Saturday, January 20, 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
Congressman combating harassment used public money on own case

Congressman combating harassment used public money on own case

WASHINGTON ó Rep. Patrick Meehan, R-Pa., who has taken a leading role in fighting sexual harassment in Congress, used thousands of dollars in taxpayer money to settle his own misconduct complaint after a former aide accused him last year of making un...
Updated: 6 hours ago
The longer the shutdown lasts, the further the economic ripples will spread

The longer the shutdown lasts, the further the economic ripples will spread

The early days of the federal government shutdown wonít slow the U.S. economy much. No workers are missing paychecks yet, and because it is a weekend, few businesses expect to feel the effects of lost customers or suppliers.That could change, quickly...
Updated: 9 hours ago
Romano: If UCF is national champion, then Iím a Hollywood stud

Romano: If UCF is national champion, then Iím a Hollywood stud

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said people were entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.Clearly, Moynihan never dealt with Florida legislators.Because around Tallahassee, facts are fungible. They arenít just up for debate, they...
Updated: 8 hours ago
U.S. government shuts down; Democrats, GOP blame each other

U.S. government shuts down; Democrats, GOP blame each other

WASHINGTON ó The federal government shut down at the stroke of midnight Friday, halting all but the most essential operations and marring the one-year anniversary of President Donald Trumpís inauguration in a striking display of Washington dysfunctio...
Published: 01/19/18
Updated: 01/20/18
Battle lines already forming for Menendez corruption retrial

Battle lines already forming for Menendez corruption retrial

NEWARK, N.J. ó U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez might spend 2018 asking voters to re-elect him and jurors to acquit him. Prosecutors from the Department of Justice told a federal judge in New Jersey on Friday that they will seek a retrial of the Democratic sen...
Published: 01/19/18
Congress likely racing toward a government shutdown

Congress likely racing toward a government shutdown

WASHINGTON ó A bitterly-divided Congress hurtled toward a government shutdown this weekend in a partisan stare-down over demands by Democrats for a solution on politically fraught legislation to protect about 700,000 younger immigrants from being dep...
Published: 01/19/18
Clearwater City Council candidate John Funk: City needs better planning

Clearwater City Council candidate John Funk: City needs better planning

CLEARWATER ó Voters may not be too familiar with the name John Funk.So since launching his campaign for City Council Seat 5 against well-known incumbent Hoyt Hamilton, Funk said he has knocked on 2,000 doors to introduce himself. Before the March 13 ...
Published: 01/19/18
Clearwater City Council candidate Hoyt Hamilton: Experience is key for critical next term

Clearwater City Council candidate Hoyt Hamilton: Experience is key for critical next term

CLEARWATER ó By asking voters to elect him into office a fifth time, Hoyt Hamilton knows heís now considered part of the old-guard. Born and raised in Clearwater, his family roots stretch back here more than 100 years. Hamilton, 59, spent nearly his ...
Published: 01/19/18

Q&A: Government shutdown looms. Hereís what you need to know

Lawmakers have until midnight tonight to pass legislation to avert a government shutdown.Hereís what that means. Why would the government shut down?Every year, Congress has to approve laws, known as appropriations, that provide money for federal agen...
Published: 01/18/18
Redington Shores mayor, commission positions filled with no opponents

Redington Shores mayor, commission positions filled with no opponents

REDINGTON SHORES ó There will be no election this year, but the changeout of commission members that began last year will continue. When the new commission is sworn in this March, four of five members, including the mayor, will have changed within th...
Published: 01/18/18