Being the first is never easy. Jennifer Carroll was the first woman and the first black person to be elected to the position of lieutenant governor in Florida.
Now a former lieutenant governor, Carroll visits the podcast to share what she learned through her many firsts in the military and in elected office. A role model for young people across America, Carroll is a perfect example of grit and grace. Listen to today’s episode or read the lightly edited transcript below.
Rob Bluey: We are joined on The Daily Signal Podcast by former Florida Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll. Jennifer, thanks for being with us.
Jennifer Carroll: Thanks for having me. It’s a great day.
Bluey: Throughout the month of February we are excited to highlight the stories of black leaders like yourself. You are the first female black Republican elected to the Florida Legislature and the first black woman to hold the position of Florida’s lieutenant governor. Congratulations on both of those.
Carroll: Thank you. And the first woman to be elected as lieutenant governor and statewide as well.
Bluey: Excellent. Outstanding. Well, we want to begin where it all started. Tell us how the story begins.
Carroll: [The] story began in my mother’s womb—no.
Virginia Allen: All the way back.
Carroll: All the way back. It’s taken way back.
I was born in Trinidad, West Indies. My parents migrated to the United States. I came with them at the age of 8. They wanted, of course, to experience the land of opportunities in America, which in Trinidad we looked at America as the landing pad of everything promising.
When my parents came here, they realized that it took a little bit of hard work. We had to go through the immigration process and they worked multiple jobs—including those that I went [to] and tagged along with them.
My father always instilled in me that nothing is going to break you if you do hard work and no one owes you anything. You have to stand up and do for yourself. Those lessons stayed with me throughout.
[I] joined the military when I was 19 years old, served 20 years in the military, started out as an enlisted jet mechanic, rose up through the ranks and retired a Navy lieutenant commander, aviation maintenance officer.
A lot of firsts along the way because … the aviation community in the late ’70s was just opened up for mechanics for myself and for women. It was typically male and the Congress had to have the DOD [Defense Department] open it up. So most of the male-dominated industries in the military for women to serve in.
Fortunately, I was one of them because my father. I always tinkered with mechanical stuff. He was a doer. No matter what, he was always tinkering with something and making it happen. That was more interesting to me than having a desk job or being a nurse. Those were channeled jobs that the military typically put females in.
As it turned out, that was the greatest thing for me because I was able to break down barriers and work in an industry that was typically not for women.
Then going into politics, [I] ran for congressional seat, lost that, but it made me stronger and I won a state House seat that I served for seven and a half years and then served as lieutenant governor in the state of Florida.
Bluey: That’s fantastic. Thanks for sharing that.
Allen: I would love to just hear a little bit more about your time in the Navy. What were some of those life principles or life lessons that you really took from those years that you spent serving in the Navy?
Carroll: Particularly, for a woman during those times, I was one of one—either the only female, the only black female wherever I served. So I was able to break down barriers and create pathways for others to come after me.
So it was very rewarding to know that at least I had the inner strength—at some times I didn’t believe I did, but finding that out, I had the inner strength to remove those barriers for others to achieve and accomplish their goals as well. And to also create opportunities for people to see how they were treating other people or limiting other people’s opportunities to get into various fields of work.
As a matter of fact, when I was serving at one of my squadrons, I was an officer at this time, I was the only female officer in the maintenance department and the only black officer there. The females were being treated as if they were a hindrance, particularly if they got pregnant.
We were going on six-month deployments and my senior male counterparts will say the person got pregnant to get out of going on deployment, so I had to correct that misnomer and showcase that the guys were injuring themselves playing basketball. You didn’t say that they injured themselves to get out of deployment.
Then we also had issues with regards to two individuals not feeling that they had a representative that they can look up to, a mentor that looks like them, that they can go to and express their concerns.
I happen to be both on a male and female side. Being of a black descent, I was able to have that welcoming for them to come and approach me with the issues that they were experiencing.
[I went from] that to being a Mustang, like … from enlisted ranks to officer rank. I was really approachable because they enlisted people that were all subordinates.
For the typical officer that came through the academy or something like that, they felt that they could not understand what they were going through. So they enlisted guys—guys meaning girls and guys—[that] really gravitated to me because they felt that I came from where they came from.
Bluey: That’s wonderful. I want to say thank you for your service. We’re so appreciative of the time that you spent in the military.
You retired in 1999 as a lieutenant commander. What made that decision in your mind to think about a political career in that first run, which you mentioned was not successful, but you obviously went on to greater heights after that?
Carroll: Yes, indeed. What made my decision to run was we had an awful representative that was supposed to represent our base.
I was an admiral’s aide at the time and my admiral placed me in charge of being that liaison between our elected officials and our issues at the bases that he represented or was in charge of.
Whenever I went to this particular member of Congress, she would blow us off and we had base encroachment issues, we had OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] issues, we had so many various issues that needed to be addressed by a congressional member.
My in and around was the late Tillie Fowler. She was the next representative over from the district. She loved the military and agreed to carry our water.
I asked my representative for the district, “Would you mind if I went to a representative, Congresswoman Fowler, for her to represent our needs and concerns?” Her response was, “Sure, go ahead.”
I thought that was shrugging your responsibility. Why are the taxpayers paying you money to represent them, and you don’t even care about a large constituency, a major industrial partner here in your community that you’re not even willing to either learn and represent us the way you should? That made my decision to run.
It was during the 2000 election, during George Bush’s election.
Hopefully people will read my book when you get there, it’s my autobiography, to talk [how] my entrance into that race enabled George Bush to win his election.
Reason being, we had so much voter fraud in the district that as it turned out, 27,000 votes that voted for [Al] Gore and voted for another candidate that had the last name of Browne, those 27,000 votes had to be thrown out with the recount … Those 27,000 votes in my district had to be thrown out. Had no one challenged the congresswoman, her name was Brown, those votes would have stood for Al Gore.
Carroll: So it was a really interesting dynamic at the time.
Bluey: Fascinating. Yes.
Carroll: George Bush and even his brother Jeb Bush, who had an appointment to be the executive director of Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs, they credit me [for] his [presidential] race because after the recount, it was only about 500 and some odd votes.
Had those 27,000 votes [been] just for Gore and people just left that race alone, we would’ve had a different turn of events during that election cycle.
Bluey: Oh, absolutely. No, I imagined that at that point you could have just hung the hat up and said, “OK, politics is not for me.” But what motivated you to go on?
Carroll: Well, [then-Florida Gov.] Jeb Bush. Because Jeb Bush reached out to me. As a matter of fact, I had an appointment with President Bush to be on a presidential scholars commission.
President Bush used to call me “Jeb’s girl.” Say, “Could you get Jeb’s girl in Florida and see if she wants to be on … ” He appointed me to two commissions early.
So Jeb Bush sought me out and asked me [if I would] be interested in running the state’s Veterans’ Affairs. That’s what kept me in politics.
Then of course, the next election for the president, again, and then Jeb Bush’s election. Then other candidates. … Other candidates saw the struggles that I went through, because I didn’t even have my party’s support when I ran in 2000.
They felt because Bill Clinton was in office, the representative being a Democrat, it would have been access to the money, people that want to get access to the administration. It’s easier to have her. They knew how to pay her off and so forth.
So it was an uphill battle, but it was worth it in my thought because we were able to expose that Republicans can run and make a difference where Democrats exist. Because at the end of the day, we all want the same thing.
Safe and secure communities, safe and secure borders, education that’s quality for our children to exceed, economic development in our communities. Across the board, regardless if you’re a Republican or Democrat, these are the things that American families want. …
As a matter of fact, my opponents said that I was a freak of nature because I was a black Republican. So I would make light of it. I go, “Am I not a good-looking freak of nature?”—to break down barriers. And people are like, “Well, let me talk to you.”
I had a lot of Democrats. I set up my campaign headquarters in the heart of her black Democrat district. They go, “Why are you here?” “Why shouldn’t I be here? I want your vote.”
So folks come in on a quiet [day] and they go, “Tell me why you’re Republican.” I said, “First of all, it’s a free country. You can be what you want to be. In general election, you can vote for whoever you want. I’m not asking you why you’re Democrat. If you want to talk about policies, let’s have that discussion.”
Bluey: That’s great.
Allen: I love how your story is so marked by that persistence of breaking down barriers.
As we mentioned, you were the first woman and the first black person to be elected to the position of lieutenant governor, and before becoming the lieutenant governor, you were also the first Republican black female to serve in the Florida Legislature.
Now, that had to just be so exciting to be the first in both of those positions. What did that mean to you?
Carroll: At the onset it meant nothing because I didn’t even know.
Allen: Oh, wow.
Carroll: When I was running for the state House seat, I didn’t know that a black female Republican was never elected to the Florida Legislature. It wasn’t until after the election someone said, “Do you know you made a milestone?”
Carroll: I go, “What milestone is that? I just want my seat. That’s about it.”
But it came with an obligation to represent in such a way that it will leave a good mark on individuals, individuals that were proud of that moment and saw it as something that they can share with their daughters and their sons as well.
I had so many people come up to me and say, “My daughter is so impressed with you.” What people should say is, “My daughter is so impressed with me,” themselves. Their parents. Shouldn’t look to really external. That should be just an extension of what they’ve already learned in their households, the values that they’ve already been taught in their household.
My kids have never gone up to someone and said, “I am so in awe. I want to be like you.” Because they already know who they are. They have instilled values. They have instilled character and abilities that they are short of.
That’s what I wanted to present to people that were so coming up in awe at me. I’m just a person just like you. You have those instilled abilities to also be great if you allow yourself to be that. You don’t need to latch onto somebody else.
So I knew that there was an obligation for me to set myself as a role model regardless if I wanted to and not for others to emulate and for them to see that they have the powers and ability within themselves to be as great as they wanted to be.
Bluey: That’s wonderful. Now, throughout your time in public service, is there an accomplishment or a couple of accomplishments that stand out in your mind that you’re particularly proud of?
Carroll: Well, a couple. I shouldn’t say a couple. There are many. But when I boil it down to a nutshell, the greatest accomplishment in all the areas that I serve, whether it’s executive director of Florida Department of Affairs, my state legislative position on lieutenant governor was breaking down the barriers of government for the average Joe and Jane to access information and get resolve for their issues.
Because of my positions, I could just make a phone call and make things happen.
It really highlighted itself when I was lieutenant governor that so many people will call our citizen services and they’ll get blown off and not get a response back. But once they call my office, even my legislative office, I had a standing order that no one, regardless of where the district was, whatever their party affiliation was, they would not walk away without knowing that our office helped them.
They may not receive the answer that they wanted, but at least they had a resolve for their issues.
I cannot tell you how many letters and emails my office received to thank me and my staff for helping them throughout the process to navigate government.
Our government should be more accessible [to] the individuals [and] the public because … you’re supposed to be an elected official, a statesman, not a politician. It’s the opposite. You work for the people, you are responsive to the people, and nowadays we’re not seeing that level of government anymore.
Bluey: That’s a great attitude. I appreciate that. I know our listeners will as well.
Allen: Who are those voices in your life that really challenged you to go where no one had gone before and to fight for the people in your state? Who were those role models for you?
Carroll: My first role model is gone. He is everything. My guidance comes from him. My strength comes from him. My knowledge comes from him. So I have to give honor first and foremost to him.
Then I have an absolutely wonderful support mechanism in my family: my husband, my three kids, and then the extension of that.
Then people don’t even realize, and sometimes we take it for granted, the external friendship that you have out there that are praying for you and supporting you on a regular basis.
Oftentimes we get so busy, we don’t call people, we don’t connect with people. When you have a campaign, that’s when everybody comes on board and they go about their merry way.
The older I get, the more I realize and recognize we have to reach out to those people. Even if you want to say “Thank you” or “How are you doing?” it’s very important to keep that close because those people don’t have to support you. They don’t have to pray for you. They don’t have to do anything for you, but they did it out of love and a will of their heart.
Bluey: That’s wonderful. Thanks for sharing that. You mentioned earlier your book “When You Get There.” Thank you for writing it and bringing it up because I wanted to ask a question for our audience to know a little bit more about why you chose to write it and what they can find in it.
Carroll: Interesting you bring that up. Earlier today, I had a lecture that I did at the Leadership Institute in talking about dealing with the media. The media could be a friend or foe and it all depends on who you are.
When inaccurate information is printed about you or the attack dogs come, you don’t have enough paper and ink to correct a story.
In the light of social media today, things get viral. People started embellishing on things that are not true. How do you combat that attack and the untruth?
When I came out of office, this was a way for me to tell my story and to capture the narrative of things that actually occurred. I chose to do an autobiography. I share with the reader information about myself, from where I came and my struggles along the way.
I crafted it such that it’s an inspirational message. So people would see life is not going to be a bed of roses at all times, but how you pick yourself up from those falls and adversities, it’s what’s going to prepare you for the next step and whatever God has in store to bless you with.
But if you dwell on those negatives and you don’t have some inner strength to push and persevere forward, you’re not going to make yourself better.
Allen: Jennifer, this might be the same bit of advice that you’ve just kind of mentioned in talking about your book, but what would you say to young people who have a lot of zeal, they want to change the world, they may be interested in getting involved in politics and they’re not sure where to begin? What would you say to them?
Carroll: The first thing I would say to begin, start doing things at the local level. Get involved with nonprofit organizations, and I did that as well. There’s a number of nonprofit boards. Then at least you get an understanding as to what the concerns are of the community, whether it’s education, whether it’s the infrastructure, whether it’s the environment, and find out.
Because when you are elected, it should not be what your agenda is. It’s the agenda that you’re bringing forward from the people. Their voice, their message. If their message or their voice is the wrong way to go, it’s up to you to inform them about how it should be because of knowledge they may not have.
All of my bills that I’ve sent through the Legislature came from my town hall, came from my connection with the voters.
When I was elected in the Florida Legislature, I ran one race and that was the first race that I wasn’t supposed to win because the scuttlebutt.
Scuttlebutt in the military is the rumor out there—”She’s never run a race. She’s running against a lady that has won before, and she’s a black person in a redneck area, and rednecks are not going to vote for a black person.”
Well, I won with over 82% of the votes. That was my first race. Never had a race beyond that. Why? Because I stay connected with my constituents. Newsletters, direct emails, phone calls, town hall meetings.
I didn’t go to town hall meetings to hear myself pontificate. I went there to get information from them. What are your concerns? What are you seeing? My newsletters and emails were guiding them through the legislative process.
As we’re in session, this is what’s going on. This is why I’m not voting for this bill. This was an amendment added to the bill. This is what the amendment says and does. Communicate back with me if I’m not on the right track with you, etc.
I stayed engaged with my constituency throughout. I think that’s very key and important for anyone that wants to run to understand the community in which they want to serve. Because what we’re seeing with a lot of candidates is they are stepping out there and it’s selfishly, “I want to be an elected official. I want to have the name and title.”
It’s not about you. It should be about the constituent. If you truly want to be and have a servant heart and be a statesperson or statesman or general terms, then you should be looking at what’s the issue at heart for the people in the district that you want to represent.
Bluey: That’s great to hear. It often reminds me of our President Kay Coles James here at The Heritage Foundation who talks about the importance of just showing up and listening.
Here at Heritage and The Daily Signal we are working to reach a bigger audience and some new audiences—be it women or minorities or young people who traditionally aren’t identified as closely with conservatism as others.
What is your advice for doing a better job as conservatives to make sure that they understand that our policies really do lead to a better life?
Carroll: What we have to do is have a better messenger and a better message. That’s the bottom line across the board.
For example, when I went into the Florida Legislature, there was a bill to pass for a license plate that has the image and likeness of [Martin Luther King Jr.]. This license plate, the proceeds from it will go to in the state of Florida, helping out with infant mortality, birth defects, as well as sickle cell education and research. All those impact primarily the black community.
This legislation was tried by a Democrat legislator both in the House and Senate for five years prior to me coming there.
The member Democrat in the Senate recognized that he’s not getting anything passed because we have both a Republican House and Senate. He came to me with the idea. I saw what the bill and the legislation would do and I supported it. Ran through, passed, it was my first bill getting signed by Jeb Bush.
That bill impacted so many black families across the state of Florida and even other states emulated the legislation that we did in the state of Florida.
Now had I just let that lie and not expose it, it would’ve been a story untold.
There are many things that we’re doing both on the state, local, and national level like President Trump is doing and President Bush has done with increasing minority homeownership or increasing minority job opportunities or decreasing the unemployment roles and getting people off of the welfare rolls for the state.
We have to tell our story, but who is the audience that’s listening to our story? Who is the messenger that’s sharing our story? How many times are we repeating that story?
If you only repeat it once, it’s not heard at all. If you repeat it three times, maybe. You got 10, 20, 30 times—but you have to tell a story how it can relate to individuals that’s supposed to be receiving it.
If you just say, “Unemployment in a black community has gone down X amount.” OK, what does that mean to me? Is it meaning extra money for you to buy those diapers or to save for your kids’ education? Bring it down to that level so that people can really resonate to the message that you’re trying to convey.
Bluey: That’s great advice. Great tip. Storytelling is so important, and that’s one of the things that we’re certainly committed to here at The Daily Signal.
Allen: Where can our listeners find your book?
Carroll: On my website at JenniferCarroll.com. …
Allen: OK, great. …
Carroll: Thank you.
Bluey: Jennifer Carroll, thanks so much for sharing your story and talking with The Daily Signal.
Carroll: It was my pleasure. Thanks for having me.