In June, one day before the Democratic presidential candidates debated for the first time in Miami, Florida Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez and Vice President Mike Pence stood before a boisterous crowd in a hotel a few miles from the debate site and announced that together they would lead a new Hispanic outreach effort for President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign.
Pence was the headliner. But if Latinos for Trump is to be a functioning arm of Trump Victory, then Nuñez, the daughter of Cuban immigrants, will be the face of the 2020 effort.
Nearly two months later, Florida’s first female Hispanic lieutenant governor is just beginning to take on the role, defending the president’s move to curtail immigration and blasting critics who say he encouraged the Aug. 3 shooting in El Paso by warning repeatedly of an immigrant “invasion.”
“I’m so tired of all the nonsense about who’s to blame for this shooting or that shooting,” Nuñez told the Miami Herald in her first interview about the Trump campaign since the shooting. “The thought of blaming a politician — albeit President Trump or [Democratic presidential candidates] Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren or anyone else for that matter — for the act of a deranged madman is a disservice. It’s a disservice not only to the victims but also the first responders who put their lives on the line.”
Rather than focus on Trump’s language and immigration policy, Nuñez, a Cuban-American former state lawmaker from the suburbs in western Miami-Dade County, stressed the strength of the economy and the “opportunity” that she says Trump’s America has afforded Hispanic voters. She said families that have come to the U.S. in search of a better life have found a better education system and economy than what they left behind.
“The shared sentiment is the search for freedom and opportunity,” she said.
Nuñez, 47, was once a Trump critic herself, calling him a “con man” during the 2016 presidential campaign. At the time, she supported U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio for president. But like much of the Republican Party, she decided to support the president and now could be positioned to become one of his most important campaign surrogates because the Trump campaign believes that Hispanic voters will be crucial in the fight over Florida, a must-win state for him.
“As the first Latina to serve as lieutenant governor in the state of Florida, Jeanette Nuñez is a proven leader and a strong voice for the Latino community,” said Hannah Castillo, coalitions director for Trump Victory.
Nuñez was born in Miami to parents who fled Fidel Castro’s Cuba in the 1960s. Over two decades as a legislative aide and then lawmaker in Florida’s conservative state House, she has earned respect from both Democrats and Republicans and proven capable of winning over voters in liberal-leaning Miami-Dade.
She helped then-Gov. Rick Scott win support with Hispanic voters in 2014 by successfully carrying a 2014 bill granting state tuition for undocumented immigrants, and helped her running mate, Gov. Ron DeSantis, succeed Scott in November by hammering Democratic nominee Andrew Gillum as a socialist, a strategy that resonated with Miami’s conservative Hispanic voters.
Last year, with Nuñez playing an important campaign role for the Florida GOP on Spanish-language media, a CNN exit poll found that DeSantis won 44% support from Hispanic voters — significantly better than the 35% that Trump pulled in 2016.
So it was no surprise when Trump’s campaign called on her for a key job in 2020.
“She’ll do well in the role,” said David Custin, a Miami-based political consultant who last year helped steer state House campaigns for Republican leadership.
Custin said it was smart to tap Florida’s lieutenant governor as one of Trump’s top Hispanic campaign surrogates — an offer he thinks she couldn’t have refused.
“When you’re asked to be in this role as the Republican lieutenant governor in the top swing state on the chess board, you can’t say no,” said Custin, has known and worked with Nuñez for years. “She got drafted. It was a good draft, a smart choice by Trump’s people.”
As Nuñez becomes more involved in the Trump campaign, she’s likely to become a lightning rod herself. Trump has been heavily criticized in recent weeks for his use of anti-immigrant language and campaign ads. Most the Democrats running for president have labeled Trump a “white supremacist.”
And as Trump’s most visible Hispanic surrogate, Nuñez could share some of the criticism.
“They can throw whatever kinds of grenades and fire at me, if they like. I’m confident in who I am and what I stand for,” said Nuñez, who spent eight years as a state representative before joining DeSantis’ gubernatorial campaign as his running mate. “I’m going to preach all the great things that I see the Trump administration has done.”
Nuñez is effusive about Trump’s efforts to crack down on socialist Venezuelan ruler Nicolas Maduro, who has refused to relinquish control of a country that was once the third-wealthiest in the western hemisphere and is now spiraling in the depths of hyperinflation. Nuñez said some of her family fled from Cuba to Venezuela instead of to the U.S., and now have been forced to leave again as part of a mass exodus of more than 4 million people.
Democrats have criticized Trump’s Venezuela crackdown as hypocritical because the administration has also refused to grant temporary protected immigration status to some 200,000 Venezuelans living in the U.S.
Manuel Oliver, a Venezuelan immigrant and Democrat from Parkland whose son was killed in last year’s school shooting, said Trump is giving lip service to Venezuelans and Cubans while pushing policies that keep them from truly receiving safe harbor in the U.S.
“It’s bull---t. Nothing is happening. The measures he’s been taking are not even close to what Venezuela needs,” Oliver said.
Oliver, whose son, Joaquin, had become an immigration activist before he was killed last year, was one town over in Mexico’s Ciudad Juarez when the shooting in El Paso took place. He is among the Trump critics who believe the president’s repeated demonization of immigrants encouraged the shooting by a gunman who warned of a Hispanic invasion in a manifesto posted online before the shooting.
“The leader of any nation shouldn’t use that analogy of an invasion [by] immigrants. It’s wrong,” said Oliver.
Trump and the GOP have countered that Democrats are for open borders and that presidential candidates are pushing to decriminalize illegal border crossings. And they cite Trump’s decision to institute an embargo against Venezuela — a country that communist Cuba relies upon for resources — as a means to loosen the grip that leftist regimes have held for decades on the two countries.
Trump, Nuñez said, is “focused on restoring freedoms for Venezuelans.“
So far, Nuñez has been low-key as the standard-bearer of the Trump campaign’s Hispanic outreach effort. She told the Miami Herald that she hasn’t yet spoken to Trump about Latin America policy or done much in the way of public events — things she expects will happen as the election grows closer. In the meantime, she’s supporting Trump in media interviews.
She dismissed what she called “outrage” over the Trump administration’s announcement Monday that it will expand the types of public assistance — including food stamps and public housing — that can be used to penalize immigrants seeking green cards. The new rule is an expansion of a 140-year-old federal policy.
“There are people from time to time who will need a hand up. That’s something this country prides itself in doing. I don’t think this rule is going to change that. It’s just one of the factors. It’s not the determining factor,” she said. “I don’t understand all the hysteria about it.”
Nuñez said it matters to Hispanic voters that Trump treats immigrants well. But she said the millions of people whose families have come legally to the U.S. understand that there’s a process, and that systems have their challenges.
“Of course Hispanic voters care about immigration,” she said. “But when you take the aggregate, the compilation of all the things important to them — education, the economy, infrastructure, opportunity — if you look at those things in totality, how can you not vote for President Trump?”