Politics

Scott sidelined Lopez-Cantera during GOP Senate race, schedules show

Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera points to Florida Gov. Rick Scott at the Florida state Capitol in Tallahassee, after their inauguration in January 2015.
Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera points to Florida Gov. Rick Scott at the Florida state Capitol in Tallahassee, after their inauguration in January 2015. AP

Something unusual happened to Florida Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera this month: Gov. Rick Scott started giving him things to do again.

None of it was heavy lifting. But the change to Lopez-Cantera’s public schedule was immediate and striking: The calendar hit September, and the Miami-based lieutenant was hitting the road, touring businesses, visiting schools and attending meetings after a summer of political exile.

For three months, Lopez-Cantera had hardly been visible in matters of state — while Scott had one of his busiest seasons in office. The Pulse gay nightclub shooting in Orlando. The Zika virus outbreak in Miami. The Hurricane Hermine aftermath in Tallahassee. Scott moved from crisis to crisis, seizing the chance to appear on camera as a hands-on chief executive.

Lopez-Cantera played little part. He could have served as a Spanish-speaking surrogate to the families of the Orlando victims, many of whom were Hispanic. He could have been a constant state presence in his hometown of Miami as Zika cases piled up.

Instead, his calendar usually listed him as having “no scheduled events.”

“Carlos hasn’t had anything to do, other than show up at a photo op,” said his predecessor, former Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll. “Which is a discredit to him, because the people elected a governor and a lieutenant governor to work on their behalf.”

A Miami Herald review of the governor’s and lieutenant governor’s public schedules from June 12 (the day of the Pulse shooting) to Aug. 30 (the day of the Florida primary) found 254 events for Scott, compared with only 21 for Lopez-Cantera. On at least four occasions, Scott attended an event in Miami-Dade or Broward counties — within driving distance from Lopez-Cantera’s Coral Gables home — without the LG.

What changed in September? The primary was over. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio had crushed Republican challenger Carlos Beruff.

Lopez-Cantera had backed Rubio, who decided to seek re-election on June 22 after Lopez-Cantera dropped his own long-shot candidacy and urged him to run. Scott had stayed out of the Senate contest, adopting an unusual, neutral position toward the sitting Republican senator — just as he had toward Lopez-Cantera.

Scott had appointed Beruff to state boards, and Beruff had hired Scott’s old campaign team. The two men, both wealthy Southwest Florida residents, remained so friendly that, on Election Night, the governor praised Beruff in spite of his loss — and failed to congratulate Rubio until nearly 13 hours later.

Scott never called out Lopez-Cantera for running for Senate or for endorsing Rubio, his friend of two decades. But Lopez-Cantera was clearly sidelined during the height of the campaign.

When Scott planned a Zika roundtable in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood last month, Lopez-Cantera initially wasn’t scheduled to show. He ended up attending but was nowhere in sight when Scott spoke to reporters. The governor even insisted on answering questions in his limited Spanish — a language fluency he improved by practicing with Lopez-Cantera.

In August, Floridians were more likely to see the lieutenant governor campaigning for Rubio than working for Scott. Lopez-Cantera attended nine Rubio events last month, according to Rubio’s campaign. The number of events on Lopez-Cantera’s LG calendar during the same period? Four.

Lopez-Cantera declined to comment. Scott’s office did not answer questions emailed by the Herald. It issued a statement instead noting Lopez-Cantera’s presence in Orlando after the shooting.

“Governor Scott thanks Lt. Governor Lopez-Cantera for his hard work and efforts to make our state the best in the nation,” the statement said. “After the horrific attack on Pulse nightclub this June, the Lt. Governor was in Orlando with Governor Scott and thanked first responders and did multiple interviews.”

The rift between Scott and Lopez-Cantera appeared most pronounced this summer, but their relationship has obviously deteriorated since January 2014, when Scott picked Lopez-Cantera as his new running mate. Carroll, his first lieutenant, had resigned 10 months earlier over a scandal involving an illegal gambling operation. She was later cleared of wrongdoing.

Lopez-Cantera, Florida’s first Hispanic lieutenant governor, proved useful to Scott during the governor’s 2014 legislative session, leveraging his relationships as a past House majority leader. After their ticket won in November, however, Lopez-Cantera’s role quickly declined.

Word got around Tallahassee of tension between Lopez-Cantera and Scott’s then-chief of staff, Melissa Stone, who declined to comment for this story. The lieutenant governor was given little to do during the session in 2015n — and even less in 2016, while he was a Senate candidate. He doesn’t even live in Tallahassee.

“It boils down a lot to staff,” said Carroll, a Lopez-Cantera friend whose own aides clashed with Scott’s. “His staff feels that the only person who needs to have the limelight is the governor. It’s power and position, and they don’t like their power and position being upstaged.”

Carroll, who called Lopez-Cantera a “trooper,” said she had warned him, in a conversation sometime after he took the job, “to watch his back.”

Scott and Lopez-Cantera’s distancing reflects a broader divide among Florida Republicans, who are split between Scott loyalists and Rubio backers, who helped state Rep. Blaise Ingoglia get elected Republican Party of Florida chairman last year over Scott’s preferred candidate. Snubbed by the rank-and-file, Scott focused on raising money for his own political committee, Let’s Get to Work.

Scott needs a political operation as he prepares for a likely run against Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in 2018.

In the meantime, Lopez-Cantera’s own political future remains in limbo. He gave up his elected — and better paid — position as Miami-Dade County property appraiser to run with Scott. He gave up his Senate candidacy to make way for Rubio. He’s got two more years in office and no meaty agenda to pursue.

He could run for Congress, but only if his representative, Miami Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, were to retire. He could run for the U.S. Senate again, but that would likely pit him against Scott. He could run for state chief financial officer, but when a rumor about that surfaced this summer, Lopez-Cantera did nothing to encourage it.

Republicans say something is bound to come up.

“He’s well-spoken, he’s conservative, he doesn’t have any bad blemishes on his record,” Tallahassee strategist Brian Burgess said. “He’s a very viable future candidate.”

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