TALLAHASSEE -- Jeanette Núñez was on the biggest stage of her legislative career.
The second-term state representative from Miami had been tapped to sponsor a polarizing proposal that would let undocumented immigrants pay in-state tuition rates at Florida colleges and universities.
Republican Gov. Rick Scott was counting on the bill’s passage to boost his popularity among Hispanic voters. But powerful Senate Republicans were working to block it.
“It was an emotional roller coaster,” said Núñez, a Republican. “I tried to focus on the mechanics: getting the bill through its committees in the House and then helping it through the Senate.”
When the proposal passed on the last day of session, it cemented Núñez’s status as a breakout star in the Florida House.
That wasn’t her only success this year. Núñez, 41, also created new rules on ethics for members of the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority; reduced a fee charged to car-sharing services; removed the statute of limitations for certain sex crimes in which the victim was under 16; and changed the start of the 2016 legislative session from March to January.
“She got projects in the budget. She got her bills passed,” longtime lobbyist Ron Book said. “She was very effective.”
Núñez may be only in her second term, but she is no political novice. As a freshly minted graduate of Florida International University in 1995, she got her start working for then state Rep. Alex Diaz de la Portilla.
During that time, Núñez learned how to navigate the complex politics of the Legislature. She watched Diaz de la Portilla lead a failed coup to oust Speaker-Designate Daniel Webster in 1996, and later rise to be Senate president pro tempore.
Núñez remained with Diaz de la Portilla until 2004, when she left to handle government affairs for Jackson Health System. Six years later, she became vice president of external affairs at two HCA hospitals, Kendall Regional Medical Center and Aventura Hospital and Medical Center.
Núñez ran for an open seat in the Florida House in 2010. She defeated two opponents in the primary, and two opponents in the general election.
At first, she kept a low profile in Tallahassee. But doing so became more difficult at the start of her second term, when House Speaker Will Weatherford asked her to lead the Higher Education and Workforce Subcommittee.
Almost immediately, Núñez carried a high-profile bill allowing the U.S. born children of undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates. The proposal drew criticism from the right and left. Conservative Republicans painted it as a giveaway to immigrants who came to the United States illegally. Democrats, meanwhile, said the bill merely codified a federal court ruling and should have gone further.
Núñez’s fierce advocacy helped the bill pass the House in a 111-4 vote. It died in the Senate.
Núñez was debating filing it again this year — until she was approached by Weatherford about a more ambitious tuition proposal.
She knew the new bill would thrust her into the spotlight, she said. But as the daughter of Cuban immigrants, she was ready for the fight.
Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a former Miami-Dade lawmaker who helped build support for the bill, said Núñez played a key role in keeping the bill alive when it was threatened in the Senate.
“She wore her passion on her sleeve,” Lopez-Cantera said. “She was always available to do whatever was necessary, whether it was talking to individual members or educating people on the importance of the issue.”
Núñez’s also waged a public battle against the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, which recently approved controversial toll hikes affecting the residents of her southwest Miami-Dade district.
Her bill would have reconfigured the board and required a super-majority of the county commission to approve toll-rate increases, instead of just the expressway authority board.
Several Miami-Dade lawmakers were able to derail the proposal by arguing that it would have diluted local control — but not before Núñez slipped increased ethics requirements for expressway authority members into another bill.
The Florida House is a notoriously difficult environment for women. Only one in four members is female.
“It is definitely a boy’s club,” said former state Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, a Fort Lauderdale Republican who also served in the state Senate. “For women to accomplish anything, it takes five times the energy and effort.”
Núñez sometimes feels the pressure. It helps that she has experience in male-dominated workplaces, she said.
“I try not to have a chip on my shoulder,” she said. “I do my work. I try to forge relationships with my colleagues, a lot of whom are male.”
She is close to her fellow Republicans from Miami-Dade County. Her colleagues say she is someone who cares for her constituents, and is articulate in debate.
She has faced criticism from Democrats for politicizing some issues, including tuition for undocumented immigrant students. Florida Democratic Party Political Director Christian Ulvert said Núñez had made the bill about the Republican Party, when the issue had been championed by Democrats for years.
“She followed the Rick Scott model of politicizing an issue that should not be politicized,” he said.
But by and large, Núñez succeeded in passing her priorities and raising her profile.
That much was clear on the second-to-last day of session, when powerful Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, praised her efforts to pass the immigrant tuition bill.
“I was thinking how fitting it is... that the name on that bill is going to be Jeanette Núñez, the daughter of Cuban immigrants, the daughter of people who came to this country for a better life, to escape oppression,” Latvala said on the Senate floor.
Said Núñez: “It was one of those moments I will never forget.”