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  1. Florida Politics

Bowen: Mariano goes from college classes to legislative meetings

Amber Mariano, 21, rode the 
Trump wave to victory.
Amber Mariano, 21, rode the Trump wave to victory.
Published Nov. 16, 2016

Amanda Murphy is packing boxes.

Amber Mariano is packing for Tallahassee.

That is the aftermath of Election Day, when voters in west Pasco packed their own partisan political punch.

Mariano, the 21-year-old daughter of Pasco Commissioner Jack Mariano and a third-year political science student at the University of Central Florida, traveled to Tallahassee this week for her orientation as a new state legislator. It becomes official on Tuesday, when she takes the oath of office to represent Florida House District 36.

A day later, the movers come to grab the state-owned furniture and constituent files from what had been Murphy's legislative office in New Port Richey.

Murphy, a Democrat, lost the seat she had held for three years to the Republican Mariano, who decided only in June to run for the west Pasco seat. She was the beneficiary of Republican President-elect Donald Trump's overwhelming support among Pasco County voters.

Murphy won 21 of the 34 precincts, but Mariano's plurality in just two of those neighborhoods proved insurmountable. Combined, voters in Sea Ranch and Gulf Harbors provided Mariano a 1,079-vote cushion. Her final margin of victory was 679 votes, or 1.1 percent of the 68,165 ballots cast. In 2014, Murphy lost those two precincts by a combined 287 votes.

Or consider Mariano's home neighborhood of Beacon Woods. She gathered 54 percent of the vote for a 343-vote plurality there. Two years ago, Murphy won that heavily Republican precinct by 53 votes.

"It was amazing to watch those numbers come in. When Trump comes in 21 percent ahead in the district, how do you combat that except by becoming a Republican?" Murphy asked.

There were lots of quirks in this race, too. Having another Democrat named Murphy toward the top of the ticket, U.S. Senate hopeful Patrick Murphy, probably didn't help. And the similar names of Amanda Murphy and Amber Mariano likely confused some voters.

At one point on Election Day, both candidates stood outside the polling site for precinct 15, the Asbury United Methodist Church on Thys Road. One voter heading into the poll told Murphy she planned to vote for her. But, as the woman exited, she turned to Mariano and said, "Great job, Amanda."

"At the end of the night," Murphy said, "we really won't know what those people voted for."

Clearly, though, they didn't vote Democrat. Murphy's loss leaves Pasco County with no Democrat holding an elected partisan office.

"The Democratic Party needs to understand that there is something severely wrong with our message," Murphy said. "We've got to figure out how to talk to middle-class America."

Mariano, meanwhile, has been talking to lots of people. The congratulations filled her phone on election night, a night she had to leave her own victory party at Kickin Wingz in Hudson to travel back to Orlando. She had an early-morning flight to Boston the next day for a Law School Admissions Council, or LSAC, conference. She had volunteered for that LSAC duty, figuring it might prepare her for admission to law school.

That plan is now on hiatus, if not out the window entirely. Mariano completes her fall course work Dec. 6, the same week she is scheduled to be in Tallahassee for member training. She will be 12 credit hours shy of graduating, but plans to take the next semester off to focus full time on the Legislature. The idea is to continue her education next summer and fall and pick up her diploma in December 2017.

Mariano turned 21 just three weeks before the election. She is believed to be the youngest member ever elected to the Florida House of Representatives. Adam Putnam was elected in 1996 at the age of 22.

Pasco voters are not afraid of youth, that's for sure. John Legg, Will Weatherford and Danny Burgess all were in their 20s when voters sent them to Tallahassee. Rep. Burgess, R-San Antonio, is now 30 and embarking on his second term in the Legislature. Mariano, if she runs and wins three more times, will be term-limited out before turning 30.

She also begins her legislative career a year before graduating from college. Whether she likes it or not, that means Amber Mariano is a career politician.

"Honestly, it's all so surreal," Mariano said. "I'm so blessed. Thirty-four-thousand people saw the potential in me as their representative. But, the work doesn't stop here. The work continues over next two years to make Pasco, west Pasco, a better place, and I'm really excited about this opportunity I've been given."

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