TALLAHASSEE -- Carlos Lopez-Cantera is at the peak of his political career, but for the next few years, he may be headed for political obscurity.
That’s what usually happens to lieutenant governors in Florida.
Gov. Rick Scott chose Lopez-Cantera, the Miami-Dade County property appraiser and a former state House majority leader, after leaving the office vacant for nearly a year, providing fresh evidence that the job is not essential to state government.
“It’s required in the state Constitution,” Scott said. “I think he’s going to be a great addition.”
The pick is being well-received, but it looks transparently political, despite claims by Scott’s chief of staff, Adam Hollingsworth, that the new No. 2 would be a “steward” of Scott’s agenda of jobs and tax cuts.
He’s from Miami-Dade, the state’s largest county.
He’s Hispanic, a symbol of a growing segment of the state’s electorate who adds diversity to the ticket at a time when many Hispanics are estranged from the Republican Party over immigration and other issues. “I love the fact he’s Hispanic,” Scott said.
He’s a former lawmaker, known for his determined skills at counting votes and arm-twisting. Scott has had mixed results with legislators, and Lopez-Cantera, 40, can help shepherd Scott’s priorities through the Capitol in a pivotal election year.
When he is sworn in Feb. 3, Lopez-Cantera will be Florida’s 11th lieutenant governor since voters revived the position in 1968 after nearly a century.
Many observers say Scott made a politically wise selection, but that it won’t make a difference with voters who will choose a governor in November.
“You can only hurt yourself with a lieutenant governor,” said J.M. “Mac” Stipanovich, who was chief of staff to former Gov. Bob Martinez. “A lieutenant governor is more likely to hurt you than help you.”
Stipanovich knows. He and Martinez were forced to jettison Bobby Brantley from the GOP ticket in 1990 for political and personal reasons. They likely would have lost anyway to Democrat Lawton Chiles and his running mate, Buddy MacKay, who became one of the two most influential lieutenant governors in the modern era (The other was former Senate President Toni Jennings, who partnered with former Gov. Jeb Bush).
“Demographically and politically, it was a good pick (by Scott). They’ve been hemorrhaging votes in the Hispanic community,” said Screven Watson, a former executive director of the Florida Democratic Party. “If they lose votes there, they’re doomed and they know it.”
Lopez-Cantera has little history of being a fan of Scott, who came out of nowhere to win the governorship in 2010, largely by spending more than $70 million of his personal fortune.
That year, Lopez-Cantera backed Scott’s Republican opponent, former Attorney General Bill McCollum, and at a GOP unity rally in Sweetwater, urged Scott to name a Hispanic as his running mate.
Instead, Scott chose an African-American woman, former Rep. Jennifer Carroll, who was forced to resign last March when it was revealed that she once did work for a veterans’ charity linked to a broad criminal probe of illegal gambling.
Carroll was not accused of any wrongdoing.
Lopez-Cantera also criticized Scott for wanting to cut $1.3 billion from public schools in his first year in office, and first supported, then opposed, an Arizona-style crackdown on undocumented immigrants that Scott backed as a candidate in 2010.
The 2011 bill, HB 7089, unleashed a furor as immigrants-rights activists camped out at Lopez-Cantera’s offices in Miami and Tallahassee. It ultimately did not pass, and Scott has said next to nothing about immigration since.
The lieutenant governor of Florida gets a salary of $124,800, a nice office in the Capitol, a three-member staff, a full-time state Highway Patrol trooper escort, and no specific duties prescribed by law.
Some lieutenant governors who made headlines usually did so for the wrong reasons. Democratic Gov. Reubin Askew severed ties with Tom Adams in the early 1970s after Adams was found using state workers to tend to a personal farm.
In the early 1980s, then-Gov. Bob Graham’s No. 2, Wayne Mixson, groused publicly over being shut out of decisions and threatened to bolt from the ticket (He didn’t; they won).
“It made me furious that I was not even consulted on appointments,” Mixson was quoted as saying in a 1981 UPI article.
Longtime Florida political writer Brian Crowley blogged that the job of lieutenant governor is a “jinx,” because every one who has sought higher office has failed. Crowley also noted that the job is highly confining because it does not allow for any public disagreement with the governor.
“Florida’s LGs are often unhappy people,” Crowley wrote.
Now that Scott has chosen Lopez-Cantera, his likely fall opponent, Charlie Crist, must find a running mate. Political strategists say his choice won’t matter much, either — in part because many voters will have strong opinions about the two candidates for governor.
“I don’t think it matters, and that holds true for Charlie’s pick, too,” Watson said. “This is going to be mano-a-mano, Rick Scott versus Charlie Crist. That’s what matters.”