By Sarah Settle
The NCSL Women’s Legislative Network is thrilled to announce the winners of the third annual Women in Politics Making a Difference Award.
These female legislators have made an impressive impact in each of their states and local communities through perseverance, collaboration and, most importantly, pursuing their dreams. The Women’s Legislative Network was lucky enough to interview all four of our award winners. Check out what makes these women so remarkable!
Representative Jeanette Nuñez, Speaker Pro Tempore, Florida, Republican
After talking with Speaker Pro Tem Nuñez, one thing was clear: She is a passionate leader who is dedicated to serving her community. Recently chosen as the Republican candidate for Lieutenant Governor of Florida, anyone who read the glowing nomination we received could imagine Nuñez going on to statewide leadership.
Nuñez got her start in politics as a legislative aide. After nine years in that position she moved on to working as vice president of government relations at Jackson Health System. It was in this role that Nuñez began to see political office as a possibility.
What prompted you to run?
I would say that [my experience working in government affairs] was what prompted me to run. I had friends who, when I told them I was running, thought I was joking. It never was in my plans. At the time I was pregnant with my third child. It struck me as an opportunity as there was an open seat in my area. That is rare.
It was important to me for my own children to see the importance of community service. I think younger kids are a bit disconnected and disengaged. People have very negative views on politics and politicians. I know there are some bad apples among us but there are bad apples in every industry.
In your time as a legislator so far, of what are you most proud?
I have eight years to reflect upon. The bills I am most proud of have addressed issues with children. This past year, we worked on closing a loophole around early and forced child marriage. I was able to meet a victim-turned-advocate who shepherded the legislation through both chambers. You don’t think it is a problem in this country or in our own communities. When I dug into the data I saw there were a number of marriage licenses issued. This woman who had the courage to speak up about her experience really affected me. I will remember this experience for the rest of my life. It was not as easy to pass as you would think, as everyone has different life-experiences and backgrounds. This particular individual was such a stalwart—never disappointed and understood how the process worked. It was an interesting journey to get it from point A to point B. Seeing her face and how excited and elated she was at her bill becoming a law [made me proud].
You can’t minimize the importance of constituent service—it’s the little things such as helping people to navigate bureaucratic government offices. [Constituent services] is the backbone of the legislative office. Oftentimes that aspect of it gets overlooked but is critically important. If I were to give advice to the person to come after me, I’d tell them not to neglect that part of it.
Another issue I took pride in is transportation. Five years ago, I would have said it’s not my issue, but by chance and its importance to my district, I got involved in transportation issues. I’ve gotten into some battles with our expressway authority. It’s not my expertise but it’s a great part of the process that you never know what you will end up getting involved in.
If you were to give advice to young women across the country graduating from high school, what would it be?
Where would I start? I look at it from the vantage point of my own daughter who is in her second year at university, where you have to make decisions that will impact your life like picking your major.
Obviously, you can’t discount the importance of hard work—no one becomes CEO on the first day. I think your passion has to be front and center of what you do. I think we have to learn from each other. You hear that women are women’s worst enemies. We have to work together.
I think mentorship is really important and I’ve tried to do that in my own legislative office. [Author’s note: Nuñez took time here to talk with pride about each aide she’s had in her office and their accomplishments.] I’d encourage women to be more sensitive to mentorship and community [among women].
At the end of the day you have to be the most qualified [with regards to the glass ceiling]. I don’t let opportunities that don’t go my way pile up into resentment. It is not going to help you to have regrets. I really think when you love what you do, it comes through in your attitude and your disposition.
This past term I was the only woman in the leadership and I wasn’t really offended by it. I think there are a lot of opportunities for women to do great things in the legislature. I have more of a take charge attitude—if life gets you lemons, you make lemonade and you don’t let them take your lemons away.
Sarah Settle is staff coordinator for Member Outreach and the NCSL Foundation.