MIAMI — Florida Gov. Rick Scott made a historic pick for lieutenant governor on Tuesday by naming Miami-Dade Property Appraiser Carlos Lopez-Cantera as the first Hispanic to hold the low-profile position.
Lopez-Cantera, who will be sworn in Feb. 3, joins forces with Scott at the outset of an election year in which the governor trails rival Charlie Crist in his own polls and must mend fences with Hispanics on issues such as immigration.
Lopez-Cantera, 40, will help guide Scott's agenda through a Legislature where he served for eight years, and use his political skills to help Scott win a second term.
"He's a smart guy, he's a hard worker and he has legislative experience," Scott said. "I picked somebody that's going to help get our state back to work."
Lopez-Cantera is bilingual, an asset in a diverse state with many Spanish-language media outlets. An affable ally of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, his political base in Miami-Dade is dominated by a Hispanic electorate that's becoming younger and more diverse.
The question is whether he brings a "wow" factor in his new partnership with a governor who continues to struggle to gain favor with voters.
Sizing up Scott's chances, Lopez-Cantera said: "I think he's going to win. I think we're going to win. I've got to get used to saying that."
In his first interviews shortly before his appointment was announced in Miami, Lopez-Cantera said he took the job with assurances that he would have input on policy decisions and not just be a ribbon-cutter.
Republicans universally praised the pick. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said Lopez-Cantera will bring "energy, passion and wise counsel" to Scott's administration.
Republican strategist J.M. (Mac) Stipanovich said Scott chose a seasoned politician who's not tarnished by scandal and who might help hold down a Democratic candidate's margin of victory in South Florida.
"What he needs to do is not bleed to death along the Gold Coast before the returns on the I-4 corridor and North Florida start coming in," Stipanovich said. "Republicans don't have to win there. We just have to come close."
Scott lost Miami-Dade to Democrat Alex Sink by nearly 70,000 votes in 2010, more than his total statewide victory margin in the closest race for governor in state history.
Democrats blasted the choice.
"This is a desperate gamble by Rick Scott, who is trying to appeal to a community that abandoned him a long time ago," said Rita Ferrandino, chairwoman of the Sarasota County Democratic Party.
State party chairwoman Allison Tant called Lopez-Cantera an "ultra-partisan career politician" who cares more about big corporations than middle-class families.
When Scott ran for governor as an outsider four years ago, Lopez-Cantera, like many lawmakers, backed his GOP opponent, Bill McCollum. He chided McCollum and Scott then for supporting an Arizona-style law to curb illegal immigration in Florida, saying it could harm "civil liberties."
After Scott won, Lopez-Cantera took issue with Scott's call for deep cuts in public schools in his first year.
Scott minimized those differences Tuesday, saying that after 41 years of marriage, he and his wife Ann still disagree.
"You can't expect someone to agree with you 100 percent of the time," Scott said.
Lopez-Cantera said he looks forward to helping Scott make good on his promise to cut $500 million in taxes and fees, mostly from reducing the cost of car and truck registrations.
"I'm excited to get back into the game," said Lopez-Cantera, who promised to bring a bit of Miami flavor to Tallahassee. "I think there will be a little more Cuban coffee in the governor's office."
Lopez-Cantera also avoided answering a question about how tough an opponent Crist will be. Ironically, Lopez-Cantera hired one of Crist's top advisers, former state Sen. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach, to represent him in a lawsuit against Miami-Dade County over the powers of the property appraiser's office.
Gelber declined to comment on Lopez-Cantera's selection.
Lopez-Cantera said his wife, Renee, and daughter Sabrina, 6, supported him taking the job.
"It was easy when the governor asked if I was willing to be his partner, because the most important people in my life had given me their permission," he said. But before that, he said, "It wasn't an easy decision. I had a lot of sleepless nights."
Factoring in the decision was Scott's wife. The Scotts met Lopez-Cantera and his wife for lunch Sunday at Seasons 52 on Coral Gables' Miracle Mile and the two couples hit it off.
Renee Lopez-Cantera's charm "sealed the deal," Scott said. She works in the Miami Herald's circulation department.
Lopez-Cantera said it didn't bother him that he was not Scott's first choice for a job that became open last March when Jennifer Carroll abruptly resigned over her ties to a charity tainted by an illegal gambling probe. She was not accused of any wrongdoing.
Another finalist for the post, Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman, said she was disappointed she wasn't chosen and wishes Scott had chosen a woman from Central Florida's I-4 corridor.
"Women are about 54 percent of the vote, and I really feel the I-4 corridor is going to be very important," Murman said. "But I absolutely respect his decision and wish him the best."
Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.