Once ignored, Carroll is still in the game

Jennifer Carroll has written a book about her time in office.
Jennifer Carroll has written a book about her time in office. AP

A black church might seem an odd place for a Republican re-launch. But for Jennifer Carroll, her appearance Tuesday at New Birth Baptist church in Miami was something of a homecoming.

Back in 2010, when she became Rick Scott’s surprise pick for lieutenant governor, the then-state representative seemed ideally positioned to soften Scott’s hardline tea party image, adding gender and ethnic diversity to the ticket. With a Navy background, a son who played for the Miami Dolphins and a Trinidadian lilt in her voice, Carroll was the antithesis of the Republican stereotype — an accessible, attractive, walking biography who could communicate to black leaders, and maybe even to black voters, that a Scott administration would be anything but hostile to African-American interests.

It didn’t work out.

According to Carroll’s book, When You Get There, the Scott campaign objected to her attending a candidate forum put on by the Miami-Dade branch of the NAACP at New Birth (which, full disclosure, I was invited by the organization to co-moderate). Their message to her: We won’t get any votes out of it, so if you go, “You’re on your own.”

She insisted and showed up anyway, something Democratic candidate Alex Sink’s running-mate Rod Smith, didn’t do. The next day, Carroll appeared on the radio show hosted by Bishop Victor Curry, New Birth’s senior pastor and the then-president of the Miami-Dade NAACP, and even convinced a reluctant Scott to call in.

“I figured if I was vying to be the first black woman lieutenant governor, why shouldn’t I go to those communities who look like me and ask for their votes?” Carroll told me on Wednesday.

Carroll insists that her extensive outreach to the black community throughout the state paid off, with the ticket garnering 6 percent of the black vote in a race in that Scott won by just over 1 percent, and received fewer total votes than any statewide candidate on the ballot. And Carroll gained currency for herself among black leaders, some of whom knew her to have worked across the aisle in Tallahassee on issues like funding for historically black colleges and minority small businesses. They disagreed with her conservative ideology, but found her personally compelling.

Curry was one of them. He was clearly impressed with Carroll; so much so that he invited her back to New Birth on Tuesday to discuss and sign her book for members of his congregation, and to appear on radio that morning to talk about her travails as a member of the Scott administration, from which she resigned under duress in March 2013, amid a scandal over her connection to an Internet-café scheme.

“I thought she was a better candidate than Rick Scott in 2010” Curry said when I spoke with him Wednesday. “She has major roots in Miami,” he said, noting that Carroll’s uncle-in-law, Earl J. Carroll, whose personal papers are housed at the Black Archives in Overtown, had been the first African American to be elected to the Miami-Dade County Commission.

Once in office, Carroll says the Scott administration went beyond ignoring the black community she had pitched so fervently during the campaign, by ignoring and marginalizing Carroll herself.

She had to fight to convince the new governor not to veto millions of dollars in funding for every one of the state’s historically black colleges. She said Scott didn’t seem to understand that in the public, rather than the private sector, you just don’t lop off funding for programs that enable tens of thousands of young people to become the first in their family to go to college.

Now a TV political analyst, Carroll deftly avoided the question of whether she supports Scott’s re-election over former Republican Charlie Crist, whose moderate politics and business-centered, rather than ideologically extreme conservatism were more in line with her own.

Pointedly, she did note that when he was governor, Crist went out of his way to reach out not just to African Americans (even appointing statewide NAACP chair Adora Obi Nwezi as an adviser on African-American issues) but also to Democrats. And she said that her party — yes, she’s still a Republican, though one who seemed to be openly questioning her place in a party that’s thin on outreach to her community — could learn from that.

As for Bishop Curry, I asked whether he could see himself voting for Carroll if she were to run for office again.

“Yes,” he said, pausing for a moment to reflect. “I think I could.”

Joy Reid is the host of “The Reid Report” on MSNBC.

Related stories from Miami Herald