If the name Amber Mariano sounds familiar, there’s a reason for that. The 21-year-old New Port Richey resident has made a lot of headlines in the past few months. She bounced an incumbent in her first-ever election, becoming one of the youngest people to be elected to the Florida House. That feat, combined with the Republican wave that swept the nation on Election Day, landed Mariano some serious press coverage. She was featured on a recent episode of NBC’s “Today” show, talking with political analyst Nicole Wallace about her election. USA Today College profiled her, as have news outlets across the Sunshine State. But for Mariano, the decision to run wasn’t about the accolades or good media coverage. She’s known she wanted to run for public office since she was a young girl, telling friends and family when she was just six years old that she wanted to be the president of the United States when she grew up. She hasn’t wavered on that dream, but says she didn’t think her entry into politics would happen at this stage in her life. She thought she would finish college, go to law school, and start a family before getting into it. But when the opportunity presented itself, Mariano says she couldn’t pass up a chance to help her community and Florida. While the issues in her district are important to her, Mariano is deeply interested in higher education. Which makes a lot of sense, especially when you consider she’s one of the few lawmakers who isn’t just studying bills when she goes home at night. “There’s no one else that’s so recent to all of these experiences; Rep. Jennifer Sullivan is the only one that’s close,” she says. 98 | INFLUENCE SPRING 2017
DEMOCRATIC REP. BEN DIAMOND, HOUSE DISTRICT 68
Some families talk about sports around the dinner table. Growing up, Ben Diamond’s family was not one of those. Sure, they occasionally talked about the big game, but requests for seconds were served up with a side of chit chat about the news of the day. But that is what happened when your grandfather was Rep. Dante Fascell. “It’s been ingrained in us from an early
age that we’re supposed to be involved and giving back to our community,” says Diamond. The 38-year-old Pinellas County native has spent much of his life involved in public service. His fascination with the process is what drove him to go to law school, and eventually to go to look for opportunities to work in state government. He spent four years working as an attorney under Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, eventually serving as general counsel.
When Sink left office, he returned to the private sector, but jumped at the opportunity to “continue (his) public service” when the House seat opened up. He now has the chance to, at least in part, follow in his late grandfather’s footsteps. A member of the Florida House during the early 1950s, Fascell had a keen interest in environmental issues. It’s also an issue that’s close to Diamond’s heart, and one directly impacting many of his constituents. Diamond says he hopes to use his time in office to, among other things, look at ways to address growing concerns about the state’s water and natural resources. While he says the state has good laws on the books when it comes to environmental protection, lawmakers need to focus on making sure they are “being properly enforced.” As a father of a 4-year-old, Diamond also hopes to tackle issues surrounding early education, which he says is one of the most important issues facing the state. And with years of experience in the Department of Financial Services under his belt, you can bet Diamond will be wading into the assignment of benefit debates. “Right now, what I’m focused on is trying to build the relationships here in the Legislature so I can be an effective advocate for my district,” says Diamond. “That’s
PHOTOS: Mark Wallheiser
REPUBLICAN REP. AMBER MARIANO, HOUSE DIST. 36
“I went to a charter school. I went to public school. I went to online school. I (did) AP courses. I’m at a public university. I know what I’m talking about, not because I read a lot, but because I just went through it.” She’s putting her recent experience in the education system to good use in the Florida Legislature, already filing two bills aimed at making higher education more affordable. The first bill (HB 155) would allow students to use their Bright Futures Scholarships for classes during the summer term. Currently, the Bright Futures Scholarship Program only provides funding for students enrolled in fall and spring semesters. But with more pressure to finish school in four years, more students are taking summer courses. And that could lead to higher costs and more student debt down the road. Mariano should know. A few years back, she took three online courses over the summer. The courses cost more than traditional courses would have, and her Bright Futures scholarships didn’t cover the cost because she was taking them during the summer term. She ended up having to take out a loan for $3,000, and says she paid more for those nine credit hours than she generally does for 12 to 15 credit hours in the fall or spring. The second bill (HB 153) increases the number of credit hours students can enroll in before being billed a 100 percent surcharge of the normal tuition rate. The proposal increases the baseline credit hour limit from 110 percent to 120 percent. “I’m here to fix the problems I’ve seen,” she says. Mariano is planning to attend classes online after the spring semester and graduate early, before eventually going to law school. She still wants to be president someday, but until then she says she just wants to do the job she was elected for — and maybe have a little fun along the way. “It’s going to be hard juggling everything, but I’ve juggled much more,” she says. “And this isn’t a job. I’m juggling my dream. It’s not like this is painful work that I’m doing. This is what I’ve been working for my whole life.”