TALLAHASSEE — After 18 months in Gov. Rick Scott's shadow, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera has to make his first big decision.
Before he enters Florida's wide-open race for the U.S. Senate, he'll reach a political crossroads as the state's No. 2 executive: Should he stay or go?
Lopez-Cantera won't say, and the public probably would not notice the difference.
He's not required to immediately resign his $125,000-a-year state job to run for another office, but observers say he faces a number of potential problems if he doesn't cut ties with Scott.
Lopez-Cantera's opponents already are accusing him of campaigning on the taxpayers' dime, a charge he denied when he met recently with a Broward County commissioner and insisted they didn't talk about the Senate race.
He could take a stand as a Republican that conflicts with Scott's scripted message, putting him in hot water with his boss. Scott has told friends he's eyeing Florida's other U.S. Senate seat in 2018.
Lopez-Cantera also would be forced to defend Scott's decisions whether he agreed with them or not, including a recent rash of budget vetoes that disproportionately hit his home county of Miami-Dade.
"You have all of the baggage, but it's very hard to take credit for the accomplishments," said former Republican Rep. Juan-Carlos Planas of Miami. "It's always a hard place to campaign from."
Second in command but virtually unknown
History shows that since the office of lieutenant governor was restored in the modern Constitution of 1968, four of its 10 occupants tried to use it as a stepping stone to higher office. All four failed. The latest, Jeff Kottkamp, ran unsuccessfully for attorney general in 2010 when it wasn't very popular among Republican voters to have been Gov. Charlie Crist's sidekick.
Lopez-Cantera, who declined to be quoted for this report, plans a Senate campaign kickoff on July 15. He has left little doubt about his plans.
"If I get in this race, I know that it will be a long road and a hard road, but if we are on that road together, there is nothing that can stand in our way," he told Miami-Dade Republicans at their annual Lincoln Day dinner two weeks ago.
A Washington "super PAC," Reform Washington, is already raising money on his behalf.
U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of Ponte Vedra Beach, a Harvard Law graduate and Navy veteran who was deployed to Iraq in 2007, is seeking the Republican nomination to replace one-term Sen. Marco Rubio, who's running for president. U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller of the Pensacola area is also considering entering the race.
Neither congressman is well known outside his North Florida district, polls show. But many voters also are unfamiliar with Lopez-Cantera and his low-profile job that has been compared to the lonely Maytag repairman in TV ads.
In Florida, the office of lieutenant governor has no statutory responsibility other than to replace a governor due to impeachment or physical or mental incapacity.
Scott considered the job so unimportant that he left it empty for nearly a year.
Under Lopez-Cantera, the job has become even less visible than it was under his predecessor, Jennifer Carroll.
Lopez-Cantera has one assistant, compared to Carroll's staff of five. In contrast to Carroll, he declined the perk of a Florida state trooper as a full-time chauffeur and often drives himself, which saves taxpayers money.
Lopez-Cantera is rarely seen in public with Scott, and his public schedule often shows entire days with no official events.
"You can talk to the lieutenant governor about his work schedule," Scott said. "I appreciate his hard work and I appreciate his service."
Campaign could bring conflict, controversy
Scott has not given Lopez-Cantera any duties that would raise his profile. Asked for an explanation, Scott's office said Lopez-Cantera provides "valuable insight on many important issues."
By comparison, Carroll was Scott's liaison to the military, chaired the board of Space Florida and had the politically delicate job of leading a task force that held hearings on Florida's "stand your ground" self-defense law after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in 2012.
A former chief of staff for a Republican governor, J. M. (Mac) Stipanovich, said having a lieutenant governor who's running for higher office can easily lead to trouble.
"It presents the possibility of conflict and controversy," said Stipanovich, a lobbyist and Republican strategist. "If I were still chief of staff, I'd rather have him down the hall taking care of our business than being on TV taking care of his own business."
Lopez-Cantera, 41, of Coral Gables was a loyal ally of Rubio in the Florida House from 2004 until 2012, when he won a countywide election as Miami-Dade property appraiser.
He took a pay cut of about $40,000 a year to join Scott's administration.
After a 10-month search, Scott chose Lopez-Cantera as the state's first Hispanic lieutenant governor. He acted after the League of Women Voters sued Scott and accused him of not following the line of succession.
At a get-acquainted lunch at Seasons 52 on Coral Gables' Miracle Mile, first lady Ann Scott and Lopez-Cantera's wife, Renee, a circulation department employee at the Miami Herald, hit it off quickly. "That sealed the deal," Scott said at the time.
Lopez-Cantera succeeded Carroll, who was forced out by Scott in March 2013 over her past ties to a veterans group that was tied to illegal gambling. She was not accused of wrongdoing and has demanded that Scott apologize for making her resign.
For decades, Florida's resign-to-run law has required most officeholders to resign once they seek another office. But the law allows the resignation to be post-dated to the earlier of two dates: the election to the new office or the date the successor takes the old office.
The Florida Supreme Court, in a widely quoted 1970 decision on the subject, said it was wrong for any official "to use the prestige and power of that office in seeking election to a higher or different office."
But the state Legislature and then-Gov. Crist amended the law in 2007 to exempt candidates for federal office, which means the resign-to-run provision doesn't apply to Lopez-Cantera.
The exemption was sponsored by a former Democratic lawmaker from St. Petersburg, Sen. Charlie Justice, at a time when he and other state lawmakers were considering bids for Congress and Crist was being mentioned as a possible 2008 vice presidential candidate.
If Lopez-Cantera does resign, Scott would be forced to begin a new search for a lieutenant governor — his third in less than three years.
Times/Herald staff writer Jeremy Wallace contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.