CLEARWATER — In 1970, on Christmas Eve, a young George Cretekos received the call that would change his life.
A Florida senator just elected to the U.S. Congress named C.W. Bill Young was looking for an assistant legislative aide. On his list was Cretekos, a Tarpon Springs native fresh out of graduate school.
Did Cretekos, Young asked, want to uproot his life and work in Washington? He started work on Capitol Hill 10 days later.
"I was the low man on the totem pole," Cretekos said, "but I was so happy."
That offer would begin a 36-year career at the side of the powerhouse legislator in Florida and D.C. When Cretekos retired, during Young's 18th term, he had accrued more Capitol Hill experience than most members of Congress — and all of it behind the scenes.
Now, five years after retirement, Vice Mayor Cretekos is seeking the spotlight as mayor. A Clearwater resident since 1976, he joined the City Council in 2007 and was re-elected in 2008.
The Jan. 31 election marks his first opposed election, and his opponent, newcomer Christine Marketos-Cuomo, calls her lack of "politician" experience a point of pride.
But fighting back against an anti-incumbent fervor, Cretekos has learned, means speaking out, especially for someone who made his career assisting.
"Sometimes I have to remind myself I should be in the front row," Cretekos said, "instead of the back."
Cretekos, 64, grew up in Tarpon Springs as an altar boy for the St. Nicholas Cathedral. A devoted Greek Orthodox, he wanted to be a priest, though he never dove for the Epiphany cross. "Too cold," he said.
His childhood had close ties to the Greek enclave, where he hocked sponges from his grandmother's curio shop on Dodecanese Boulevard. His name — or, rather, that of his sponge-merchant grandfather — christens a sponge-diving ship that sailed the gulf in the early 20th century.
After graduating from Tarpon Springs High, he enrolled at Davidson College, the North Carolina liberal-arts school, where he landed a political internship in D.C. In 1968, his intern work — mostly driving a congressman's wife between dinner parties — brought him to the 1968 Republican National Convention in Miami Beach. He was hooked.
Upon graduation, he enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh, where he earned his master's degree in public administration. He wanted to become a city manager, but his expertise in politics spooked employers for the nonpartisan job. Then he heard Young's call.
Now retired and a consultant for All Children's Hospital, he has turned his focus to the council, where he is known as a champion of formality. He still calls Young "the Congressman," and his council colleague Paul Gibson jokes that he sleeps in his suit and tie.
But Cretekos, dubbed the "oldest altar boy" at Clearwater's Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, sometimes also showcases a sharp tongue. He has at times sparred with speakers and his colleagues in the chambers of City Hall, and this week, at a candidate forum, he went after Marketos-Cuomo's lack of expertise.
"Some of you might resent that I am a quote-unquote politician," Cretekos said. But "I am the only candidate with the experience. ... There is no question about that."
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Cretekos' top priority is shifting the city's economic focus from tourism, a sector proven vulnerable to disasters like the Gulf oil spill.
Promoting ventures like medical businesses on the Morton Plant campus and technology startups in the offices downtown could encourage employers to move in or stay put.
Cretekos, who lives with his wife, Carolyn, in Sand Key, has been endorsed by the local Chamber of Commerce and the police and city employees' unions, as well as a number of city and civic leaders.
"Government," he said, "isn't supposed to be something you're afraid of."
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or [email protected] Send letters to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.