Editor’s note: Standing at the marina near Key Largo Fisheries last November, I had the opportunity to meet and interview Jeanette Nunez as Election Day neared. Recently, I had the chance to catch back up with the lieutenant governor in the Keys to see how the first months in office have gone and get insight into the administration’s priorities and work ahead.
The first Latina lieutenant governor in the state’s history, Jeanette Nunez is hitting the ground running alongside Gov. Ron DeSantis. Her schedule is a busy one, having recently hosted a listening session with First Lady Casey DeSantis regarding the ongoing Venezuela situation. Days later, the governor and Nunez were on hand as President Donald Trump paid a visit to Florida International University, where he spoke on the crisis in the South American country.
In between those events, she managed to get a little down time and drove south on U.S. 1 to her place in Islamorada to see family and friends. She’s been coming to the area since 2001 and is no stranger.
“This by far is our happy place,” Nunez said in a sit-down with Keys Weekly on a beautiful, sunny day at Founders Park. “The minute you drive down that stretch, you feel all your anxieties go away. It’s just a simple, relaxed way of life that doesn’t exist in other places, and certainly not in the county north of us.”
A former health care executive and state legislator, Nunez was the first Hispanic woman to be speaker pro tempore in the Florida House. DeSantis tapped Nunez in early September as his running mate, touting her leadership and legislative accomplishments.
The first weeks have been a whirlwind, and Nunez said the governor was insistent that he wanted to work hard right out of the gate.
“That’s been evident with everything he’s been doing,” she said. “He was always very vocal on issues like the environment, so that’s something he came out with a lot of strong announcements and a lot of strong appointments, and a really bold budget with regards to environment funding.”
Nunez said the governor’s $2.5 billion commitment over the next four years to tackle water quality issues has been met with praise from those within the environmental community. He’s also pledged $360 million for Everglades restoration, a matter Nunez said sits atop DeSantis’ priority list as he works with DEP director Noah Valenstein and the federal government. With a healthy environment comes a healthy economy, as Nunez notes it’s something people in the Florida Keys know all too well.
“I think for far too long, the federal government has left the state of Florida out in a lurch with regards to environmental funding that’s been promised for over 20 years,” Nunez said. “Gov. DeSantis is insistent on obtaining that funding that’s been promised and due to Florida, and I think that’s also an important component because we have a partnership with a lot of these projects.”
SOUTH FLORIDA WATER MANAGEMENT DISTRICT BOARD
Last month, DeSantis called for the immediate resignations of the South Florida Water Management District board members. In his remarks, the governor noted that change was needed for the agency, which plays a vital role in flood control and Everglades protection in the region. Only two of those members remain, and their terms expire in March.
“I know there was a little hesitancy on the parts of some, but I think ultimately everyone came to the same conclusion that this governor should be afforded the opportunity to appoint people that are going to align with his vision,” Nunez said. “I’m glad to see that resolved itself and I’m also eager to see the types of individuals this governor is going to vet.”
As to whether the Keys will see representation on the board, Nunez said it’s something she’s going to advocate for. Former County Commissioner George Nugent and Capt. Steve Friedman, Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association commodore, have submitted letters of interest to the governor’s office. Both received support from Islamorada Village Council.
“I would advocate for that, but obviously it has to be the right person,” she said. “There are statutory constraints in terms of people. That being said, I think having someone from the Keys is something that would be valuable.
“I think based on his appointments to date, with our friend Alligator Ron (Bergeron), who probably understands the Everglades better than anyone I know, it’s a testament to what the governor is looking for,” Nunez said. “He wants people who are dedicated and passionate and have a strong understanding because it’s a complex issue.”
THE BUDGET AND STRONG LOCAL REPRESENTATION
Water quality issues are being addressed in DeSantis’ proposed budget. With money set aside for Everglades restoration, Nunez says the governor’s also eyeing the coastlines and beaches.
“It really is as comprehensive a budget as I’ve ever seen with regards to the environment,” she said. “I think the people of the Florida Keys are really going to benefit not just from the focus on the budget but also policy.”
Nunez said there’s tremendous leadership in the Keys with a state representative in Holly Raschein who works diligently to ensure the area is first and foremost when discussing issues of the environment. Nunez notes that the two started out as legislative aides and grew up together in the Florida legislature.
“I have tremendous respect for her work ethic and focus on issues important to the Florida Keys,” she said. “I have nothing but admiration for her.”
Lieutenant Governor Jeanette Nunez has been a part of the Keys community since 2001. Keys Weekly asked about her time in the Keys and what she enjoys.
Where is your favorite place to go with family? One of my favorites is Morada Bay, but my kids like to go to Shrimp Shack.
What are some of your favorite memories in the Keys? My favorite memories are really when my kids were younger. We live at Executive Bay, so there’s a little beach area. It’s a nice place to be for the sunset. I have pictures that I could show you that would wow the most renowned photographers.
What do you like to do if you have an afternoon with the family in the Keys? We love to go to The Sandbar. Usually, we take the boat out and spend time there. When the conditions align, we like to go out to Mosquito Bank. Sometimes we’ll just have lunch over there. The kids also like to go to Bass Pro Shop and board the Pilar and take pictures there.
What about the Keys do you enjoy? We have a lot of friends and family here. It’s a sense of community and being able to spend time and enjoy the beautiful scenery that’s like nowhere else. I also love the people and how everyone is in flip-flops and casual. No one’s worried about the rat race, and it’s really a special place.
How do you balance your work life and time with family? It’s a balance for sure. As lieutenant governor, there are requests for my attendance at events, ribbon cuttings or to speak at events. I have to balance because I can’t be everywhere and I certainly need to focus on the things that are important to our administration and balancing work life. The kids are a little older now, so they’re not as needy. My oldest is 20 and I have two boys, 17 and 12. I’m very involved in their lives and I like to be involved in their lives. We always prioritize family time as much as possible, especially Keys times, in summers when things are little more laid back and we have more flexibility with our weekends.
What are top priorities for the Keys? Obviously No. 1 is the environment. I think there’s no other area more affected by issues of the environment than the Florida Keys. One could argue the Treasure Coast blue-green algae or the red tide in the Sarasota area, but I think the Keys for far too long have had to deal and contend with these issues. Affordable housing is another priority and, overall, the economy with regards to access to quality education and access to skilled career and technical training, which is something the governor has spent a lot of time talking about.