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A fiery entry into county politics

Mary Ann Stiles thinks the County Commission has grown petty and parochial. So she's set out to change the rules.

By BILL VARIAN, Times Staff Writer
Published December 4, 2005

TAMPA - There weren't any fancy recreation centers for kids to gather in the working-class neighborhood where lawyer and lobbyist Mary Ann Stiles grew up.

But there was an old, abandoned building in that part of Orient Park, so the teenage Stiles got other neighborhood children to bring a can of white paint and cleaning supplies. She sold doughnuts to pay for what they couldn't afford.

They fashioned a passable clubhouse, brought in a "hi-fi," and the old building blossomed into their Saturday night dance hall.

"She's just always been the sort of person who, when she saw something that needed done, she just jumped in and did it," said Barbara J. Newberger, a fellow lobbyist who grew up with Stiles.

She did it while shepherding most of her 10 siblings while her parents worked, then later putting herself through college and law school starting at age 26. She has done it as general counsel for one of the state's most powerful business lobbies, Associated Industries of Florida.

Now Stiles, 61, is jumping in again, seeking to reshape Hillsborough government by creating a county mayor post. She believes the county has run amok, consumed with petty, parochial issues, and that she's just the one to fix it.

"I'm used to a fight," Stiles said. "I'm not afraid of anyone. I like to fight."

Stiles has formed a group called Taking Back Hillsborough County Political Committee Inc. as a first step toward putting the idea of a county mayor on the ballot. She plans to form other groups to address pressing county issues and back candidates.

* * *

All this began in October, after commissioners voted to create a study group to examine the county's bus agency, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority. Their aim: Better service for unincorporated areas, meaning outside Tampa city limits.

Stiles' Hyde Park-based law firm, Stiles, Taylor & Grace, was serving as HARTline's state lobbyist. She quit in protest, saying the county was wrongly injecting itself into another government's business in a way she fears will harm service for poor people.

Then she vowed to do something about it.

Her resignation and pledge to become active in local politics didn't draw much attention. Stiles isn't exactly a household name in Tampa.

But it could be a development worth watching as the 2006 political season heats up. Stiles is no warm and fuzzy granola eater with starry notions and little understanding of politics.

She has spent much of the last three decades in Tallahassee, where politicians know her name well, mostly working on behalf of big business and insurance companies. She played a central role in a rewrite of workers' compensation laws in 2003 that trimmed lawyers fees and limited their clients' ability to pursue legal challenges.

Her Associated Industries clients also have been helping to ensure the politicians who support their causes get re-elected, aiding in the Republican takeover of the Legislature. That didn't help Stiles when she ran unsuccessfully for a state House seat in 1986 as a Democrat.

Still, Stiles' work on behalf of big business is considered pioneering in a city where, for years, female lobbyists were relegated to so-called soft issues, such as education and health care.

"Had Mary Ann not sort of trailblazed the way, I would not have been here," said Tamela Perdue, 34, who manages the Stiles firm's Tallahassee office.

The work has paid off financially for Stiles, and that will aid her new endeavor.

* * *

Brian Blair is the commissioner serving as chairman of the HARTline study committee. Stiles said she backed him in the election with a campaign check, and wishes she hadn't.

He suggests she is motivated by anger, and said he thinks she feared that scrutiny of HARTline would highlight the $60,000 her firm was paid annually.

"I'm looking out for the taxpayer, and if that cuts off one of her money faucets, I'm sorry," Blair said.

That's ridiculous, Stiles said.

* * *

Stiles' law firm has offices in six cities, with 35 lawyers scattered from Miami to Atlanta, specializing largely in workers' compensation defense for businesses. She owns 42nd Street Bistro; the Harbour 42 Cafe on Harbour Island; and a hair salon. She also is a founding shareholder of Platinum Bank.

She is married to Barry Smith, who played football at Florida State and for the Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and who now works in sports marketing. They own an Avila home valued by the Property Appraiser's Office at just more than $1-million and have secured a $2-million penthouse in Trump Towers. She also owns the buildings housing her law offices in Tampa and Tallahassee and part of the land and building housing 42nd Street.

People who know her warn not to underestimate how much time Stiles will put into the effort.

"She's extremely bright and she works around the clock," said Jon Shebel, the longtime head of Associated Industries and its insurance company affiliates. "I talk to Mary Ann 20 times a day."

* * *

Stiles points to her roots in explaining her sudden interest in local politics.

Her parents divorced when she was in grade school. Her father remarried, and the combined families brought the number of children to 11.

They moved around Hillsborough County, from a place known as Providence (now owned by fertilizer giant Cargill), to Riverview to the Orient Park area that she called Six Mile Creek. The family raised its own food, and there often wasn't enough, particularly when her father was on strike at an east Tampa tin can factory.

Newberger, the fellow lobbyist who grew up with Stiles, remembers a girl about four years older who acted as her big sister. When Stiles learned Newberger had never had a birthday party, she made sure her seventh was grand, sending out construction paper invitations to her classmates.

When the two were older and working as legal secretaries, Newberger said Stiles complained regularly about working so hard only to see the lawyers make all the money. One day she announced she was going to law school. She was 26.

"I said you'll need to get a college degree first," Newberger said.

Stiles did, first getting an associate's degree at what is now Hillsborough Community College, then a bachelor's at Florida State University. She moved next to what was then called Antioch School of Law in Washington, D.C.

While at FSU, Stiles worked on the legislative staff, successfully crafting a bill Associated Industries opposed. When Stiles later went to Shebel looking for a reference letter, he hired her instead.

Stiles opened her law firm in 1982, and her siblings and other relatives have formed much of her staff through the years.

Beth Leytham, now a public relations executive, got her first job in Tampa as a secretary for Stiles. She said Stiles served as an early mentor to her, someone she saw advancing herself by her own tenacity and smarts while supporting much of her family along way. She was someone not intimidated by strong personalities.

* * *

Stiles will face plenty of opposition if she manages to collect enough signatures to place the county mayor question on the ballot. Most of the county's seven commissioners, who would lose power under such a system, oppose the idea.

Former County Commissioner Jan Platt is one opponent. She helped reform the commission, turning to the current seven-member system after a bribery scandal, and has long held the belief that it would concentrate too much power in one person.

Commission Chairman Jim Norman, who as the longest serving current member of the board, calls it a bad idea.

He said the current system gives residents a chance to reach their elected representatives by giving them seven equally powerful people to contact. He believes a mayoral system would shut down that access to all but those with enough money to contribute to political campaigns.

"You have folks who would like to just have that investment in one person," Norman said. "Follow the money."

Previous efforts to create a county mayor have died before being put on the ballot. Stiles wants at least to put it to a vote.

"The people may decide it's not what they want, but at least they have that choice," Stiles said.

--Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

[Last modified December 4, 2005, 01:37:45]

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