For a lesson on one of the stark differences between Florida’s political parties, consider that the Republican and Democratic candidates for governor both made an appeal to diversity Thursday in picking running mates with divergent profiles — the first-ever Cuban-American woman lieutenant-governor nominee for the Republicans and a wealthy white man for the Democrats.
After much speculation about his lieutenant governor nominee, conservative Palm Coast Congressman Ron DeSantis selected Miami state Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, a well-regarded Tallahassee veteran, as his number two. Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, Florida’s would-be first African American governor, bucked expectations that he’d pick a woman and instead went with Chris King, an affordable-housing investor who impressed party faithful — but not Democratic voters — with a policy-driven gubernatorial campaign that finished fifth in the Aug. 28 primary.
Neither pick is without its flaws. But both seemed to abide by the golden rule for a post primarily tasked with getting the party’s nominee elected and then avoiding embarrassment the next four years: Do no harm.
“I never thought my role or responsibility was to chase headlines for accomplishments. It’s to support the governor,” said current Lieutenant Governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a former state representative tapped to work with Gov. Rick Scott after his first running mate, Jennifer Carroll, became embroiled in an internet cafe scandal and resigned.
In Nuñez, DeSantis seems to be pulling from the Scott playbook by bringing a popular Miami-Dade politician into the fold, simultaneously courting Hispanic Republicans and assuaging Tallahassee insiders. Where DeSantis was criticized by his primary opponent for being a creature of Washington unfamiliar with Florida’s diverse communities, Nuñez served the last two years as speaker pro tempore to House Speaker Richard Corcoran. And she was the lawmaker Scott tasked with carrying a bill to give the children of undocumented immigrants access to in-state tuition when the governor needed a win during his 2014 reelection campaign.
“She has a very good understanding of state government. Florida operates a little differently,” than Washington, said Lopez-Cantera. “She’ll help him close that learning curve.”
Nuñez, a 46-year-old Florida International University graduate and mother who’s been raising money for a state Senate campaign, could help soften some of DeSantis’ sharp conservative elbows: She is a managed care consultant for Jackson Health System, one of the nation’s largest public hospital systems and Florida’s biggest hospital provider of healthcare for the uninsured. On the other hand, some of her positions — like her characterization on Twitter of President Donald Trump as “the biggest conman there is” during the 2016 campaign — could make for some awkward conversations with DeSantis, who made his name as Trump’s guy for governor.
“Elections are elections. It is what it is,” Nuñez told reporters Thursday following her introduction as DeSantis’ running mate during a GOP unity rally in Orlando. “It’s no secret that I was a Marco Rubio supporter [during the presidential primary] but that election is done.”
After reporters unearthed the 2016 tweet Wednesday evening following reports that Nuñez had been picked, the Democratic Governors Association created a website dedicated entirely to the tweet, which suggested Trump supports the KKK and is anti-Israel. But unlike the Republican primary, which seemed to focus entirely on which candidate was the Trumpiest, this is the general election, where if anything Democrats expected to highlight DeSantis’ ardent support of the president. And a newly released Quinnipiac University poll found that while more than half of likely voters think their opinion of Trump won’t factor into their decision in the race for governor, women voters by and large do not support DeSantis.
Gillum, meanwhile, is struggling with male voters, the poll found. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons the state’s would-be first African American governor picked King, a white businessman who along with his wife, Kristen, joined the party’s nominee and wife in a Facebook Live stream for the announcement Thursday.
King’s selection was not without its detractors. Some in the party openly questioned why Gillum didn’t pick Gwen Graham, a center-left former congresswoman who carried more than 31 percent of the vote in the gubernatorial primary last month. King, who on the campaign trail pushed proposals like a bullet tax and legalizing marijuana, carried less than 2.5 percent of the vote and keeps the Democratic ticket firmly to the left.
“Should have been Graham. That was the unity ticket,” Matthew Isbell, a Democratic consultant who supported Graham, tweeted Thursday while alluding to simmering tensions between the two campaigns. Graham, who had been rumored to be high on Gillum’s list for lieutenant governor, never received a phone call, according to a senior member of her campaign.
But King and Gillum shared a mutual admiration that was evident during the primary campaign.
“This is not a political marriage — this is not a marriage of convenience,” said King, who like Gillum openly discussed his Christian faith during the primary campaign. “This is a family.”
King, 39, won over party leaders during the primary campaign with a wonky platform that at times seemed to drive the tenor and texture of the conversation among the candidates. That agenda, which included the expansion of affordable housing — a focus of his investment firm, Elevation Financial Group, which he founded in 2006 — largely appeals to the same progressive wing of the Democratic party that helped elect Gillum even if Democratic insiders say he’s in reality more of a moderate.
“Chris does a good job of articulating his values, he’s a businessman with progressive beliefs, and he speaks eloquently about his faith,” said Carlos Odio, a former Obama White House staffer who remains involved in Florida politics.
More than likely, Thursday will be one of the few times during the campaign that King and Nuñez play starring roles. If that changes, it probably means the opposition found something that stuck — something both parties already hope to do.
No sooner had Nuñez’s nomination been made official than Democrats went after some of Nuñez’s votes, including one against expanding Medicaid and votes to restrict abortion access and funding. They called her potential election “a disaster for Florida women and working families.” Meanwhile, the Republican Governor’s Association tried to paint King as anti-Semitic by resurrecting a quote King gave about being “nailed to the cross” by the majority-Jewish editorial staff of Harvard University’s student paper during a 1998 run for student government president, during which his faith became a polarizing issue.
King apologized for the comment to Florida Politics, which reported the story in June, but said there was nothing anti-Semitic about his quote.
Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau reporters Elizabeth Koh and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. This report has been updated to more accurately reflect Nuñez’s work with Jackson Health System. Nuñez is a managed care consultant, according to a Jackson Health System spokeswoman.