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As Jennifer Carroll takes office, Florida's grim past recedes a little further

Gov. Rick Scott chose Jennifer Carroll as his running mate. She spent eight years in the state Legislature and served in the Navy before that. “Being a black woman, seeing a black woman in a high office like that, is amazing,” one supporter said.

Associated Press

Gov. Rick Scott chose Jennifer Carroll as his running mate. She spent eight years in the state Legislature and served in the Navy before that. “Being a black woman, seeing a black woman in a high office like that, is amazing,” one supporter said.

TALLAHASSEE — Moments after Jennifer Carroll was sworn in Tuesday as Florida's first black female lieutenant governor, Katina Glasco grinned broadly, raised her fists and mouthed an enthusiastic, "Yes!"

"I love her. She's awesome," said Glasco, a black business owner in Tallahassee. "It's historic and just gratifying. It's a wonderful time for us."

Glasco is a Democrat who voted for Alex Sink for governor, but when Rick Scott named Carroll as a running mate, she turned it into a teaching moment for her 13-year-old daughter.

"If my baby didn't have school today I'd have had her right here," Glasco said.

Carroll has become second-in-command in a Deep South state whose past is obscured by its sunny reputation.

Between 1882 and 1930, there were 212 black victims of white lynch mobs in Florida, according to research from the University of Illinois. The 1923 Rosewood massacre, when a rampaging mob murdered residents of a black Levy County community and burned it to the ground, was just one of numerous incidents of racially motivated violence.

In Tallahassee, a Confederate flag went up outside the entrance to the state Capitol in 1978 and stayed there until 2001.

That history is not lost on Carroll. At a pre-inaugural breakfast on Monday honoring women leaders, she paid tribute to the black women who paved the way.

"I stand here before you today because of the brave work and sacrifices by women like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Mary McCloud Bethune," she said. "Because of their hard work, society changed, mentality changed, policy changed and a clear path was made to make the journey to my ascension much easier."

Carroll, 51, was born in Trinidad and moved to New York City with her great aunt and uncle when she was 8, just as desegregation was taking hold. On television, she saw reports about civil rights and Martin Luther King's assassination.

"That was the first time I experienced the conversation regarding race," she said. It wasn't until she graduated from high school and enlisted in the Navy in 1979 as a jet mechanic that she experienced racism firsthand, she said.

"When it really started was when I was appointed as the supervisor in charge of white males," Carroll said. "They felt they should have been in charge rather than me."

She recalled being called a "black b----" by some particularly belligerent co-workers.

How did she deal with it?

"Early on, it was keeping my mouth shut and just saying a lot of prayers, but as I moved up through the ranks and achieved senior status, I felt I needed to play a stronger role in speaking out," she said. That was true not just to make sure blacks were treated fairly, but also women.

As an example, she said, it was common in for male enlistees to accuse women who got pregnant just before a deployment of doing it to avoid the assignment.

She recalled a time when a petty officer in her command learned she was pregnant a month before deployment.

"She was electing not to say anything for fear the master chief would ream her for purposefully getting pregnant," Carroll said. "I stepped forward to have a one-way conversation with my master chief petty officers that this sort of behavior was not going to continue on my command."

Carroll's Navy career brought her to Florida in 1986, and she retired in 1999 at the rank of lieutenant commander aviation maintenance officer. In 2002, she established the public relations firm, 3N. & J.C. Corp., a business she later sold. She also briefly owned a Great Clips franchise.

In 2003, Carroll was elected to the state House in a Jacksonville district and held that post until she resigned last year to join Scott in his run for governor.

Carroll is married to Nolan Carroll Sr. and they have three children.

On Sunday, about 750 people, including Democratic members of the Legislature's black caucus, turned out to honor Carroll at Florida A&M University, a historically black college.

"It's a very, very big moment,'' said Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, who heads the caucus. "Even though she was the only Republican in the caucus, she's respected by all the Democrats."

After Sunday's ceremonies, people waited as long as 90 minutes to shake Carroll's hand and pose for pictures with her.

"That reflects that love the black community has for Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll," Siplin said.

Delores Sallette, a Democrat, traveled from Fort Lauderdale to watch Carroll's swearing-in. Her success sends a message to all black women, Sallette said.

"It gives us the strength to know that anything is possible if you work hard enough," Sallette said. "She worked hard in the Legislature and her reward is this wonderful day."

Excitement about Carroll didn't necessarily translate into votes for Scott though. CNN exit polls show Scott got only 6 percent of the black vote. Charlie Crist drew 18 percent when he ran for governor in 2006.

More significant for Scott, said Republican political strategist Adam Goodman, is Carroll's eight years in the Legislature.

"As much as he wants to change the system, it's helpful for him to have a partner that understands the system," said Goodman, president of the Tampa firm the Victory Group. "People often vote for a team they think can deliver. If it was two outsiders pushing on the system, there's a chance it could be amazing and a chance it couldn't work. Jennifer was the last piece of the puzzle. It's an outsider's perspective tempered by an insider's experience."

To celebrate Carroll's historic accomplishment, Kianta Key, 24, co-owner of the CravingsTruck, a Tallahassee mobile restaurant, renamed one of her menu items "Jennifer's Shrimp and Grits.''

"People were so focused on Democrats losing they didn't focus on this lady making history. We really thought we should incorporate that into our menu," she said.

"Being a black woman, seeing a black woman in a high office like that, is amazing," she said. "A lot of times black people vilify anyone who votes conservative or who is Republican, like Condoleezza Rice, but they're just doing their thing. They're successful. We should all embrace that."

So has Carroll dined yet at the CravingsTruck?

"No, she hasn't," Key said. "But I hope she comes by."

Times researchers Shirl Kennedy and Natalie Watson contributed to this report.

As Jennifer Carroll takes office, Florida's grim past recedes a little further 01/05/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 5, 2011 11:40pm]
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