It hasn’t gotten the credit, but the Tallahassee staff of the Jones Walker firm played a key role in the election and recount that led to Ron DeSantis’ winning the Governor’s race.
Chief among them is lobbyist Jenn Ungru, better known as a health care policy guru. But in the election law world, she’s the one Republicans turn to when a race is too close to call. She has now been involved in statewide recounts in four states: Ohio, Virginia, Minnesota and now Florida.
Firm partner Marc Dunbar, better known these days as a top gaming lobbyist, re-lived some of his experience from the 2000 presidential recount, acting as counsel to the DeSantis recount monitoring effort last month.
And Director of Government Relations Chris Moya, who befriended DeSantis when he launched his first congressional run, has become one of the Governor-elect’s top fundraisers and landed a seat on the Inaugural Committee.
After being connected through mutual friends in Jacksonville, DeSantis “drove over here just to have lunch with me, and brought me an autographed copy of his book,” Moya said, referring to “Dreams from Our Founding Fathers: First Principles in the Age of Obama.”
“By the end of lunch, I was convinced I had to support him,” he added.
The firm’s connection was cemented when Ballard Partners’ Susie Wiles, a GOP political operative brought on by DeSantis to tighten up his campaign, reached out to Ungru to run the Election Day program. Ungru had worked with Wiles before, pulling similar E-Day duty for Rick Scott in 2010.
In fact, she has run various E-Day operations and served on or led recount teams since 2004 in 13 other states and for McCain-Palin 2008 before returning back to Florida.
Ungru has worked for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the RNC and Florida GOP, Marco Rubio, Scott, and now DeSantis.
“I think her ability to remain calm in the chaos and deliver results is what earned her a spot as one of the first deputy chiefs of staff for Gov. Scott,” Moya explained. She later was chief of staff to now-former Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA) Secretary Liz Dudek.
She was brought on for Rubio in ’16 when the polls were tightening. And in 2018, she was tapped to oversee strategy, operations, and messaging during the recount of votes between DeSantis and ultimately unsuccessful Democrat Andrew Gillum.
“My job was to manage the recount so Gov.-elect DeSantis and the transition team could focus on the job of putting together a new administration,” Ungru said. That meant, in part, deciding which lawsuits to get involved with (and which ones to avoid), overseeing operations and “managing the messaging,” as she explained it.
“Part of that was ensuring that our side, in the media, made clear that this was not ‘2000 all over again.’ This was nothing like 2000. The numbers were different, the laws had changed,” she said.
“Florida is always at the center as it’s the most important swing state in the country. And this year, post-election, the nation descended on the state, many who were here for 2000. But our message remained that when the dust cleared and the counting was over, DeSantis would remain the clear winner.”
She said she soon recommended that Dunbar, former attorney for the Department of State and counsel to numerous campaigns and the Republican Governors Association, be added to the team. Wiles agreed.
Soon, there were virtual war rooms set up with televisions, computers and phones in Jones Walker’s Tallahassee offices on Monroe Street: “I couldn’t use a conference room in our office for weeks; they were all full,” Moya said.
Unlike the Rick Scott-Bill Nelson Senate race, the DeSantis team was more at ease through the recount. “I think everybody knew during this recount that Ron DeSantis was going to be our next Governor,” Dunbar said. “The margin was just too big.”
DeSantis “made it very clear that we follow the directive that every vote was to be counted.” Dunbar quickly realized there was “just no way” for any of the lawsuits to undo the thousands of votes that DeSantis was leading by.
“At the beginning of the election cycle, I didn’t think I would be participating in a recount as I was working out of the country for the much of that time. But when election day comes, there’s just not many of us who have the experience, so I was happy to help Jenn when she called,” he added.
Ungru also didn’t expect to oversee a statewide operation for the fate of the next occupant of the Governor’s Mansion.
“I’m 5-foot-1 but I have a reputation of not being easily intimated in the traditional boys’ club settings of elections and lobbying,” she said. “Susie knew she could trust me to stay calm.
“I appreciated the opportunity to work with Susie again and am excited for what the future holds for a DeSantis administration.”
For his part, Moya is now raising funds for the Inauguration.
“I believe (DeSantis) will carry on the economic growth that Rick Scott started with lowering taxes and limiting government,” he said.
“As the parent of two kids, his opponent posed an existential threat to school choice in this state. But Ron DeSantis never wavered in giving parents choice over bureaucrats. Those kinds of positions earned him my support and made me willing to fight for him.”