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Sunday, Dec 21, 2014
Tom Jackson Columns

Scott’s Hispanic sidekick does more than tick a box

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Florida’s lieutenant governor has precisely one constitutional duty: step up if the governor is incapacitated.

Otherwise, the job is pretty much whatever the governor says it is. For Miami Republican and former state House Majority Leader Carlos Lopez-Cantera, appointed in January to fill the vacancy created by Jennifer Carroll’s abrupt, scandal-tinged resignation in March 2013, the assignment is as daunting as it is unambiguous: help Rick Scott win re-election.

Given the evidence on display at a Tampa bodega recently, Scott chose wisely, and not merely for the most obvious reason, one we should address at the top. Yes, Scott, making history all over the place, appointed the first Hispanic lieutenant governor to succeed Florida’s first black female lieutenant governor, a recruiting coup conventional wisdom says could blunt the eventual Democratic nominee’s advantage in deep blue, heavily Hispanic Miami-Dade County.

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If playing to a demographic was the new guy’s exclusive role — not that there’s anything wrong with that — the campaign’s 90-minute stop at the MD Food Market was tailor-made for him to shine. Hand-lettered paper signs affixed to bins groaning under mounds of fresh-picked produce favored in Castilian recipes are written exclusively in Spanish; Spanish conversation flavors the aisles and checkout lines; and, on this day, supporters fluttered American, Cuban and Venezuelan flags along with handout posters reading “Sigamos Trabajando” on one side and “Let’s Keep Working” on the other.

Three hundred miles from Miami, Lopez-Cantera, 40, blessed with glittering blue-gray eyes to go with the jawline and confidence of a Univision news anchor, couldn’t have felt more at home. It showed. Smoothly delivering parallel speeches in Spanish and English to a spirited, mostly bilingual audience, he earned applause and laughs for the same lines in both translations. He touted Florida’s speedier-than-most recovery from the great recession, crediting Scott’s business- and taxpayer-friendly leadership; forecast four more increasingly bright years if he and Scott win re-election; and chided GOP turncoat Charlie Crist, the ideologically flexible, prohibitive Democratic frontrunner.

With Crist, he said, “you don’t know what you’ll get. I don’t think even Charlie knows who he is. He can’t decide who he wants to be when he grows up.”

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Of course, bashing the opponent is among the running mate’s key responsibilities. But Lopez-Cantera — CLC to colleagues during his years (2004-12) in the House — won’t need coaxing. One of the few Miami-Dade Republican legislators to endorse Crist over rival Tom Gallagher in the 2006 GOP primary for governor, Lopez-Cantera’s irritation with Crist carries a smoldering sense of betrayal.

“Charlie is just about Charlie,” he said later during an interview. “But remember last time” — when Crist ditched the GOP to take on Marco Rubio (a CLC friend, ally and confidant) in the 2010 U.S. Senate race as an independent — “he got 30 percent of the vote. Thirty percent. People forget that.”

Maybe this, too, helps explain why Scott tapped Lopez-Cantera, and also why Lopez-Cantera, despite sleepless nights and the wariness of a 6-year-old daughter who knows “Tallahassee” means “more bedtime stories on FaceTime,” came aboard. It certainly wasn’t for the money; being lieutenant governor — the worst job in politics, according to the Washington Post — came with a $47,000 pay cut, to $120,000, when he ditched the job he’d won in 2012 as Miami-Dade property appraiser.

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Then again, he says, it might be worth $47,000 not to have to listen to mayors grouse about their undervalued tax rolls. Besides, he seems truly to like and admire the boss. Lopez-Cantera remembers Crist, as governor, showing up at the grand openings of businesses he’d had nothing to do with luring to Florida. “A smile, a wave for the picture, and he was gone,” he says. “No follow-through.”

Scott, by contrast, recruits like a top college football coach. Alerted to news of the appointment, Linda McMahon, the pro wrestling executive and two-time GOP nominee for Senate from Connecticut, told Lopez-Cantera’s mom, “We know Rick Scott. He’s been in our living room trying to talk us into moving our headquarters to Florida.”

It’s about going the extra mile, Lopez-Cantera says, adding, “Charlie Crist never went the extra inch.”

So, yeah, maybe Carlos Lopez-Cantera ticks a couple of boxes that help balance the Republican ticket. But you get the impression he’d dog Crist free of charge. The fact he can do it in two languages is simply a happy bonus.

Editor’s note: The Right Stuff blog updates throughout the week on TBO.com.\

tjackson@tampatrib.com

(813) 371-1851

Twitter: @tjacksonTBO

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