Rep. Amber Mariano said ''no'' to the White House.
But not for long.
You may have seen the picture on social media. Mariano, R-Hudson, and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi were the sole civilian greeters on the tarmac as President Donald Trump and members of the first family descended from Air Force One ahead of a July 31 rally in Tampa.
"It was amazing. It was the greatest day of my life,'' said Mariano, who turns 23 this week.
Mariano said she didn't know why she was asked to meet the president. She also didn't know she would be the only state representative present. She received the call from a White House staffer after she had landed in Los Angeles to attend a national legislative conference.
"I'm out of town. I can't make it,'' Mariano said initially.
After hanging up and beginning to dial her father, Pasco Commissioner Jack Mariano, to tell him about the call from Washington, D.C., she had a change of heart. The reward was a handshake and personal greeting from the president, a ride in the motorcade and a prime position to watch Trump's pre-rally appearance at Tampa Bay Technical High School. Later, she received a photo of the presidential encounter, one that will make its way into her campaign literature.
"That could very well get her re-elected. People could just say, 'Yea, R' ,'' acknowledged Mariano's Democratic opponent, veterinarian Linda Jack, 57, of New Port Richey.
It's familiar terrain. Mariano, a University of Central Florida student at the time, rode Trump's coattails in 2016 to a close victory over popular Democratic incumbent Rep. Amanda Murphy for the state House District 36 seat covering western Pasco County.
Jack, however, is working to avoid that repeat. Her candidacy, like many on the ballot, also is tied to Trump.
"Like millions of people, after the 2016 election, I woke up and thought what have we done? What just happened?'' said Jack.
She attended the 2017 Women's March on Washington D.C. and later formed a Pasco chapter of the non-partisan activist group "Indivisible'' to do research and meet with elected officials. Jack said she believed Indivisible Pasco to be the first local chapter in Florida.
''We started this little group, and I thought, there will be five of us,'' she said "It turned out that now it's over 450 people.''
Jack later tried unsuccessfully to recruit candidates to run for public office and decided to seek the state House seat when nobody else was interested.
"It's unacceptable to me that Republicans in Pasco are walking in unopposed because nobody would step up to run against them,'' she said.
Her take on the incumbent?
"She seems like a nice enough person," Jack said. "She's still too young to have this job.''
Jack's resume offers greater life experiences. She was a musician in Nashville before switching careers and going back to school to become a doctor of veterinary medicine in 2006. A native Floridian who grew up in a military family, she spent much of her childhood in Pennsylvania. She moved back to Florida in 2015, bought a house in Clearwater and eventually settled in New Port Richey with her partner.
Mariano, however, can point to her roots in the community and to her legislative experience.
"I'm a person embedded in these issues,'' said Mariano. "I know what is like to grow up in Pasco County and to be someone who cares about this county because she is living here, and it's her community.''
Countered Jack: "You don't have to have lived here your whole life to get a sense of what the issues are that people are facing. ...The issues are not unique to Pasco County. Poverty is a statewide challenge that we face. Poverty, homelessness, substance abuse. I don't think it's a liability or handicap (being from elsewhere). I think you can learn what needs to be done. You have to make sure you listen.''
One of a large freshman class of more than 40 legislators elected in 2016, Mariano admitted, "there were some things that surprised me, sure. It's like drinking out of a fire hose when you first go up there. But anyone coming in new, it's all the same learning curve,'' she said. "That was kind of comforting. I wasn't behind the eight ball. Everyone was on the same page.''
She worked to expand use of the Bright Futures scholarships, removing the prohibition against applying the tuition for summer school credits. She also was the prime co-sponsor of a sexual predator bill requested by the Pasco County Sheriff's Office that prohibits school resource officers from having romantic contact with high school students even if they are 18 years old.
The successes initially were mesmerizing.
"Wow. I made a law. That's the craziest thing,'' she said. "That's surreal.''
If re-elected, Mariano said she plans to seek legislation requiring geriatric drivers to take road tests when they renew their driver licenses, to advance grandparents' visitation rights and to reduce the financial penalty for state university undergraduate students taking more than 132 credit hours.
Mariano said one of the top concerns voters express to her is the need to dredge residential canals in Pasco's coastal neighborhoods.
"Dredging is huge,'' she said. "These people pay to live on the water and can't even get their boats out.''
It's here where the two candidates diverge. Jack said the leading issues people are talking about include: public education; environmental concerns about Red Tide, flooding and contaminated beaches; the high cost and availability of health care; and widespread poverty.
Both agree that west Pasco's flooding issues are a priority, but they dispute the work done so far. Mariano cites her effort to obtain $1.5 million in federal dollars for Forest Hills in Holiday and $400,000 in the state budget for culvert expansion in the Salt Springs area near Gulf View Square mall. Jack repeated the same criticism of Mariano that the incumbent lobbed against Murphy two years ago: She hasn't done enough.
Gov. Rick Scott vetoed nearly all of the Pasco-specific spending in 2017, including a west Pasco flood relief project, though the governor let stand money for drainage work for Dade City.
"People are furious,'' said Jack. "They were promised all this help, and it didn't come.''
District 36 is the most competitive, in terms of party enrollment, among the Pasco legislative districts. Republicans hold a 1,700-voter advantage over Democrats in the district, but there are nearly 33,000 voters not enrolled with either major party. The district covers all of west Pasco from the coast to approximately Little Road.
Early voting begins Oct. 24.
Contact C.T. Bowen at [email protected] or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2.