Sunday, September 23, 2018
Politics

In male-dominated Florida Legislature, Jeanette Núñez emerges as effective lawmaker

TALLAHASSEE — Jeanette Núñez was on the biggest stage of her legislative career.

The second-term state representative from Miami had been tapped to sponsor a polarizing proposal that would let undocumented immigrants pay in-state tuition rates at Florida colleges and universities.

Republican Gov. Rick Scott was counting on the bill's passage to boost his popularity among Hispanic voters. But Senate Republicans were working to block it.

"It was an emotional roller coaster," said Núñez, a Republican. "I tried to focus on the mechanics: getting the bill through its committees in the House and then helping it through the Senate."

When the proposal passed on the last day of session, it cemented Núñez's status as a breakout star in the Florida House.

That wasn't her only success this year. Núñez, 41, also: reduced a fee charged to car-sharing services; removed the statute of limitations for certain sex crimes in which the victim was under 16; and changed the start of the 2016 legislative session from March to January.

"She got projects in the budget. She got her bills passed," longtime lobbyist Ron Book said.

Núñez may be only in her second term, but she is no political novice. After graduating from Florida International University in 1995, she got her start working for then-state Rep. Alex Diaz de la Portilla.

Núñez learned how to navigate the complex politics of the Legislature. She watched Diaz de la Portilla lead a failed coup to oust Speaker-Designate Daniel Webster in 1996, and later rise to be Senate president pro tempore.

Núñez remained with Diaz de la Portilla until 2004, when she left to handle government affairs for Jackson Health System. Six years later, she became vice president of external affairs at two HCA hospitals, Kendall Regional Medical Center and Aventura Hospital and Medical Center.

Núñez ran for an open seat in the Florida House in 2010. She defeated two opponents in the primary and two opponents in the general election.

At first, she kept a low profile in Tallahassee. But doing so became more difficult at the start of her second term, when House Speaker Will Weatherford asked her to lead the Higher Education and Workforce Subcommittee.

Almost immediately, Núñez carried a high-profile bill allowing the U.S. born children of undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates. Conservative Republicans painted it as a giveaway to immigrants who came to the United States illegally. Democrats said the bill merely codified a federal court ruling and should have gone further.

Núñez's fierce advocacy helped the bill pass the House in a 111-4 vote. It died in the Senate.

Núñez was debating filing it again this year — until she was approached by Weatherford about a more ambitious tuition proposal.

She knew the new bill would thrust her into the spotlight, she said. But as the daughter of Cuban immigrants, she was ready for the fight.

Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a former Miami-Dade lawmaker who helped build support for the bill, said Núñez played a key role in keeping the bill alive when it was threatened in the Senate.

"She wore her passion on her sleeve," he said. "She was always available to do whatever was necessary, whether it was talking to individual members or educating people on the importance of the issue."

The House is a notoriously difficult environment for women. Only one in four members is female.

"It is definitely a boys' club," said former state Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, a Fort Lauderdale Republican who also served in the state Senate. "For women to accomplish anything, it takes five times the energy and effort."

Núñez sometimes feels the pressure. It helps that she has experience in male-dominated workplaces, she said. "I try not to have a chip on my shoulder," she said. "I do my work. I try to forge relationships with my colleagues, a lot of whom are male."

She is close to her fellow Republicans from Miami-Dade County. Her colleagues say she is someone who cares for her constituents and is articulate in debate.

She has faced criticism from Democrats for politicizing some issues, including tuition for undocumented immigrant students. Florida Democratic Party political director Christian Ulvert said Núñez had made the bill about the GOP, when the issue had been championed by Democrats for years.

"She followed the Rick Scott model of politicizing an issue that should not be politicized," he said.

But by and large, Núñez succeeded in passing her priorities and raising her profile.

That much was clear on the second-to-last day of session, when Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, praised her efforts to pass the immigrant tuition bill.

"I was thinking how fitting it is . . . that the name on that bill is going to be Jeanette Núñez, the daughter of Cuban immigrants, the daughter of people who came to this country for a better life, to escape oppression," Latvala said on the Senate floor.

Said Núñez: "It was one of those moments I will never forget."

Comments
US considers limit on green cards for immigrants on benefits

US considers limit on green cards for immigrants on benefits

SAN DIEGO — The Trump administration has proposed rules that could deny green cards to immigrants if they use Medicaid, food stamps, housing vouchers and other forms of public assistance.Federal law already requires those seeking green cards t...
Updated: 7 hours ago
Christine Blasey Ford reaches deal to  testify at Kavanaugh hearing

Christine Blasey Ford reaches deal to testify at Kavanaugh hearing

The woman who has accused Judge Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were teenagers has committed to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday, her lawyers said Sunday. The lawyers said some details — including whe...
Updated: 10 hours ago

AP source: Kavanaugh, Ford agree to testify on Thursday

WASHINGTON — Negotiators reached a tentative agreement Saturday for the Senate Judiciary Committee to hear testimony Thursday from Christine Blasey Ford, the woman accusing Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault from decades ago, two...
Published: 09/22/18

Trump administration aims to sharply restrict new green cards for those on public aid

WASHINGTON — Trump administration officials announced Saturday that immigrants who legally use public benefits like food assistance and Section 8 housing vouchers could be denied green cards under new rules aimed at keeping out people the administrat...
Published: 09/22/18
Dana Young, Janet Cruz spar over guns, schools, environment in crucial Senate race

Dana Young, Janet Cruz spar over guns, schools, environment in crucial Senate race

TAMPA — During a showdown Friday in Florida’s most hotly contested state Senate race, Democratic challenger Janet Cruz launched fireworks at Dana Young over education funding, the environment and guns.Young, the Republican incumbent in District 18, r...
Published: 09/21/18
Drug bill can’t undo damage

Drug bill can’t undo damage

On Sept. 5, two months before Election Day where he’s running for a seventh term, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis filed a bill to clarify a 2016 law he co-sponsored that made it nearly impossible for the Drug Enforcement Administration to intercept suspiciou...
Updated: 6 hours ago
Confederate group banned from Temple Terrace country club, may take legal action

Confederate group banned from Temple Terrace country club, may take legal action

TEMPLE TERRACE — After complaints from city residents, the Temple Terrace Golf & Country Club has notified the City Council that it will not rent space again to the Sons of Confederate Veterans for its annual banquet.The country clubȁ...
Published: 09/20/18
Carlton: Should felons who have done their time get to vote? Citizens of Florida, it’s in your hands

Carlton: Should felons who have done their time get to vote? Citizens of Florida, it’s in your hands

It’s not often that we citizens — busy with work, paying the bills, living our lives — find ourselves with the power to right a fundamental wrong.But here in Florida, we’re about to get that chance.On the November ballot — among all those candidates ...
Published: 09/20/18
Daniel Ruth: City owes Gonzmart and Princess Ulele more than a notice of code violation

Daniel Ruth: City owes Gonzmart and Princess Ulele more than a notice of code violation

This has to be height of bureaucratic pettiness, especially for a city whose track record in promoting quality public art falls somewhere between stick figures and finger puppets.Richard Gonzmart is a community treasure. As the force behind a number ...
Published: 09/19/18
Romano: Florida’s dangerous prisons costing us more than money

Romano: Florida’s dangerous prisons costing us more than money

Two things you need to know about Florida’s prison budget:1. It was $2.3 billion this year.2. It was still not enough.Kind of staggering when you think of it that way, huh?We keep spending more and more on housing prisoners, and it’s like throwing mo...
Published: 09/18/18