GOP Happy to Cultivate Carroll; She Thwarts Perceptions about Republican Party

Article excerpt

Byline: STEPHEN MAJORS, The Times-Union

TALLAHASSEE -- On April 7 at the state kickoff for the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign in Tallahassee, state Rep. Jennifer Carroll took her seat next to some of the most prominent Republicans from across the state and country.

Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, Attorney General Charlie Crist, Commissioner Charles Bronson and Carole Jean Jordan, chairwoman of the Republican Party of Florida, joined Carroll in the backdrop of the campaign event.

But it was Carroll, who with praise, a hug and a kiss on the cheek, introduced former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, President Bush's campaign chairman.

Racicot, turning the tables, referred to the Green Cove Springs Republican as "a rising star" and a politician "who is going to be serving the state of Florida for a long period of time."

Carroll may be experiencing only her first full legislative session after losing congressional elections in 2000 and 2002 to Democratic incumbent Corrine Brown, but Republicans have cultivated her as a strong legislator and a demographic wonder.

As an African-American woman, Carroll, 44, thwarts traditional perceptions of the Republican Party. She is a statewide co-chairwoman for the Bush-Cheney campaign.

"She had the courage to stick with her convictions," Racicot said. Since Carroll comes from the African-American community and is a strong Republican, he said, the GOP can "make sure we reflect the face of America."

Sitting in her Capitol office, where two pictures of the legislator next to the president hang prominently from the walls, and where Fox News is the television channel of choice, House Deputy Majority Leader Carroll explains why she bleeds Republican.

"I followed in the footsteps of my parents, who were Republicans," said Carroll, who came with them to the United States from Trinidad at the age of 8. "But as I got older and more involved in the political process, it solidified my decision for less government, personal responsibility, opportunities provided for all, less taxes. All those things fall in line with me as a voter, as a consumer, as a professional woman."

Carroll said she is welcomed by the Florida Conference of Black State Legislators, commonly referred to as the Black Caucus, where she is the only Republican. Her presence on the other side of the aisle helps push along caucus priorities in the House, where Republicans outnumber Democrats 81-39.

"I can work well with anybody who is willing to work with me," Carroll said.

Rep. Terry Fields, D-Jacksonville, a fellow Black Caucus member, echoed Carroll's self-assessment.

"She has been a source of help because she could go and articulate a message that sometimes we can't do as Democrats," Fields said. "I'm sure that because she's African-American, they [Republicans] would take advantage of that. She appears to be pretty sincere in her beliefs. She's got a strong military background."

But Rep. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, also a caucus member, said she thinks Carroll's prominence might be an electoral tool for Republicans.

"To me, it's more of a divide-and-conquer issue," Gibson said. "I think the idea is to try to capture middle income and upwardly mobile African-Americans to the party, while at the same time the party slaps minorities in the face."

Carroll's military background gives her added appeal for military-minded Republicans. She served in the Navy for 20 years, reaching the rank of lieutenant commander, and was the executive director of the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs in 2001-2002.

For a rising leader, Carroll has been quiet on the House floor this legislative session, passing a neighborhood crime watch bill and a crime accessory bill while staying out of major debates like KidCare and gun records laws. …