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Janet Rifkin set to file for Mike Scionti’s seat in Florida House

in The Bay and the 'Burg by

Within minutes of Tampa state Rep. Michael Scionti announcing his resignation to take a position with the Obama administration, a West Tampa activist has emerged as his possible successor.

Janet Rifkin, a veteran local Democratic party activist and fundraiser, will run in the special election for heavily Hispanic district representing West Tampa and Town ‘N Country, said Ana Cruz, a local Democratic operative and Rifkin’s daughter.

Rifkin, a former county Democratic Hispanic caucus chair, could have some competition for the Democratic nomination. Former county party Chairman Mike Suarez and legislative aide John Rodriguez are both considering running.

But Rifkin, who already has lined up endorsements from many prominent elected local Democrats, looks like the frontrunner. For more on this race, please continue after the break. The district leans strongly Democratic, and there was no immediate word of a possible GOP candidate Monday. But local Republican Party Chairman Debbie Cox-Roush said the party won’t ignore the seat.

“This is news to me, but we’ll definitely look into it,” said Cox-Roush, who was out of town on business Monday and was reached by phone.

Republican Debbie Tamargo won the seat in a 1997 special election, but was unseated in the next regular election by Democrat Bob Henriquez.

Henriquez said Monday he’s not interested in running again.

Gov. Charlie Crist is expected to call a special election for voters in District 58, which includes West Tampa, parts of Town ‘N Country and Eagle Lake.

But Crist’s spokesman Sterling Ivey couldn’t say Monday whether the governor will schedule the election in time for the 2010 legislative session which begins in March. In effect, that would add a Democrat to the state House for the session.

President Barack Obama named Scionti deputy assistant secretary of defense for intergovernmental affairs and homeland defense. An Army Reserve veteran who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Scionti has held the state House seat since 2006.

Scionti’s resignation takes effect Dec. 13.

A lawyer and Bronze Star recipient, Scionti has also served in Germany, Kuwait and Iraq, and presided over the initial investigation into Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse.

He’s the son of the late county Democratic Party Chairman Michael Scionti.

Suarez acknowledged Rifkin has strong advantages in the race, but said, “If we decided things just by how strong the team or the candidate looked, we’d never play the game or have an election.”

Rodriguez, who has been legislative aide to both Scionti and Henriquez, said he Is “talking to people to see what those in West Tampa think.

“It’s a choice of who best represents the area and I think I make a pretty strong choice,” he said.

Rifkin may have one disadvantage — she and her husband, physician Stephen Rifkin, live in South Tampa in the Culbreath Isles area, not in the district.

By law, she can run while living outside the district, but must live in it to serve in the seat. Cruz said Rifkin will move if she wins the election.

Henriquez said she likely will be the frontrunner nonetheless, partly because of political IOU’s from her history of helping local and statewide Democratic candidates as a volunteer, organizer and fundraiser.

She announced endorsements from a large proportion of the prominent elected Democrats in the county, many of whom have benefitted from fundraisers at her home. The list included former Mayors Dick Greco and Sandy Freedman; state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink; former U.S. Rep. Jim Davis, Rep. Kathy Castor and Rep. Kendrick Meek, whose Senate campaign Cruz is working for. — Bill March

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Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.

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