The sparse crowd assembled on a Navy warship to honor three Pearl Harbor survivors awaits the arrival of Florida Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll.
Smiling, waving and squinting in the midmorning sun, Gov. Rick Scott’s No. 2 is 15 minutes late when she boards the USS Underwood. In her only role during the event, she stumbles through reading a proclamation.
Afterward, it’s handshakes, hugs and photos for Carroll, the state’s first black lieutenant governor who enlisted in the Navy as a jet mechanic and retired as a lieutenant commander before winning three terms in the Florida House as a Republican from a mostly white, suburban Jacksonville district.
“I just want to hang on,” says Edward Kmiec, a 94-year-old Pearl Harbor veteran, as he wraps his arm around the former model and smiles for a snapshot.
“Thank you for your service,” Carroll, 52, tells him.
In the year since setting her own family photos on the credenza inside the lieutenant governor’s office, Carroll, much as her predecessors, has been the governor’s proxy at low-profile events like this Pearl Harbor ceremony. She also led foreign trade missions to Europe and South Africa, served as chairwoman of Space Florida and, she says, played a direct role in increasing federal defense contracts in the state.
But it’s what she hasn’t done that has surprised many people.
Carroll, who accepted the job after it was declined by former Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings and Gulf Power CEO Susan Story, was the Tallahassee veteran in a band of outsiders Scott brought to the executive suites in the Capitol.
Scott said he picked Carroll to help “direct policy,” but she was rarely seen in the House or Senate during the 2011 session as Scott struggled to shepherd his agenda through the web of political relationships inside the Legislature and lobby corps.
“Obviously the lieutenant governor had considerably more skills in state government than the governor did. And she’s actually more articulate than the governor,” said Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island. “But she can’t go out on her own. She goes out on direction. And she needs to be more involved.”
• • •
One of Carroll’s more memorable first-year moments came during an aggressive speech to kick off the Republican Party of Florida’s Presidency 5 event in September. She condemned The Da Vinci Code as anti-Christian propaganda and compared the media to dictators and socialist rulers.
“You like the lieutenant governor crazy don’t you?” she laughed two days later while hosting the party’s presidential straw poll.
Carroll was surprised her legislative experience wasn’t exploited and blamed it on a Scott staff that largely has been replaced. Carroll said she’ll have a more prominent role in the 2012 session that starts next month.
“We’ll have a different view for my role in the legislative agenda this year,” Carroll said in an interview. She said she’ll focus on Scott’s economic development and higher education priorities.
But Scott has been disappointed in Carroll’s office, too.
Carletha Cole, one of Carroll’s few staffers, was arrested in October over allegedly secretly taping her colleague, Carroll’s chief of staff, John Konkus, talking about interoffice drama.
Cole had been fired for complaining about the office to the Florida Times-Union, Carroll’s hometown paper.
Before going to the newspapers, Cole’s trash can was set on fire by another Carroll staffer, Beatrice “Bibi” Ramos.
Investigators found a match and a cigar in the trash. The case was dismissed as an accident. Records show the evidence was destroyed after FDLE agents talked with Carroll, but before they spoke to Ramos.
The day after dismissing the case, Carroll wrote John Hamilton, the lead investigator, a letter of recommendation.
Carroll said the fire was a mistake and that Cole was a disgruntled employee.
When asked about Cole’s arrest, Scott said it was a “disappointment.”
“Anytime anyone around you does the wrong thing, I think it’s a disappointment,” he said.
• • •
Scott gives Carroll high marks after their first year together, pointing to her work with base commanders in Florida.
“She’s done a very good job,” Scott said. “We are absolutely perceived to be a military-friendly state, if not the most military-friendly state.”
But it’s sometimes an awkward relationship between the two.
Carroll, like much of the Republican establishment, supported Scott rival Bill McCollum in the GOP primary last year.
Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, describes her as “aggressively confident.” Scott is nonconfrontational.
She accessorizes business suits with bright red high heels and shiny hoop earrings. Scott’s ties are almost always either conservative red or blue.
The two can go long stretches without appearing at the same public event. But when they’re together, it’s not unusual for them to hold hands.
Scott prides himself on attention to detail. Carroll has trouble with paperwork: She reported her net worth as $202 million in 2005, or about $200 million too much. Altered documents in 2006 helped her consulting firm appear eligible for Jacksonville contracts, according to the Times-Union.
Scott can elicit cringes from audiences and his staff when he jokes that it takes Carroll long to fix her hair or put on makeup.
He stunned lawmakers in the Black Legislative Caucus when he told them he “took a risk” picking Carroll. Scott quickly said he was joking, and Carroll played along.
“We gel together,” Carroll said.
• • •
Despite stark differences, the two have had similar experiences.
Scott grew up in public housing with his truck-driving stepfather and a strict mother who used spankings to keep order.
Of her parents, Carroll said, “They didn’t spare the rod. My mother didn’t. My father only beat me once.”
Born in the West Indies, Carroll was adopted by her great-aunt and great-uncle when, as the family story goes, Carroll “put up a fuss” about moving to the United States with her biological mother.
She immigrated five years later when her adoptive parents found jobs cleaning hospitals and fixing leaky faucets in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“I couldn’t really go out and have any fun or anything. Couldn’t go to a friend’s house or hang out at the mall,” Carroll remembered about her strict upbringing.
Her adoptive parents initially weren’t willing to let her leave for the Navy and stopped a relationship with her biological mom.
“My mother who raised me was pretty jealous,” Carroll said. “I was their only child so my mother who raised me was very guarded and didn’t want, probably, an opportunity to have love shared.”
• • •
Like Scott, Carroll fondly remembers these tough times that helped fuel her ambition and were critical to her success.
Carroll’s political ambition could go beyond the lieutenant governor’s office.
“She’s passionate, has a world of experience and is very, very confident,” said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, a former Florida Republican Party chairman.
Carroll was rumored as a potential U.S. Senate candidate in 2012. After twice coming up short to unseat U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, frequent appearances in Jacksonville feed speculation that she’ll try a third time.
Carroll considered both options, but said she has more influence over state policy in her current job.
“Being the second person in charge and having the voice and the abilities that I’m able to do here, it’s the best job,” Carroll said. “The best job.”