BRANDON — When local Republican leaders announced Rachel Burgin as their candidate for House District 56, the news was as surprising as incumbent Trey Traviesa's decision to quit the race a few days earlier.
She's new to the political limelight. She doesn't have a college degree. Although she doesn't own a home, she seeks to represent eastern Hillsborough County, where suburbanites worry about insurance rates and property taxes.
But doubts seem to be fading within the party as high-ranking Republicans hosted a Tallahassee fundraiser for Burgin on Wednesday.
In just 12 days, the former White House intern and aide to Traviesa and county Commissioner Brian Blair has raised $45,000 for her campaign.
"First of all, she's been around the legislative process," Florida Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer said. "She is young but experienced, and I think she will bring a lot of energy and new ideas to the office."
Behind the scenes, political observers say Burgin, 26, has the qualities to be an effective representative. About two years ago at a Brandon Republican meeting, she was jokingly introduced as someone who would someday replace state Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City.
"She got a standing ovation when I said that," recalled Steve Hall, a Blair aide.
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District 56 includes Palm River, Riverview, Brandon, Boyette and Fish Hawk, a seat which Traviesa has held since 2004. He dropped his re-election bid to spend more time on his health care company.
After considering candidates such as former state Rep. Sandy Murman, party leaders went with Burgin, who has a name as unfamiliar to voters as her Democratic opponent, Lewis LaRicchia of Valrico.
"The only thing that has changed is, my opponent and I are known very little in the public life," LaRicchia, a former union organizer, said in a statement to the Times. "This does not make either one of us poor candidates or poor representatives."
Burgin touts her government experience and conservative values that mirror Traviesa's.
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Raised in Plant City, the third of seven children, she aspired to do Christian humanitarian work but was drawn into politics when her brother, Josh Burgin, asked her to join his District 62 House campaign in 2004.
It was the summer before her senior year at Bob Jones University, a South Carolina Baptist college, and she ended up postponing the next semester as her political career gained traction.
Although Josh Burgin lost his race, Republicans took note of Rachel Burgin's grass roots effectiveness.
"She was a big part of the success that we had," Josh Burgin said. "She is a magnet for friends. She has a great way with people."
Traviesa said it seemed like she was everywhere.
"She was waving signs," he said. "She was at meetings at night. Handing out fliers. Knocking on doors in neighborhoods."
The Bush/Cheney campaign made her director of a Plant City office.
Soon, Blair hired her as an aide. She helped tackle cable negotiations, land use issues and policies involving controversial bikini bars.
The commissioner recalled her asking for a list of department heads. She met with them to become better versed in the government.
"Just came right out on her own and did that," he said.
A year later, Traviesa recruited her.
Rachel Burgin counts women such as Elizabeth Dole, Barbara Bush, Laura Bush and the late wife of Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan, Mary Brogan, as her political heroes. So she said she was initially turned off by Traviesa's outspokenness and brashness.
But they shared the same values, and soon she excelled at leading teams putting together complex and controversial legislation on issues such as cable deregulation and abortion restrictions.
"That team had to be managed by a quarterback," Traviesa said. "It couldn't be me. It had to be her, and she did."
She helped lead the planning of the Brandon Community Advantage Center, a community center being built with $1.4-million in federal, $2-million in state and $2.5-million in county funding.
After the legislative session this year, Burgin worked in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, where she helped nonprofits apply and determine their federal grant eligibility.
She was one of 100 White House interns chosen and could have considered a D.C. career.
But when Traviesa dropped out, she cut her internship short to 90 days to throw her name in.
She said she ran for District 56 because she wants to finish the community center project, promote an antiabortion and conservative agenda, and continue Traviesa's work with autistic children.
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When asked how she can relate to homeowners when she lives with her parents, she said that she has watched her family struggle like everyone.
"Am I paying for it personally? No," she said of property taxes. "Do I feel the personal pain of it? Yes."
She said she moved home temporarily because she just returned from her Washington, D.C., internship last month. She would like to buy a home soon.
Burgin remains 10 credits short of her Biblical Studies and Christian Leadership degree, which she plans to complete through correspondence and classes from Moody Bible Institute's Tampa campus.
She said it has been a challenge balancing coursework between legislative sessions and campaigns. She said she put herself through school without financial aid, once taking a year off to work 80 hours a week at Cracker Barrel and a Plant City dress boutique.
GOP leaders say her life experience and genuineness help her win votes. They said she leads from the middle, establishing trust among peers before asking for support.
"She'll have to find her method of success that's uniquely hers," Traviesa said. "Mine was more bull in a china shop than hers. I think hers will be more consensus building."
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or j[email protected]