In the final frenzied days of the state’s legislative session, the Florida House speaker had a problem that only Carlos Lopez-Cantera could help fix.
Lopez-Cantera, the House Republican leader at the time, was one of the few lawmakers Speaker Dean Cannon trusted to defeat a worker’s compensation pharmaceutical measure pushed by the state Senate and powerful special interests.
“Carlos could have taken it easy and done the easy thing to curry favor with the Senate and others because I was about to leave office and so was he,” Cannon said.
“But Carlos didn’t do that. He helped get the votes we needed,” he said. “Carlos is a fiercely loyal guy.”
The anecdote about Lopez-Cantera’s help back in 2011 has particular relevance these days: Cannon shared it with Rick Scott when the governor phoned him to vet Lopez-Cantera to be Florida’s new lieutenant governor.
On Tuesday, Scott formally announced he would appoint Lopez-Cantera — currently Miami-Dade County’s property appraiser — to the No. 2 slot. He replaces Jennifer Carroll, who resigned last March amid a scandal involving an illegal gambling operation. Carroll, never accused, was later cleared of wrongdoing by investigators.
Lopez-Cantera refused to comment for this article, obeying the wishes of Scott’s political team, which has forbidden him from talking to the press until he assumes office Feb. 3.
For Cannon and others who know him, Lopez-Cantera, who turned 40 last month, was a no-brainer of a pick.
Though a former House Republican leader, the Cuban-American Lopez-Cantera was well-liked by Democrats in the Legislature. Though conservative, he’s not rigidly ideological.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who served as state House speaker in 2007 and 2008 when Lopez-Cantera was a representative, said his close friend builds strong relationships with genuine affability and a keen appreciation for people, politics and how to make a deal.
“He understands someone who’s really with you and someone’s who’s ‘with’ you — that is, someone who may not be there in the end,” Rubio said.
“The role I know he will be very effective at is to be kind of a super-advocate for the governor’s agenda,” Rubio said. “I think what will really help the governor having him on board is he knows the personalities of the people in the Legislature.”
While Rubio didn’t say it about Scott, the governor, a political newcomer, has struggled at times with the Legislature, even though it’s run by Republicans.
Scott, elected in 2010, has built stronger relationships over the years but now could take on one of the most-significant challenges for any governor: a gambling deal with the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
Known as a compact, the deal would give the Seminoles rights to certain types of gaming in return for revenues to the state. But other gambling interests, which are notoriously fractious in the state Capitol, often want something as well and could make any accord difficult.
Soon after Lopez-Cantera’s election to the Florida House in 2004, Rubio said, he gained a master’s understanding in the complexities of gambling and somehow avoided making enemies.
Rubio partly credited Lopez-Cantera’s private-sector skills in real-estate and business deals.
“In a business transaction, usually you want each side feeling like each side got something and that it was a success,” Rubio said. “I always found he had a knack for that.”
But sometimes a lawmaker can’t please everyone.
Lopez-Cantera was put in an awkward spot when he tried to steer a middle course over immigration in the state Legislature in 2011.
At the time, some Republicans wanted to pass a law to make good on the governor’s promise to bring an Arizona-style crackdown to Florida.
Lopez-Cantera appeared to play both sides. During the 2010 campaign and at the end of 2011’s legislative session, he said he opposed the measure. “Florida doesn’t need an immigration law,” he said at one point.
In between, as majority leader, he called the proposal “reasonable and effective.”
But he clearly came out against it once three left-leaning groups aired Spanish-language radio ads attacking him.
His seeming support, however brief, for the bill gave Democrats an opening to pounce last week. Party leaders painted Lopez-Cantera as ultra-conservative and more interested in appealing to tea-party activists than to more moderate Hispanics.
“He voiced support for the legislation,” said Daisy Baez, president of the Miami-Dade chapter of the Democratic Hispanic Caucuses of Florida. “Whether he changed later or not, that’s another story. But that also tells you a little bit about his commitment to Hispanic causes.”
But Republicans hope the bilingual Lopez-Cantera — who will become the first Hispanic lieutenant governor in Florida’s history — will help the governor attract more Hispanic voters. Some of his Republican friends privately fret that Lopez-Cantera is giving up a safe seat to join the troubled ticket of Scott, who is trailing Democrat Charlie Crist in the polls.
Democrats say they’ll remind voters of Scott’s hardline immigration positions, which matter more to Hispanics than Lopez-Cantera’s ethnicity.
They have criticized Lopez-Cantera for backing legislation in 2011 that led the following year to long lines at the polls and that cut early voting Sundays before Election Day.
“What’s important to the Hispanic community are individuals who have a strong commitment to the issues,” Baez said. “Having a Latino last name in itself I don’t think is sufficient.”
Other Democrats, though, actually applauded Scott for the choice of Lopez-Cantera.
“Carlos Lopez-Cantera is a good friend and good man,” state Sen. Oscar Braynon II of Miami Gardens said in a statement. “I am confident that he will serve the Governor well this year. As a former legislator, Carlos knows the value of the legislative branch and the role the minority party plays in a vibrant democracy.”
Lopez-Cantera arrived in Tallahassee in 2004 after winning his second political campaign. He lost his first contest in 2002 when he tried to oust Republican state Rep. Julio Robaina.
“I cried for a couple of days,” Lopez-Cantera said of the loss in an interview when he was running for property appraiser. “This was my life. I thought about quitting politics.”
Once in Tallahassee, the ambitious rookie set his sights on the leadership ranks: “I didn’t just want to be a member,” Lopez-Cantera said in 2012. “I wanted my eight years to mean something.”
His record includes passing laws to double the homestead exemption for seniors, tighten penalties for mortgage fraudsters and, long before seeking the post, require Miami-Dade to elect, rather than appoint, its property appraiser.
Among his defeats was a 2007 bill granting state subsidies to the then-Florida Marlins for a stadium roof. The legislation passed in the House but stalled in the Senate.
Several current and former lawmakers credit him with uniting a Miami-Dade delegation that had been infamously splintered by warring Republican factions and personal vendettas.
“When he was the senior member of our class, there was none of that,” said former state Rep. Esteban “Steve” Bovo, now a county commissioner. “He was very astute in getting everyone in the room to, you know, keep it indoors. Keep it within the family.”
The Miami-Dade relationships went both ways. Lawmakers made nice in the delegation, and Lopez-Cantera made sure at least a couple of them received House committee chairmanships, key posts to advance or stop legislation.
From the majority leader’s perch, Lopez-Cantera kept his hand in lots of bills. That power let him slip in an amendment during his last legislative session in 2012 to make sure the city of Miami wouldn’t have to pay property taxes on its four garages at the Miami Marlins’ ballpark. Term limits kept him from running again.
The Marlins issue is what he used to parlay in his race against Property Appraiser Pedro Garcia, the incumbent he defeated.
But he had a difficult time navigating the county’s bureaucracy.
Lopez-Cantera upset local politicians with his push to obtain more executive power. He sued the county and hired as his lawyer, Dan Gelber, a former state Senate Democratic leader and Crist advisor. And he wrangled with a labor union over his attempt to fire a high-ranking employee.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 199 successfully charged Lopez-Cantera with an unfair labor practice — not for the attempted firing, but for creating a financial account without union approval to pay for monthly employee birthday cakes.
Tempers have since cooled between the two sides, with Andy Madtes, the new union administrator, praising Lopez-Cantera for being “gentlemanly.”
Barry Sharpe, president of the Property Tax Appeal Group in Miami-Dade County, said Lopez-Cantera reformed his department by clearing a backlog of cases, encouraging settlements before costly hearings and modernizing the look and feel of the office.
“He did what he said he would do,” Sharpe said in an email to the Miami Herald.
When the governor announced his appointment Tuesday in Miami, Lopez-Cantera said he will leave the property appraiser’s office in better shape than he found it. But he could not turn down Scott’s offer, he said.
“Carlos will be a major part of our agenda to build an opportunity economy in Florida,” the governor said. “He has a history of serving Floridians with integrity.”
After the two men took a few questions, Scott’s press secretary wrapped up the news conference.
Then, in what will likely become a pattern for the running mates, Lopez-Cantera remained behind the lectern, taking questions in Spanish.