swap because it would put the state at risk in case of a natural disaster such as, say, a hurricane, just months after windstorm insurance reform put the Florida even more on the hook for billions of dollars in damages. But outweighing those concerns, Scionti didn't want to be just another freshman legislator in the minority party sitting in the back row of the House chambers, shouting out amendments to the property tax bill that were doomed to defeat.

He had an idea.

The House plan, as controversial as it was, would never be passed by the more cautious Senate, which had its own property tax reform bill that didn't include swapping for sales tax increases.

"One of the benefits from the military is they teach you to think strategically and tactically," Scionti said. "I knew it was a pass."

In other words, a free pass that Scionti could vote for a House plan he didn't like because he knew it wouldn't become law. And by voting for Rubio's plan, he could ingratiate himself with the Republican speaker and hope to get a seat at the bargaining table when the House and Senate sat down to negotiate a budget compromise.

Which is exactly what he got.

"You've got to look at the bigger picture to see how you will navigate through the smaller ones," he said. "I chose to put myself at the bargaining table rather than be on the sidelines."

Pragmatic doesn't even begin to describe this 38-year-old son of one of Hillsborough's legendary Democratic Party chiefs, Mike Scionti, and a nephew of former Florida Senator Louis De La Parte. While some observers and even colleagues were displeased with his vote, he got his seat at the budget table. He walked away from it with, among other things, $1 million for a stormwater project in Tampa's Drew Park neighborhood, $350,000 to help restore the 93-year-old Centro Asturiano building and another $350,000 to help developmentally disabled adults in Hillsborough.

"I told [the Republican leaders] that I had stuck my neck out on the tax vote," so I was owed something in return, he said.

Scionti tells this story at a meeting of the West Tampa Chamber of Commerce, a small gathering in the heart of his district, where he is greeted as something like a favorite son. Hillsborough School Board member Jack Lamb reacts: "Best to be at the table because you could be on the menu."

Scionti could be a Democratic Charlie Crist. Ambitious, grandson of immigrants and always calculating the political gains and losses. Scionti goes further: His military career and a wife, Zsuzsanna.

Scionti and Crist have different core values, but Scionti could follow in Crist's footsteps if the political wind in Florida keeps changing the way it has over the past two years.

As a freshman, Scionti was appointed Democratic Whip, a job that can be vitally important or, as one of my former political colleagues put it, akin to being the janitorial staff. Scionti said he views the job as "gathering as much intel" as possible on how his Democratic colleagues felt on each piece of legislation, who was voting which way. When there was a formal Democratic Caucus position, it was his job to enforce loyalty or crack the whip.

His military background certainly suits with the intel part. Scionti missed some of the first part of the legislative session when he was called away on a mission. His work for military intelligence is so secret he won't even say where he went. "It was part of the ongoing war-fighting effort," he told the Tampa Tribune for a story in April. "I'm really sorry, but I can't say any more. People will start seeing my name and connecting a puzzle."

As a military lawyer (yes, he also has his own law firm to deal with), Scionti served in Iraq, Kuwait and Germany. In military intelligence, assigned to U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base, he has been sent to Afghanistan and Qatar on previous missions. Which he won't discuss, either.

Even putting aside his budget work, Scionti had a good session. One of the seven bills he filed, extra protection for federal law enforcement officers, awaits Crist's signature. Not bad for a freshman in the party not in power.

It's good to see in this era of term limits and ideologically driven actions in the legislature that we're starting to see a return to a more productive style of political give-and-take. Sure, the partisan leadership of Jeb Bush made intra-party cooperation close to impossible, but Democrats were blinded by such hatred of Bush's policies that they lost sight of how to snag a seat at the table.

Scionti gets the strategy thing, and that gives him a leg up.

"I'm pretty good at that in the Army," he said. "I hope I'm good at that in Tallahassee."

And with that, he was out the door in a rush, telling the business crowd, "Now I have to get back to duty."

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