TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott says he won't start looking for a new lieutenant governor until the legislative session ends in May, but the guessing game already is raging over a decision that an unpopular leader must get right.
Suddenly, a job that gets little respect could actually matter. The departure of Jennifer Carroll gives Scott a surprise opportunity to pick a running mate who amplifies his emphasis on education and who, unlike Carroll, won't have to apologize for making inappropriate remarks or face questions about past ties to a suspect veterans charity.
For Scott, finding a perfect partner won't be easy: Only one-third of Floridians, 32 percent, say he deserves to be re-elected, according to a new Quinnipiac University poll.
When the search begins, Scott's criteria will include a hard worker with a proven commitment to public education and unquestioned integrity.
"They don't have to be as pure as the driven snow, but it would be nice if they were like Caesar's wife — above reproach," said John "Mac" Stipanovich, who oversaw the selection of two running mates for former Republican Gov. Bob Martinez. "The first requirement of a lieutenant governor is not rocket science: Don't get the governor in trouble."
Scott plans to launch the search in May. The timing means that whoever is chosen will quickly hit the campaign trail on Scott's behalf, and Carroll's problems make it more likely that the next No. 2 will undergo an intense vetting to avoid future embarrassments.
With Scott focused laser-like on education, and with Republicans having turned off many Hispanics, the most logical choice is a Hispanic with an education background — preferably from a large, urban county with lots of voters.
Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, 36, a mother of two young children who has stressed education in the Legislature, appears to fit the bill. But she sounds less than enthusiastic about the possibility.
"I'm flattered to have my name out there, but I'm really happy in the Senate," Flores said.
Another prospect is Raquel Regalado, 38, a member of the Miami-Dade School Board and the daughter of Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado.
"Obviously, I'd be honored to be considered, but I haven't received anything official from the governor's office," Regalado said.
A Republican and native of Miami, Regalado was not a fan of Scott in 2010. She supported Scott's Democratic opponent, Alex Sink.
"I was one of the few Republicans who supported Alex Sink," Regalado said. "Alex had a clear education platform at that time, and Rick Scott did not." She also recalled her "concern" when Scott in 2011 proposed an education budget that would have cut school spending statewide by 10 percent.
Regalado comes from what she calls a "media family," and her father is a former radio talk show host in Miami. She writes columns for El Nuevo Herald and the Huffington Post and hosts a daily radio program on local politics on WWFE 670-AM, La Poderosa (the powerful).
The single parent of a special-needs child, Regalado has a daughter with autism. She supports Scott's proposal to give every teacher a $2,500 across-the-board pay raise and said Scott is rightly postponing the search for a lieutenant governor so he can focus on his priorities in the Legislature.
Regalado, who served as finance chairman for her father's 2009 mayoral campaign, agreed last year to pay a $5,000 fine for campaign finance reporting violations. Miami-Dade prosecutors and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said the mistakes were sloppy bookkeeping, but it's a red flag that would attract the attention of Scott's advisers during the vetting process.
Other names surfacing in speculation include Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, a lawyer and deputy House majority leader; Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, a career educator who has taught English classes at Chipola College for 16 years and has been supportive of state workers; Pam Stewart, Florida K-12 chancellor; and Senate Majority Leader Lisbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers.
"I love being a state senator," Benacquisto said.
Scott could choose a man for the post, and GOP strategist Stipanovich said gender no longer matters in a state where two women have served as lieutenant governor and several have run for governor.
"We've passed that milestone," Stipanovich said.
Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who chairs the education budget-writing committee, said he was not interested. Rep. Doug Holder, R-Sarasota, a small business owner, will be termed out of the House in 2014. Scott is fond of Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, a restaurateur from a well-known Panhandle family, but he comes from a region where Scott performed well in 2010.
Republican strategist Rick Wilson suggested Scott ignore the advice of political consultants who will suggest he try to fit a running mate into a series of demographic or geographic boxes.
"He should select someone who brings competence, integrity and a sense of direction," Wilson said. "He's made it very clear he's going to invest heavily in education in the coming year."
The search is expected to be overseen by Scott's top adviser, chief of staff Adam Hollingsworth, but Scott said that decision has not yet been made.
"I haven't even started on that," Scott said. "I'm focused on the session and making sure teachers get a $2,500 pay raise — in case you haven't remembered."
Contact Steve Bousquet at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.