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For Iraq war vet, politics was in his blood

As a kid, Michael Scionti followed his dad like a shadow. The elder Mike Scionti, a school teacher who later led the Hillsborough Democratic Party, welcomed the company of his only son, whom everyone called "Mikey's boy."

The son quietly soaked up political talk between his dad and friends over cafe con leche. The other faces were familiar to young Scionti. State Sen. Louis de la Parte was his uncle. Judge E.J. Salcines was a close family friend.

"When you're just a little kid looking up to all these incredible men, you just want to aspire to be like them," said Scionti (pronounced shawn-tee).

He did just that.

After a circuitous but focused career path, the death of his father, months of combat in Iraq and a vigorous campaign, Scionti claimed his own seat at the political table.

Today he will be sworn as the only Iraqi war veteran in the Florida House.

Leader in school days

Scionti, 38, grew up in a large Italian family with deep roots in West Tampa. His grandfather was a cigarmaker, and his grandmother's family owned the Mirabella Fish Market.

In school, Scionti never lost an election. He was sixth-grade class president at Lee Elementary School, student body president at Wilson Middle and executive board president at Plant High.

"I loved being the go-to person," he said. "I loved being able to find solutions, or at least try."

Scionti determined early on he wanted to be a prosecutor, like many of the men he admired. But he didn't want to rush it. He figured police experience would make him a better prosecutor.

He started at the academy, but his heart led him to become a Hillsborough County social worker, helping single mothers and their children. At night, he worked as a reserve deputy for the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office.

After that, he became a lawyer who prosecuted drug traffickers and violent felony offenders.

Still, he itched to join the military. So Scionti became captain in the Army Reserve, Judge Advocate General's Corps.

His father had a heart attack in the middle of a tennis match and died in the fall of 2002. Scionti had no time to grieve. A war was about to erupt overseas.

Off to battle

Scionti and his soldiers were some of the first to fight their way through Baghdad. By day, Scionti put up a tough facade. But alone at night, his mind lingered on the loss of his father. He looked up at the stars and prayed.

"I would just ask for strength," he said.

Months later, his eyes locked with those of Romanian-born Zsuzsanna Tamas, a fellow soldier. Hers was the only smiling face in a crowd. After she returned to the states, she sent Scionti care packages full of blankets, hot soup and oatmeal.

Scionti returned to Tampa and asked Tamas to visit him. Two hours after her plane touched down - under a pink sunset, outside his late father's condo on Indian Rocks Beach - he carved his wedding proposal into the sand with a stick. They married three days later.

A month later, Scionti attended a party, where he saw House District 58 Rep. Bob Henriquez, who told Scionti that he would have to give up his seat in 2006 because of term limits and suggested that Scionti run for the seat, which represents parts of West Tampa and Town 'N Country.

"He just seemed like a natural fit," Henriquez said. "You never think of running yourself until someone points it out to you. I sort of put the bug in his ear and let it go from there."

Campaigning was the last thing on Scionti's mind upon his return from 18 months of battle. He struggled with traumatic war memories and the sting of his father's death.

But he began to campaign, and in doing so, he reconnected with humanity.

"It allowed me to kind of heal," Scionti said. "Every path that I went down in this campaign trail - I just became alive again."

Future in office

Scionti will be sworn into office today in Tallahassee. He has big ideas.

At the top of his list: providing tuition assistance for returning combat veterans. He also wants to pass legislation to help small businesses and homeowners.

"If I don't get re-elected," he said, "I want to know I was up there just trying to fight for good causes."

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at 226-3354 or azayas@sptimes.com.

Fast facts

Michael Scionti

Age: 38

Gigs: State House District 58 representative; captain in the Army Reserve, working out of MacDill Air Force Base

Digs: Davis Islands, but he and his wife are looking for a home in his district.

Wheels: Scionti had a tiny Mercedes before he left for Iraq. When he returned, he wanted a bigger car to feel safer. He bought a Ford F-250 pickup.

Pet: A beta fish named Constantine.

Morning routine: Makes his wife breakfast and packs her a lunch to take to school.

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