Gov. Rick Scott made a historic pick for the state’s lieutenant governor on Tuesday by appointing the first Hispanic to hold the position, Miami-Dade Property Appraiser Carlos Lopez-Cantera.
But, the governor said, he picked Lopez-Cantera not for his ethnicity but for his skills as a former legislator, local government official and small business owner.
“What’s important is to have a great lieutenant governor,” Scott said, when asked about the historic pick during a Miami press conference. “The fact he’s so good is important to me.”
But, Scott added, “I love the fact he’s Hispanic.”
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Lopez-Cantera said he was looking forward to helping Scott make good on his promise to create jobs and cut a total of $500 million in taxes this year when he and the governor will be on the statewide ballot.
“I’m excited to get back into the game,” said Lopez-Cantera.
And he wants to bring some Miami flavor to the Capitol.
“I think there will be a little more Cuban coffee in the governor’s office,” Lopez-Cantera joked.
Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant panned Lopez-Cantera, saying that the one-time state House Republican leader was an “ultra-partisan career politician” whose track record as a lawmaker favored corporations and special interests ahead of families.
And one Democrat accused Scott of picking Lopez-Cantera to play ethnic politics in a state where Hispanics are the fastest-growing demographic group and account for about 14 percent of the registered voters.
“This is a desperate gamble by Rick Scott, who is trying to appeal to a community that abandoned him a long time ago,” said Rita Ferrandino, Sarasota County’s Democratic chairwoman.
Scott, and Republicans in general, are expected to face a more-skeptical Hispanic electorate this election cycle partly because the GOP nationally has stalled immigration reform.
In Florida, Scott vetoed a bill passed by the Republican-led Legislature that would have allowed access to driver’s licenses for some undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country as children.
When asked after the press conference whether Scott’s veto makes Hispanic outreach more difficult, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said, “Oh, absolutely, without a doubt.”
Gimenez, a centrist Republican who spoke in favor of Scott and Lopez-Cantera at the Tuesday press conference, said the national GOP bears the most blame for the party’s troubles with Hispanics, some of whom perceive that Republicans have an “anti-immigration stance.”
Lopez-Cantera sidestepped questions about immigration and other policies, saying that “today’s really about the announcement.”
He also avoided answering a question about how tough an opponent Charlie Crist will be.
Crist, a former Republican governor turned Democrat, is likely to be Scott’s November opponent and has consistently led Scott in the polls. In all, 26 candidates are running for governor, including two Libertarian Party candidates.
In addition to being the first Hispanic lieutenant governor, Lopez-Cantera is the first person from Miami-Dade to hold the position since it was re-established by voters in 1968. Former Gov. Bob Martinez was the state’s first governor of Spanish descent and served from 1987-1991.
Bilingual and media savvy, Lopez-Cantera brings youth and diversity to Scott’s ticket. The question is whether he brings a “wow” factor in his new partnership with a governor who continues to struggle to gain favor with voters.
Lopez-Cantera, a Cuban-American, will undoubtedly serve as a bridge to Hispanics, able to spread Scott’s jobs message in Spanish.
“I’ve always done Spanish language media, so that won’t be something new,” he said. “It’s not a prerequisite for the job, but I certainly have no problem doing it.”
Lopez-Cantera said he took the job with assurances that he would have input on policy decisions and not be a ceremonial officeholder or a ribbon-cutter.
After serving in the state House for eight years, Lopez-Cantera won Miami-Dade’s property appraiser position in a nonpartisan county-wide election in 2012. He’s a close ally of Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who was state House Speaker for two years while Lopez-Cantera served in the Legislature.
Lopez-Cantera said his wife, Renee, and 6-year-old daughter, Sabrina, both supported him taking the job.
“It was easy when the governor asked if I was willing to be his partner, because the most important people in my life had given me their permission,” he said.
But before that, he said, “it wasn’t an easy decision. I had a lot of sleepless nights.”
Factoring in the decision to appoint Lopez-Cantera: Scott’s wife, First Lady Ann Scott. The Scotts met Lopez-Cantera and his wife for lunch Sunday on Miracle Mile at Seasons 52. The two couples hit it off.
Renee Lopez-Cantera’s charm “sealed the deal,” Scott said Tuesday. She works in the Miami Herald’s circulation department, where she has no contact with reporters or editors. She’s Jewish, and he’s the son of a Jewish mother and Catholic father.
But, he said, he didn’t want to discuss his religion.
“I’d rather not be defined that way. We’re very spiritual,” said Lopez-Cantera, whose front door is affixed with a Jewish prayer scroll known as a mezuzah.
Though the governor examined other candidates for the job, Lopez-Cantera said it didn’t bother him that he was not Scott’s first choice for the position. He said he was not familiar with the process Scott and his chief of staff, Adam Hollingsworth, used to help select him.
The post was left vacant in March when Jennifer Carroll resigned amid a scandal involving an illegal gambling operation. Carroll, never accused, was later cleared of wrongdoing by investigators.
Another finalist for the post, Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman, said she was disappointed when she learned over the weekend that she wasn’t chosen. She said she wished Scott had chosen a woman from the I-4 corridor in central Florida, a vital section of the state electorate that’s home to many swing voters.
“Women are about 54 percent of the vote, and I really feel the I-4 corridor is going to be very important,” Murman said. “But I absolutely respect his decision and wish him the best. I’ll help him get reelected.”
Lopez-Cantera will officially take office Feb. 3. He said he needs to spend the next two weeks tying up loose ends in the property appraiser’s office.
Once Lopez-Cantera resigns, his deputy, Lazaro Solis, will become property appraiser until the Aug. 26 countywide election. Former Property Appraiser Pedro Garcia, who lost to Lopez-Cantera in 2012, said Tuesday that he would run for the position again.
Lopez-Cantera said he would miss the job as property appraiser but believes he can do more as lieutenant governor. And, he said, he’s joining a winning ticket.
“I think he’s going to win. I think we’re going to win. I’ve got to get used to saying that,” Lopez-Cantera said.
Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.