Amber Mariano turns 21 next week, but the Republican candidate in state House District 36 sometimes has a hard time persuading voters that she's even on the verge of that milestone.
"You look 13,'' she said adults have told her as she canvasses west Pasco County neighborhoods in search of votes.
Mariano, a third-year student studying political science at the University of Central Florida, has the difficult task of challenging state Rep. Amanda Murphy, D-New Port Richey, for the House seat representing west Pasco.
Murphy is popular among Democrats and Republicans alike, and has received a public endorsement from her predecessor, Mike Fasano, who now serves as the Pasco tax collector. Her diverse supporters include the United School Employees of Pasco as well as the pro-business lobby Associated Industries of Florida. One of the chief proponents of a campaign finance transparency bill she introduced was the Republican Liberty Caucus, and when she began her re-election campaign this year, five Republicans showed up to volunteer to walk neighborhoods with her.
Mariano has the support of at least one high-profile Republican — her dad, Pasco Commissioner Jack Mariano, who she said sparked her interest in politics when she was in elementary school. Her top agenda item hits close to home: fixing the higher education dichotomy of forcing college students to take at least seven credit hours over the summer while not allowing Bright Futures scholarships to cover the tuition costs. Murphy, likewise, supports Gov. Rick Scott's plan to allow Bright Futures dollars to cover summer tuition.
Otherwise, much of Mariano's platform mirrors her father's causes: addressing flooding in west Pasco, a need for canal dredging in coastal communities, and support for a rail system to move commuters. The drainage and canal work, she believes, would benefit from an influx of state aid, even if they are local problems. And, it is where she offers criticism of Murphy.
"What has she done?'' said Mariano. "I mean what has she brought back to the district to make it any better? I've seen no progress. There is nothing I can say, 'Well, she worked on it.' ''
Such a statement, however, fails to account for the role the Republican governor played in west Pasco's fortunes. Scott, in the past two state budgets, has vetoed millions of dollars worth of projects in District 36, including money to beautify U.S. 19 medians, build transitional housing for homeless families, restore a Port Richey pier on the Pithlachascotee River, and notably, even though it wasn't her district, money Murphy sought for a conservation easement at Heritage Lakes Estates and the Oaks at Riverside.
"The governor vetoed all my stuff,'' Murphy said, because she didn't support Scott's push to fund Enterprise Florida.
Murphy, 46, a financial adviser at Raymond James Financial, was elected to the Legislature three years ago, when she won a special election to succeed Fasano. She has worked on bills addressing human trafficking, autism, foster care, mental health services and election laws.
"You learn from here to there,'' she said. "There's no one thing you get to focus on up there.''
She said she is most proud of her work on human trafficking. Signed into law by Scott, the measure offers greater protections for victimized children and establishes harsher penalties for individuals who deal in human trafficking.
If re-elected, Murphy said, she would try to expand the mental health initiatives already begun, including establishing more crisis beds and providing so-called wrap-around services for individuals after they are released from a mental health hospital.
"It's a $50 million issue, and we only put $7 million toward it,'' she said.
District 36, considered a swing district, covers coastal Pasco County from Pinellas to Hernando counties and includes the cities of Port Richey and New Port Richey as well as the unincorporated communities of Holiday and Hudson, and the businesses and neighborhoods long the U.S. 19 corridor. It is 35 percent Republican, 34 percent Democrat and 31 percent people who are not affiliated with either major party.
It also is a district in which summertime polling showed Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump with a 51 percent approval rating, compared with 39 percent for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
"I'm knocking on doors,'' said Murphy, "that are voting Trump.''
Election Day is Nov. 8. Early voting begins Oct. 29.