Florida’s first Latina lieutenant governor to play an active role in an obscure post

When Ron DeSantis’ campaign first contacted Jeanette Nuñez about joining the Republican ticket for Florida governor, the veteran state lawmaker wanted a little more information and some time to think.

On the verge of leaving the Florida House of Representatives, Nuñez needed to know she could commit to the campaign. She also wanted to be sure she’d fit with DeSantis, a Palm Coast congressman with little experience in state politics. And then there was the issue of her responsibilities in what historically has been an obscure post with no job description and little function.

“I wanted to make sure he and I share the same vision of what a lieutenant governor would be and would do under his administration,” Nuñez said in an interview. “We both agree as lieutenant governor-elect I’ll have an active role in the administration.”

Heading into the Jan. 8 inauguration, signs suggest that Nuñez will not only have a role to play in the DeSantis administration, but she may become one of the most important lieutenant governors in recent memory.

Nuñez, 46, has sat in on nearly all job interviews for appointments by the governor-elect. She has participated in the vetting of nominees for the Florida Supreme Court, where DeSantis will quickly have three vacancies to fill. And the governor-elect has also tasked Nuñez, a former HCA hospitals executive and vice president of government relations for Jackson Health, to co-chair his transition committee on healthcare.

People in and around the DeSantis transition efforts say the incoming governor’s faith in Nuñez and her experience from decades spent in the Florida Legislature as an aide, lobbyist and lawmaker has been clear. U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, a senior member of the transition team, believes Nuñez is DeSantis’ closest adviser behind only his wife, Casey DeSantis.

“The lieutenant governor-elect will have a major role in legislative affairs, but that will not be her only role. I can’t stress enough that when the governor is making the most high-impact decisions, it’s Jeanette’s advice that carries that extra weight,” said Gaetz, a former state representative who helped recruit Nuñez to the ticket. “We wouldn’t consider having an important discussion without her.”

The Florida Constitution holds that the lieutenant governor’s duties are decided by the governor, and different administrations have treated the position differently. Gaetz said he believes Nuñez will play a “consiglieri” role, similar to how Toni Jennings served Jeb Bush during his second term. On the other hand, outgoing lieutenant governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera, who like Nuñez is a Cuban-American former state representative from Miami, has been almost invisible under Gov. Rick Scott.

But where Scott can be a micro-manager, DeSantis’ associates say he is far more likely to delegate tasks. And unlike her predecessor, who was picked by a sitting governor to replace someone who resigned amid controversy, Nuñez has been intimately involved in DeSantis’ transition team.

Her role only figures to grow as the Legislature convenes its annual session in March.

“Her incredible depth of knowledge in government and the legislative process will be invaluable” to DeSantis, said lobbyist Bill Rubin, co-chairman of DeSantis’ inaugural committee. “He’s going to really come to rely on her.”

When DeSantis picked Nuñez as his running mate, she was the term-limited Speaker Pro Tempore. The role is ceremonial, but indicative of her relationships in the conservative Florida House. Nelson Diaz, a Tallahassee lobbyist for Southern Strategies and Miami-Dade Republican Party chairman, said she “will truly be the second most powerful person in that administration and a huge asset to governor-elect DeSantis.”

State Rep. Ray Rodrigues, who House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, picked to lead the House’s healthcare committee, was effusive when speaking about Nuñez’s leadership of a special 21-member committee charged with evaluating recovery from Hurricane Irma and better preparing Florida for its next major storm. Rep. Chris Sprowls, chairman of the House’s rules committee, said Florida’s political insiders were all impressed when DeSantis announced his pick.

“Her relationships aren’t just an effect of her being a nice person, as much as a byproduct of the fact that when you worked with Jeannette it was substantive, and she knew what she was doing,” said Sprowls.

Rumors emerged at one point in the running mate vetting process that Nuñez was out, and Rubin, the lobbyist, said DeSantis and Gaetz “had to sell her” on the job. But Nuñez says she didn’t need convincing as much as clarity.

She expects she’ll play a role in helping DeSantis navigate the Legislature and push through his priority legislation. She says she’ll also continue to be involved in issues that she championed during her four terms in the state House, during which she sponsored bills to provide in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants and remove the statute of limitations for certain sex crimes in which the victim was under 16.

Nuñez says her knowledge of South Florida’s complex problems should benefit the region but sees her role as responsible to “all 67 counties.” Similarly, she says her past relationships with HCA and Jackson Health — where she says she’s terminating a managed care consultancy contract at the end of the year in order to serve as a full-time $125,000-a-year lieutenant governor — will lead to educated healthcare decisions but not favoritism.

Nuñez says she’s only focused on doing the job well — whatever that entails.

“It’s a tremendous honor and privilege,” Nunez said of the job. “For someone like me, who grew up daughter of immigrants and had the opportunity to really just get involved in public service, it’s something that’s very humbling. I never contemplated, never thought I would be the lieutenant governor of the state of Florida.”

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau reporter Emily L. Mahoney contributed to this report.