Republican state Rep. Jennifer Sullivan‘s growth to power in Central Florida rose from so many nontraditional roots, she has proven she can be an exception to almost any rule.
A small-town resident in a metropolitan area. A conservative Republican in a Central Florida region that trends Democratic. Someone with Tea Party roots (but little other backing) who knocked on thousands of doors to defeat several better (and better-known) candidates.
Sullivan was one of the youngest lawmakers ever elected in 2014 and is still younger — at age 27 — than almost all of her colleagues.
And Sullivan also is someone educated through homeschooling and without a completed college degree who is now the powerful chair of the Florida House of Representatives Education Committee.
Sullivan, of Mount Dora, representing House District 31 covering much of Lake County and the northwest corner of Orange County, is ranked as the 14th most powerful elected official in the first-ever Florida Politics Central Florida 25 most Powerful Politicians survey.
An era is dawning in Central Florida when the region is likely losing its last vestiges of leadership power in the Florida Legislature for a long time. Republican state Sen. David Simmons is heading toward his final Legislative Session as Senate President Pro tempore. The reigns of the Andy Gardners, Dean Cannons, and Tony Jennings are long over. Democrats aren’t likely to win statewide leadership anytime soon. There no longer are many safe seats for Republicans to use in claiming long-term leadership.
But Sullivan, as usual, is an exception.
“Rep. Sullivan is literally one of a few Central Florida legislators who are members of the majority party in Tallahassee. Her chairmanship of education is critical for the future of policy in our state, but also for the region. All signs point to a bright future for her,” offered Dana Loncar, public affairs specialist for Consensus Communications.
In the 2019 Florida Legislative Session, Sullivan demonstrated her power by ushering through the school choice bill that eventually led to the creation of the Family Empowerment Scholarship, allowing public tax dollars to follow students to private schools. That part of the bill was something Sullivan, as a product of school choice herself, had made a personal priority for several years. While it was intensely controversial, Sullivan was an advocate who could debate for it from firsthand experience.
“The Family Empowerment Scholarship that was incredibly controversial wasn’t a bill that I looked at that was anti-public school or pro-private school, but rather pro-education choice, pro-what is best for your student,” Sullivan said.
It ended up being part of a broader education omnibus bill, SB 707o. That included several other provisions that Sullivan said she fought for that public school teachers were clamoring for, such as eliminating SAT scores from teachers’ bonus programs criteria, streamlining the state certification process, and providing record funding in the base student allocation.
“We have a lot of exceptional public schools in the state of Florida and I’ll be the first to toot their horn and say we that our teachers are incredible,” Sullivan said, literally as she was entering the Rosen Shingle Creek Resort for a banquet honoring Florida’s top public school teachers.
Her power over education will continue in 2020 as she continues as chair of the House Education Committee, and also with key appointments to the Ways and Means and the Public Integrity & Ethics committees. Her agenda includes chipping away at red tape for teachers, finding ways to promote more affordable housing, reducing business rent taxes, and stopping human trafficking. A staunch anti-abortion Christian conservative, she also intends to reintroduce her bill requiring a 24-hour reflection period for abortions.