TAMPA — Hillsborough County Republicans on Friday tapped a 26-year-old Dover woman who just completed a summer internship at the White House to replace Trey Traviesa in the House District 56 race.
Rachel Burgin had been Traviesa's legislative aide before he made the sudden decision this week to not seek re-election. She is already considered the favorite to win, because the lone opponent is Democrat Lewis Larricchia, a political unknown.
But her rapid ascent to become a state House contender jolted the Republican establishment and Democrats, too.
Among the nine candidates vetted Friday during five hours of interviews at the Alfano Conference & Banquet Center were former state Rep. Sandy Murman, Traviesa's predecessor, and Mark Proctor, an eastern Hillsborough political consultant and real estate broker.
Burgin, on the other hand, is still working toward a bachelor of science in Christian leadership and biblical studies from Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. And she's trying to establish permanent residency in the district.
"Everyone is in shock," said Murman, who represented District 56 for eight years until term limits forced her out of office in 2004. "It's unfortunate with all these major issues we have that they can't use my experience. But it is what it is."
Michael Steinberg, chair of the Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee, said she is not as qualified as Murman or Proctor to represent the district, which stretches east from Davis Islands, taking in portions of Riverview, Seffner, Brandon, Boyette and Fish Hawk Ranch. Republicans edge out Democrats there 40,600 to 37,600.
"We're concerned that she's going to represent the interests of the party bosses and the special interests, not the constituents," he said. "People like Sandy Murman and Mark Proctor have shown some independence and a willingness to listen to people on both sides of the aisle.''
Traviesa waited until after the June 21 qualifying deadline to drop out of the race, so the task of choosing a replacement fell to a three-person committee of local GOP officials. Chairman David Storck and state Committeewoman Carol Carter were the two who made the decision. The third member, A.J. Matthews, was out of the country.
Carter defended Burgin in an interview, calling her "a bright, bright woman" who "is from the heart of that district, knows that district, has the values of the district." The choice, she said, came down to experience and potential.
Burgin was a secretarial aide for Hillsborough County Commissioner Brian Blair from 2005 to 2006. Her brother Josh, who lost a 2004 state house bid in District 62, served in the same role.
Burgin's work with Blair caught the eye of Traviesa, who hired her away in 2006. After the last legislative session, she moved to Washington D.C. for three months for a summer internship at the White House's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. She returned from that program on Thursday.
"She's been to Tallahassee, she knows the process, she knows how to get bills submitted," Carter said. "Sandy Murman was a great legislator. She's a friend. However, we're looking to the future and we believe that Rachel will be able to sustain this seat after this election and will be there in 2010 and will not have a lot of opposition."
And, Carter said, Traviesa highly recommended her.
Burgin, reached by telephone Friday, said she knows she doesn't look like the average political candidate, "but I honestly think that people don't necessarily identify with the average politician."
She said she's intimately familiar with District 56 because, for three years she has answered its taxpayers' phone calls, fielded complaints, heard their concerns.
She said she shares Traviesa's conservative views on abortion, which was a central focus of his legislative tenure.
One of her big passions, she said, is "nonprofit faith-based'' organizations, and she would work to help them.
"This district believes in family, business and education," she said. "I have a passion for this community."
Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report. Rodney Thrash can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 269-5303.